Using Hotel Call Centers as a COVID-19 Remote Work Technology Solution

While the booking conversation is largely around enabling mobile and purely digital channels, it’s important to remember that phones are also an invaluable piece of technology.


By Larry Mogelonsky, Principal of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited- 4.13.2020

The disruptor of all disrupters that is the virus outbreak will play in manifold ways over the next decade for all parts of hospitality, with technology coming to help save the day.

One application that I’ve discovered through my own experiences this past month is the need for better phone coverage, especially in lean times when hotels need their teams to be hyper-efficient. Managing the situation as an asset manager for a property, we found that a hotel-oriented call center could seriously help because it integrated with our PMS and CRS, amongst other enhancements that allowed us to answer incoming calls without any onsite staff. But first…

A Trip to Napa

Sometimes, as they say, the more personal, the more universal. I had planned a long time ago to treat my wife to weeklong stay in NorCal wine country to celebrate her birthday in mid-March. As with numerous other travelers, I scrambled to cancel out of fear that we wouldn’t be able to get back on a plane to cross the border to Toronto.

So I call the first hotel where we had a reservation. The phone call rings and rings until it goes to voicemail. I call back a bit later and a totally harried front desk agent picks up, heaving breaths and clearly suffering as we all are from the panic as she juggled ten fires at once. It was a rushed call, with her tone abrupt and with several background interruptions in a mere few minutes.

Then I thought back to a long, long time ago – 2019 – when the property I ran was still suffering from staffing problems amongst the intake team and how this recent Napa example was actually quite similar. This resort happened to be rural with a strong occupancy delta between peak and off-peak, thereby necessitating corresponding labor fluctuations. In a sparse labor market, though, reservation specialists are hard to find, which meant we had to keep them on – lest they go elsewhere – even as call volume fell off a precipice come early October.

Keeping full phone coverage through the late evenings and weekends in the offseason is a big fixed payroll expense. Employees end up juggling reservation inquiries and in-house guest requests, with the latter always taking priority. This often led to missed calls or abandoned calls, the latter representing situations where one of our front desk agents answers an inquiry and starts qualifying but then can’t complete the booking because their attention isn’t wholly on the call.

Pandemic Disruption

Recruiting a call center was previously discussed to reduce labor costs and close more sales leads, but the main fear was always that these outsourced reservationists would never be as knowledgeable about the product as the home team. Now, however, we are confronting a game-changing situation whereby a hotel’s phone can go unanswered for hours at a time due to staff minimization. Compounding this is that setting up proper remote switchboard functionality is quite difficult to expedite.

Even on a lean team, we need the ability to answer the phone so that any customer is greeted by a peppy live agent instead of a downbeat voicemail message. Given that a resurgence of COVID-19 may be the new normal of how our business routines are interrupted, the argument for outsourcing the entire reservations department becomes all the more apparent as the move ensures the phones are always diligently managed while also cutting costs.

As an added bonus to the PMS integration, what we found was that the best modern call centers offered CRM tools to give more insights for our own sales team as to what our guests wanted or to pick up the conversation on leads that didn’t close for various reasons – primarily the need to confirm flights or check with another party beforehand. Many can also help in-house restaurants by feeding reservations through to a booking platform like OpenTable so that you no longer have to rely on servers picking this up between food orders.

The key therein is to address the concern about training and accountability, for which I was about to discuss the present scenario with my friend, John Smallwood, the CEO of Travel Outlook Premium Hotel Call Center. As he remarked, “To alleviate the worry about outsourcing reservations calls, what’s needed is a call center that’s devoted entirely to hospitality. This is accomplished by training agents to speak the language of hotels through adaptable learning management systems based on Forbes Five Star and through the monitoring of said agents using cutting edge tools that provide screen scrapes, audio recordings, dynamic speech analytics and thorough reporting to ensure quality.”

The Post-Pandemic Surge

Just like what happened after the 2008 recession, these trying times will ultimately lead to us maintaining leaner operations for long after the lockdown is lifted. But just as the downsizing was difficult, so too will the growing pains as people surge back into travel mode.

For this, I am afraid of more such cases like my cancellation story but in reverse where guests are eager to book but the onsite team can’t handle the volume. Or similarly, a front desk agent receives the call but is too rushed or distracted to properly build rapport or find the appropriate CRM data to close or potentially upsell.

Ultimately, while the booking conversation is largely around enabling mobile and purely digital channels, lest we forget that our phones are also an invaluable piece of technology. Now is your chance to use this downtime to investigate your options to maximize the revenue from this channel.

One of the world’s most published writers in hospitality, Larry Mogelonsky is the principal of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited, a Toronto-based consulting practice. His experience encompasses hotel properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. Larry is also on several boards for companies focused on hotel technology. His work includes five books, “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” (2012), “Llamas Rule” (2013), “Hotel Llama” (2015), “The Llama is Inn” (2017) and “The Hotel Mogel” (2018). You can reach Larry at larry@hotelmogel.com to discuss hotel business challenges or to book speaking.

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