Online and phone bookings work best together

A question I often get asked by properties thinking of offering online booking for the first time is, “Won’t I lose the personal touch that I can offer over the phone?” For some independent property owners this is a very significant concern. There is also a feeling that by offering online booking you will lose control and will need to trust and rely on a “new” technology. These are valid points, but they must be considered within the context of what your customers expect and want. It is wrong to consider online and phone booking as mutually exclusive; they co-exist and together they are stronger than either is on its own.

There is no doubt that customers’ booking habits are changing, and will continue to change. When I compare how I made bookings for my customers 10 years ago to how I do it now, I can see some significant changes in their behaviour.

Our customers now have access to much more information (i.e. maps, reviews, currency comparisons etc.) and they have far more confidence in the systems and processes offered on the internet. They now expect answers instantly (i.e. are you available? what is the rate? can I book?) It is not that they are less patient – we haven’t changed that much ! – it is just that their expectations from using technology are higher based on their experiences. For example, search engines now start predicting your search as you type it, many airline tickets can only be booked online and we expect emails to arrive instantly. There is no doubt we live in a more “instant” world with 24-hour news channels, mobile phones, the internet, email, Twitter (for some!) and Facebook. These are all about connecting, and in most cases it’s about connecting in real time…i.e. now!

Unfortunately, when a customer comes across your website you have no idea what method they want to use to make a booking, but it is fair to say that they want answers to key questions on facilities, locations, quality, availability, room suitability, costs etc. This is where the information on your website must set the right expectation and allow the customer to make a clear value judgement.

If the customer then wants to book, your role is to offer them a way that is most suitable to them, while remembering that all customers are different. Some may prefer to call you and ask a few more questions or simply to book by phone. Others may want to book online: it could be very late at night or they might be sat in their office…supposedly working! The important thing is to make the process of booking easy and enjoyable for each of your customers.

The simplest way to offer the all the options is just to have your contact details (phone and email) always showing, even throughout the online booking process. Most phone bookings we take now have originated online and the customer has already checked availability and rates.

Will you lose the personal touch by offering online booking? I have never ever heard a customer say “I decided not to book because they offered online booking”, but I do hear the reverse regularly! This goes back to my earlier point about what customers expect and how much more confident they are about booking online. I was speaking with a family friend about the business the other day and he said he would now only ever book a property online. What’s interesting about this is that he’s 69, and I remember him muttering darkly about computers some 10 years ago. Yet now he goes everywhere with his smart phone. And not so long ago a customer told me that, to him, an online booking facility not only makes a property’s website look more professional, but also makes a property itself seem more reputable and established. How times have changed!

I also believe you can add more value to the booking process if it is done by phone or email because you can ask questions and get a better understanding of the customer’s needs. However, just because a customer has booked online doesn’t mean that is the end of the booking process; indeed some properties view this as the start of the process. They then go on to add significant value with follow ups by phone and email, making sure everything is just right for the customer when he/she arrives. My experience over the years is simply that customers are always pleased to hear from you if you have something positive or helpful to offer, regardless of how they made their booking.

I have said previously that independent and – to an even greater extent  – owner-run properties have a quite unique advantage on the service side. The impact you can make to your customer’s experience is much greater because you interact with them all along. If your “technology” is set up right and used properly, it has the ability to deliver some great benefits to your customers. The online booking process collects critical contact information in a standard format allowing you to store and use it later (i.e. emailing customers, collecting reviews, sending out special offers or newsletters etc.)

As always, the important question to ask is, “What do my customers want?” Good businesses make it easy and enjoyable for their customers to do business with them.