Is your website “driving” customers away?

freetobook gramaphoneDriving home for two and half hours after a great wedding party is not my idea of fun! So why did we do it?

This summer my wife and I attended a wedding in the lovely old town of St Andrews (Scotland). My wife does most of the social organising (no surprises there!) and so she set about looking for somewhere to stay. We just needed a comfortable place and were looking forward to a break away…from the kids.

It was a busy time as there were university graduations taking place. Most hotels were showing fully booked and when she came across a website that featured many of the B&B’s and guesthouses in the area she thought she’d found the answer. However, after about 30 minutes of searching through the website she stormed in and declared we would just drive back that night!

Why? The website offered a list of properties with links but the websites she visited did not offer their availability online. She wasn’t prepared to send out emails, make calls or submit requests….so we drove home that night, getting in at 2:00am.

It wasn’t that she doesn’t like talking to people, she does (I can vouch for that!), but to her the cost in time of “manually” searching for accommodation was greater than the inconvenience of a two and half hour drive across Scotland in the wee hours of the morning! That’s quite a sacrifice, but if you are already conditioned to buy something in a certain way, the frustration and reluctance to change your ways is enough to make you question whether or not it is worth it.

In the end everyone lost out. We missed the end of the wedding party and a night away and the B&Bs lost a booking … not an ideal outcome. It’s a graphic example of how people’s habits have changed online: they expect instant answers, full access to the information required to make a purchasing decision and then to be able to complete the purchase.

A much more common scenario is that you lose bookings when customers visit your website, can’t see availability and rates and therefore just move on to the next.

10 ways to add the human touch to online booking

freetobook heartEveryone offering online booking for the first time will be concerned that they’re losing the personal and bespoke service that their guests used to appreciate. So by offering online booking, will you lose “that loving feeling”?

Phone bookings by their very nature give you a great opportunity to understand your customers and their requirements right from the outset. The customers can ask questions and you get a feel for what they are expecting and hoping to get from their stay.

These are all important parts of the service chain, but we need to remember that the phone and internet bookings are not mutually exclusive. Here are some ways to over-deliver on your booking service:

  • Offer your customer a choice of booking processes. Some will want to call, but many just prefer to book online, it’s convenient and some see it as easier and faster.
  • Develop your website around your booking process, have the booking button and your contact details in the same place on every page. Ensure they are visible immediately as the page loads…that’s why your customer is on your site!
  • Answer any email queries quickly and politely. If you are away for a few hours, set an expectation as to when the customer will receive a reply. Make it personal, standard impersonal replies don’t wash.
  • If customers have booked online, feel free to call or email them for additional information. Indeed, even if you don’t require additional information it’s a great opportunity to win them over. A friendly call to follow up an online booking with relevant and helpful questions has an almost magical effect…it shows you really care. Why? Because customers don’t expect that level of attention online…it’s a nice surprise.
  • You can ask the relevant questions, what are they planning to see and do in the area, is there a special reason for their travel? Of course you have to ask these sensitively, but that’s what service is about.
  • If you are not confident, ask the easy questions first to get a feel for the customer, i.e. what time will they arrive, do they know where you are? Always explain who you are and why you are calling at the start.
  • Based on the call you can send them extra information they will find helpful, a map, list of events, restaurants you can recommend…the list is endless.
  • If you don’t feel up to calling at first, send them a “thanks for booking email… and here’s some helpful info – directions, attractions, events etc” and measure the response. These can be more template-style emails with a bit of personalisation at the top (include their booking details in the subject title, so it follows on from their confirmation).
  • Adding value to the booking process means you can ensure that your guests get the most out of their stay and you get a better idea of who they are and what their expectations are…it’s a win-win, try it.
  • Following up on online bookings is a key service differentiator for independent accommodation, the big guys don’t do it and couldn’t if they tried.

This is how you never lose “that loving feeling”! You only get one opportunity to make a first impression…

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.

Customer Service: by phone and email

Most people forget or simply don’t realise that offering an excellent service to your customers starts right from the initial point of contact. It is also at this point that the crucial first impressions are formed by your customers and in many cases this is over the phone or by email.  There are some simple small things you can do that will have a big impact on the way your customers view you and your property.

Over the years I have found that customers generally have a low expectation when it comes to being served by phone or by email. This is possibly the result of many large corporations “outsourcing” their service functions or simply trying to “force” their customers into a purely online transactions. The use of international call centres, “apparently” intelligent call routing (where you go through a plethora of options only to find none is suitable!) or simply making you do the transaction yourself and then charging you for the self service you have enacted on their behalf, have left many people wary of phoning or emailing!

What an opportunity this represents! What an advantage it is being small, personal and friendly. You can literally hear the sigh of relief, the softening of the voice and the added interest when customers find what they are looking for. So what are customers looking for when it comes to being served by phone or email?

They are all looking for different things because they are all different. So treat them as individuals, try to understand how they want to be served. Meet these needs and you are on the right track.

I have spent a lot of my time reading feedback from customers and still do browse through the feedback emails – I’m addicted. There are 3 themes that seem to run through the highest scores and they are so simple they make perfect sense.  Customers really appreciate helpful, friendly and efficient service -it’s hardly breaking news! If you can deliver these 3 things day in and day out, you will get some great advocates and probably some good extra business.

Customers call because they want help, either to get some questions answered, to feel reassured or simply to transact a booking.  Let them talk first, ask soft questions and spend time listening. You need to understand them and you can only do this by listening. The more information you have on them, the easier it is to tailor your responses to suit their needs and to help them in a way they prefer. For instance, some business people may be very busy and so just want short sharp answers or possibly additional information emailed to them which they can read on the train home, when they do have spare time.  Part of being helpful is understanding clearly why customers have called and what is critical to them.

Customers enjoy being served by friendly people. Good friends understand us, are interesting to us and enjoy being around us. The best service comes from those people who enjoy giving it, and customers can hear this over the phone and read it in emails. Smile when you answer the phone, ask questions. If customers are taking children on holiday, ask if they have any hobbies; what they are planning to do? All you are doing is showing a genuine interest in why customers are coming and what they intend to get out of their visit or holiday. I’m amazed at some of the hobbies people have and how interesting it is to learn about them. This gives you the opportunity to build a rapport and to understand better how to meet their needs.

If bookings need modifying always try to accommodate the customer and make it easy for them. Many customers are really anxious if they have to call to cancel or amend a booking and you can hear it right away. You can ask why, without being too direct and often when you actually discuss the situation you are able to work out a solution together that works very well for the both of you.  Being able to remove a burden from your customer without them actually knowing it’s happening is the real art of service.

If you say you are going to do something, why not do it early? A prime example where an efficient response creates confidence is when transactions are made over the phone and then followed up in writing. If you modify a booking by phone and have the customer’s email address then why not email the new confirmation right away? It reassures the customer and completes the process, providing your customer with something tangible. It also gives customers a chance to check everything is as per their wishes. Another useful touch point is sending out customer reviews or just replying to them in a timely and efficient manner.

You often hear people bemoaning the fact that some technology has made us less efficient. That may be true in some instances but when it comes to customer contact you can really score points. Email and texts are unobtrusive and a great way of connecting with your customers in a manner that’s convenient for them. Simple, useful things like links to directions at the foot of your booking confirmation email will be appreciated. If, during your conversation, you found out the customer had a particular interest and you know of something they may be interested in then why not send them a link to a relevant website when you email directions? These small actions come from understanding your customer and anyone can do them; indeed it’s exactly when being small, personal and friendly works in your favour.  Large businesses can’t act like this. The same individuals do not “interact” with the customer along the process or even at the same point of a process (think about call centres). You have a great opportunity to offer a service level that will make your customer’s life easier and turn them into promoters of your property.

Upgrading your website ? Here are a few tips.

Like most visual things in life, a website is very much a personal thing. That said, there are certain practical additions that are absolutely necessary to ensure you give yourself the best chance of getting the booking. Here are a few things that – if done well – can make a real difference.

Great images help your customers relate to your property.  Start by identifying what customers like or love about your property and then try to capture that in images.  These are so important it’s worth considering getting it done professionally.  Another option is ask a friend. Most of us know someone who is a keen amateur photographer!

Much of taking a good photograph depends on the light or indeed the timing/season. For example, make a note if you really want to show a particular aspect of your property or area that is seasonal: it could be bluebells, a certain shrub in full flower or the autumn leaves in woodland nearby.  Never underestimate the power of these images as they really speak to us on a deeper emotional level. Always label your images so it’s clear what you are showing and consider having gallery to make access to all your images easier.

Try to set your site out in a logical fashion: think about what process your customers will want to undergo and what process you want them to undergo. If you can marry these together you are on the right track. It might help to visualise the journey your customer will take from approaching through the exterior or grounds to finishing up inside. They will be interested in your rooms, your local area and what activities are on offer and ultimately they will want to know if you have any availability and for how much…then they’ll book.

Availability and rates are critical, essential to closing the deal, indeed so important that they must be easy to access from any page and in a very visible position (i.e. at the top left of the page). Don’t make your customers work to find the answers. Generally it is best to have them in the same place on every page. If this is followed by instant booking functionality, you allow your customers to book your property when they want to…..and that could be at 1.00am if they are in Australia! Do not underestimate the amount of business you are losing by not offering this. Make sure that whoever is providing this service for you is displaying the appropriate security messages that encourage trust.

Another good way to generate trust is through the use of customer reviews or awards. Reading other customers’ reviews is now considered a “normal” stage in the process of selecting a property to stay at. Make it easy for your customers to reference these and ideally have them on your own website to stop them “wandering” off. Keep your reviews current (update them at least monthly) and actively seek this feedback from guests (i.e. ask them at check out if they would mind receiving a feedback email?) Nobody tells it better than your customers and all feedback is “good” feedback; use it wisely and don’t waste it. I’m constantly amazed at how generous some customers are in their feedback, especially if they had relied on feedback themselves when selecting the property. Awards are also very useful. Though they are not always instantly recognisable to a global audience, they do demonstrate a genuine passion for your craft.

If you have any special offers, make sure these are highlighted and clearly described: they are a great way of differentiating your property and leading customers into the rates and availability process. Many customers are flexible with their dates and will adjust their dates to take advantage of an offer.

It’s never too late to learn and question what you have.  A good way to get ideas is to just go out there and look at plenty of other sites; it is easy and free to do. Think about where your eye goes when you see a new page; why did it go there? There may have been a subtle difference in the colour of the text or a “cracking” little image/photograph. If you have a great photograph, why not place your search and availability tab right next to it, or use it subtly on every page as an informal “logo”?

The use of colour is always a very subjective topic. Try to maintain a theme so each page uses similar colours and shades. You do not have to use the whole pallet! Lots of white as a background is a good thing; it just makes it easier for your customers to read the text and therefore focus on the important bits. Remember customers do not have hours to browse through your website.

When it comes to text, keep it simple. Don’t use too many font sizes/types on the page as this can make it harder for your customer to read. Some suggest no more than 3 font sizes/types. The actual content/text should be representative of your property. Ensure your key features and selling points are clearly indicated and written in a way that appeals to your customers’ emotions and imagination.

Lastly, don’t take this too seriously!  You are trying to achieve a sense of place, something that is representative of what your property has to offer. Everyone has their own ideas and views, many of which are just right for them. These are just some of the basics that should be thought provoking and even if they just lead you to deciding you have the right website then at least you have “tested” it.

How to handle complaints

There is no one magic formula, but here are a few useful practices I’ve learnt and employed over the years…

  • The first thing you need to make you sure you do is respond quickly and sympathetically. By responding immediately and listening you gain trust. Many customers who make complaints actually have a very poor expectation that there will indeed be a positive outcome or a response. By just replying quickly (either face to face, phone or email – and I mean quickly, within an hour or even 5 minutes of that email/letter landing in your inbox), you will start off on the right foot.
  • You are probably not in receipt of all the facts at this stage, so a simple acknowledgement and expression of surprise and regret is enough. No one likes receiving complaints. Having dealt with a few, you will know that sometimes you need a little more information in order to properly investigate. By asking specific questions in an open and non judgemental way you are showing a genuine empathy and displaying a positive attitude towards actually wanting to help and resolve.
  • Also use the initial contact to “buy time” and explain that you have to investigate the issue. This can help defuse any tension. If it is taking longer than expected, keep your customer updated.
  • Do not simply accept guilt without investigating first. There are often 2 sides to a story.
  • Be careful not to agree compensation until you are in full receipt of the facts. Most customers understand you need to investigate and that it is part of resolving the complaint in a professional manner.
  • Be human and treat each issue individually, just as you would do a customer. Use the complaint as a great chance to get a know a bit more about your customer. You will be surprised how open people are if you take the time to listen, and even a bit of sensitive humour can help lighten a situation. Of course be professional, but more importantly try to get the customer on your side.
  • Do not hide behind policies or jargon. The end game is that you resolve the complaint to the satisfaction of your customer and you do it in a way that actually turns them into a promoter of your property. This can be difficult and involve a plain, stark acknowledgement of a fault or error. Take the opportunity to fix faults and avoid a further complaint. Most customers understand things aren’t always perfect and many are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have shown a real interest in the issue and a desire to help.

If there is a secret, it’s probably to work even harder at avoiding complaints, learn from each one, identify common points of failure or themes, and eradicate them.