As President of a hospitality industry sales training company for most of my entire career, I have had the opportunity to conduct reservations sales training for just about every niche of the lodging industry.
I have trained five star hotels and one-star youth hostels; destination hotels and all- inclusive resorts; city center and airport hotels, conferences centers and ski resorts. But there is one niche of the lodging industry that has by far the biggest need for such training: the vacation home rental industry.
I recall often hearing reservations agents at my traditional resort clients saying, "Doug, you don't know how hard it is here. We have over 7 different categories of rooms and suites and it's so hard to explain the difference." It can indeed be challenging when you have so many options to potentially sell to a caller.
Yet the private vacation home rental industry has a far greater challenge in that each home is essentially its own category; so 125 rental properties in your inventory means 125 room types in hotel-speak. It's even more overwhelming at larger companies with 500 or more in the rental pool. Each one individually decorated. On top of that, the companies have a fiduciary responsibility to represent each accommodation equally.
As a result the vacation rental industry in general has always been an early adapter of technology that makes it possible for consumers to view multiple photos and 360 degree virtual tours. These same companies are also using third party websites to drive demand.
And indeed it is all working to drive more new business as well as cross-selling opportunities when the original properties are sold-out.
In the end, the balance of power when it comes to information has shifted to the consumer side; many have just viewed pictures and taken the tours of a particular property right before dialing, and at that moment they might even know more about a vacation home than the rental sales agent answering their phone or email inquiry.
So one has to stop and ask, "Why would anyone call instead of just booking online?"
To answer this question all you have to do is take some time to listen to real-world recordings of real-world callers. There are so many inexpensive solutions for recording and tracking inbound calls these days that it is almost negligent to think that a vacation rental sales company would not have internal call monitoring as an established best practice.
My company provides third-party call monitoring services. As a result, I frequently get to listen-in to the actual conversations agents are having from a diversity of vacation home rental companies.
When you take time to listen you will hear callers telling you why they called:
- "Hello, I was going to make a reservation online but I wanted to see if we could bring our small, well-behaved dog. He doesn't shed or bark."
- "Yes, I was looking at the Sunrise Surprise home and it doesn't say if there is a crib for my baby."
- "I can't tell from the pictures if the kitchen is going to have seating for all 8 of us."
- "I was looking at Midnight Moon but it is showing not available for my arrival date."
- "I read online that this house is outdated. Is that true?"
- "We're looking for a special deal; it shows online for the final price is $2,132.40 Is that really the final cost with everything?"
- "I was looking for two nice 3 bedroom homes close together; can you me?"
- "I was at your website but it doesn't say ..."
As a result, today's vacation rental sales agents need to be better prepared than ever before with product knowledge. But the training need does not end there. Many of the agents I hear are well-versed in knowledge of their vacation homes and condos, as well as the community amenities and services and even local area attractions.The problem is most don't share this knowledge until they are directly asked.
Too many of today's agents have not learned how to take control of the call by asking investigative questions such as:
- "Have you stayed with us before?"and
- "Are you celebrating anything special during your vacation?"
Few ask what I recommend as the most important question: "As I'm checking rates, are there any questions I can answer for you about the location or amenities?"
The bad news for the vacation rental industry is that instead of asking investigative questions to un-mask the caller's story, instead of pro-actively offering information about the vacation experience, and instead of providing personalized descriptions, one of the first questions I hear vacation rental industry agents asking is, "Have you been to our website yet?" or "Have you viewed this one (the property the caller is requesting) online at our website?"
If the caller says no, I most often hear agents recommending that they view it online, some even talk about how great a website the company has and how much information is there.
A few ask if the caller can go online right now, which is a really good technique to use, but when the callers say, "No," I hear most of those agents offering to email links to view the options online without offering to share helpful descriptions and information right now. Either way, the reservations agent effectively ends the conversation right there.
I call this"website search support." These agents are essentially approaching their role as if it was a tech support job to help people figure out how to use the website and to find themselves a great place to stay online.
As a result, callers to these rental companies are sent back to the Internet, which is the very place most of them started!
While some callers might possibly obey directive and visit the company website, once the call is terminated the agent has no control over what happens next, nor which website the caller will go back to.
Alternatively, when I listen-in to real-world calls from clients who embrace the voice reservations channel and who understand the interplay between all channels, including website, email and voice, I hear agents engaging callers with the questions such as listed above. I hear them listening interactively and reading between the lines to un-mask the caller and to find out more about the story behind their vacation plans. I hear reservations sales superstars providing enthusiastic endorsements, using needs-based recommendations and suggestions, and using descriptors that go beyond "beautiful," "great" and "nice." These agents know how to paint pictures with colorful language and providing local insider tips.
I almost always hear these same agents asking to make the reservation, and if rejected, I hear them creating urgency by saying:
- "This is one of our most popular options." or
- "It's the busy season."
If still rejected, I hear them asking for an email and offering to email links. I also hear far more of their real-world calls saying, "Okay, let's do it! I'm actually glad to get this decision over with!"