If someone would have surveyed vacation rental managers in the early 2000s as online bookings were growing exponentially each year, few would have predicted that by now anyone would still be calling to make a reservation. Yet here we are in 2016 with the phones still ringing; with many rental companies even experiencing an increase in calls as those who search on smartphones use the “click to call” feature.
Even in the hotel industry, it is difficult to get hard industry-wide data to benchmark the contribution of voice channels as the margins vary greatly according to a number of factors such as if the hotel is branded or independent, leisure versus business, and economy versus luxury or boutique.
Likewise, for vacation rental companies there are significant differences in the percentages of bookings coming in by voice based on factors such type of inventory (mostly condos, which are more standardized, versus having mostly homes), percentage of repeat guests and hours of voice operations.
Across the overall lodging industry, one reason there is a relative lack of data might be the lodging industry’s obsession with online channels causes many leaders to view voice as the proverbial poor stepchild. This is unfortunate because when compared with the distribution costs of OTAs and other third party listing sites, voice bookings are a bargain.
It is also unfortunate as there is a significant interplay of voice and online channels. In other words, many of those who book online start out by calling with questions, while others book online first and then call to reconfirm key details and resolve questions that if not fielded correctly can result in a cancellation.
Many leaders apparently believe that voice is a dying distribution channel and that the only ones who call are aging grandparents. Yet when you listen in to what’s happening on the phones in the real-world these days like I do on a regular basis for our clients, you hear that people of all ages are still calling directly. Rather than age, it seems to me to be more of a factor of how emotionally invested the individual is in the particular trip they are planning. In other words, the longer the stay, and the higher rates being paid, and the more important the purpose of the trip is personally, the more likely they are to call vs. just book online. When you think about the types of guest experiences being lived out in our accommodations and how important that vacation is to the planner, it is easy to understand why vacation rental companies experience the highest contribution margins from voice channels in all of lodging.
So why do so many people still call to inquire about reservations vs. booking online? Here are four general categories we at KTN have identified when we listen-in to our clients’ call monitoring systems as part of our assessment and coaching services:
Over-informed (or misinformed) callers. These are the people who are obsessed with reading online guest reviews and social media postings. Even if a company or particular accommodation has overwhelmingly positive reviews “5 star” reviews there are always a few “poor” and “terrible” out there too. These people read some reviews in each category. The funny thing is that often those who compliment and those who complain are writing about the same features! I recently did training for one of our all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and the newest 5-star reviewer raved about the scenic beach, how well-groomed and clean it was. Yet the most recent 1-star reviewer’s headline was “Worst beach eevvveeeerrr!” indicating it was covered with seaweed and litter.
What to do about it: To convert these callers, train your reservations agent to ask the most important question of all circa 2016: “As I’m checking rates for those dates for you, are there any questions I can answer for you such as about our locations or the home’s amenities?” This helps to uncover their concerns so they can be addressed.
Overwhelmed callers. These callers are confused by all of the options they have seen online at your website and others such as VRBO, Homeaway, Expedia and AIrBnB. They have specific questions about locations, amenities, décor and views. They are experiencing what Columbia University School of Business Professor Sheena Lyengar calls the “choice overload problem.”What to do about it: After engaging them with an investigative sales approach to identify the caller’s reason for travel and their “call story,” these callers respond well to needs-based recommendations, suggestions and endorsements of the available accommodations and packages.
Value-driven deal seekers. These are the distribution channel surfing people who start out checking rates on several different OTAs, then at your website, and then the call directly. Most do not tell you they have already searched elsewhere and instead simply say they are “Just calling to see about the lowest rate” for their dates. If your company distributes inventory via OTAs, and if your agents do not engage them, these callers simply hang up and book online, resulting in significant distribution costs.
What to do about it: Again, we train Reservations Sales Agents to use an investigative sales approach to engage these callers in a real conversation and not just sound like Siri or Cortana, and then train them to directly offer to secure the booking right after quoting the rates. When callers resist, RSAs need to remind them remove barriers to booking now and create urgency before offering one more time. It is also helpful to emphasize that they are able to book the caller directly into the company’s reservations system and note any special requests.
Multi-tasking callers. It always amazes me when I listen to recordings of live calls how often it is that callers are not only multi-tasking, which seems to be the norm, but actually driving down the highway while planning their travel. Whereas many organizations such as educational institutions have made those bumper stickers that read “Don’t Text and Drive,” perhaps the lodging industry should make one that reads “Don’t Book and Drive!” But then again we would lose a lot of business. Besides driving, just about everyone is multi-tasking and the background noises you hear can be quite entertaining, ranging from barking dogs, to wind blowing in the microphone to running (or gushing!) water. Personally I believe this is because of the proliferation of smartphones and the increased use of the “click to call” feature which many of us find an easier way to buy than the awkward task of typing info into your phone.
What to do about it: By asking if the caller has any questions as described above, your RSAs will prompt these callers to self-identify as “book me now” callers who are simply calling in a reservation. Managers need to revise their call standards and allow RSAs to circumvent much of the traditional sales process, other than upselling, and move quickly to securing the details of the booking right here and now.
Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of customized training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. Doug continues to be a fixture on the industry's conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations (including VRMA), as he been for over two decades. Since 1996, Doug's monthly hotel industry training articles have been published worldwide, making him one of the most widely read hotel industry training writers. Visit KTN at: www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com or email him directly at email@example.com