Mr. Federman

Reservations / Online Pricing / Booking Engines

How to Scare Off Online Prospects... Without Really Trying

By John Federman, CEO, eStara

Hotel operators have been, for the most part, aggressive and smart in offering potential customers information about their properties online. In fact, the Web and e-commerce play such a central role in attracting customers, we often don't think about how a Website might actually turn off prospective clients.

I'm a frequent traveler - hundreds of flights, countless hotel rooms and entirely too much time spent with unhelpful online booking services. The frustration has driven me to be disloyal to many well-known brands. My profile makes me the exact target customer that all of you are trying to reach. I travel all over the country several days a week. So I have a few helpful tips that might help you create stronger, more loyal relationships with frequent business travelers like me.

Hotels in the U.S. generated more than $105.3 billion in revenue last year. That number is expected to grow according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. That said, here are five Website missteps that that are sure to turn off your customers, before you've even spoken with them.

1) DRIVING THE PROCESS DOWN A SINGLE PATH

Many hotel websites make the mistake of assuming to understand every possible objection customers may have and refuting them. How so? By making the customer proceed down one path without offering any options as to when or where they can book or contact you for information.

According to Jupiter Research, cost reduction strategies for hotels include encouraging direct online bookings, yet consumers making bookings still prefer online travel agencies (OTAs) and hotel phone reservation systems to hotel websites. Why is that? Because they're more flexible when it comes to working with the booker's needs.

Even more frustrating for a customer is when they try and go back during the process and all the data that they've input is erased - we've all experienced it at some point! Losing customer data is the best way to frustrate your customer and make sure they go to a competitor's site.

2) INSISTING ON GETTING THEM TO BOOK ONLINE

You spent all this money on a website, why would you want to get people to call you? Many organizations opt to make their online and offline channels two separate entities and they end up competing with each other to see who books the most reservations.

47 percent of those who research their travel and hospitality plans online don't purchase online. Why is this? Because most sites fail to meet customer needs when it comes to providing a rich online experience.

During the infancy of e-commerce, many online travel and hospitality companies felt they could address these concerns by providing prospective customers with self-service tools, such as FAQs. However, with complex sales, like purchasing airline tickets, making hotel reservations or booking travel packages, companies are beginning to understand that they need to be more effective at securing, supporting and retaining their online customers.

Providing customers with a means of contacting a customer service representative may mean losing the online sale, but it could be the difference between the customer leaving the sale altogether or the customer booking a reservation. A major mistake that many hotels make is that they compete with themselves when it comes to booking reservations. There's an unspoken rule in the industry that websites handle web bookings and call centers handle phone bookings, and never shall they meet.

As one executive from a major interactive media agency once put it, "Everyone's concerned about the channel, but nobody's concerned about the customer." The bottom line is that most customers don't care whether they book online of over the phone, they care about the overall experience. So why not make it easy for them and present them with options?

3) IGNORING CUSTOMER FEEDBACK

Do you know what your customers are saying about your hotel? Are there mechanisms in place for you to get feedback and react based on customer input?

The Web is no longer just an informational portal or online brochure for travelers, it's quickly evolving into a community where fellow travelers share their experiences with one another. I can guarantee you there is someone out there talking about your hotel, so why not join them in the conversation? Better yet, why not give them a venue where they can share their travel stories?

That's what Sheraton did with the recent launch if its website. Travelers can write mini-reviews and comments about their stays at Sheraton brand hotels across the world. They're not only building a community of loyal Sheraton bookers, but getting valuable feedback about what works and what doesn't.

When you solicit feedback, be sure to respond promptly and make the necessary improvements based on customer demand.

4) ENGAGING YOUR CUSTOMERS

Can you imagine a retail store where 9 out of 10 customers left without buying and the sales person never asked anyone if they needed help to find what they're looking for? The store would go out of business, but only after the sales person is fired.

The same standard should be true for travel and hospitality websites. You may be attracting online lookers, but are they booking anything? The best way to make sure they book is to provide them with any means of connecting with an offline customer service representative.

Customers must feel a connection to a hotel's brand to create loyalty, and sometimes a Web environment simply can't accomplish what a voice conversation can.

5) DON'T BOTHER RECOVERING FROM SALES & SERVICE ERRORS

As I mentioned earlier, the Internet is evolving into a community where almost anyone can post their opinions online. This can be good or bad depending on how well they were services at a particular establishment. It's particularly important to recover from mistakes with emerging forms of media such as blogs, where disgruntled customers can share their stories with the world and other irate posters comment on their experiences as well.

For those that would prefer to be spared of the blogosphere's wrath, I suppose you could implement a way to capture lost leads. Sometimes in completing an online transaction, recovering a sale is as important (if not more so) than how well you do in the first place.

These are all examples of what happens when hotels engage in a monologue with prospective customers rather than a dialogue.

The online channel may seem impersonal, which is why so many hotels make the mistakes detailed above. But there are a few simple things that can be done to improve your online reservations procedures.

Remember, it can sometimes take months to find a new customer, but it only takes a few seconds to lose one. Your online presence is often the first impression potential customer get of your hotel, and it's also a great way to keep current customers loyal.

John Federman is CEO of eStara. eStaraís interaction tools increase marketing and sales conversion rates for large enterprises including Starwood, Hilton, Red Lion, and Club Med. Other clients include Verizon, Amazon.com and Continental Airlines. He is responsible for strategic direction, growth and corporate vision. Mr. Federman has 20 plus years of experience with information technology and media companies. Prior to eStara, Mr. Federman was co-founder, president and CEO of Dotomi, an Internet advertising company. Mr. Federman is a graduate of UMass and holds a BA in Business and Art. Mr. Federman can be contacted at 703-842-4436 or John.federman@estara.com Extended Bio...

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