Next-gen customer service for hospitality: Balance high-touch, high-tech

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How do you differentiate your business on excellent service when customers don’t always want to work with your people? Many of today’s top hospitality brands are facing that question.

The hospitality business has long focused on well-trained teams to anticipate customer needs — sometimes with a quick question or two to arriving guests — and then meet those needs. Many grand hotels have invested heavily in training and maintaining superb teams. Solicitous service is a big part of what makes a venue feel special.

But it’s no longer sufficient. Great high-touch experiences still matter, but consumer preferences are changing rapidly. An all-industries survey from Ipsos revealed that people-centric attributes rank third and fifth for consumers. What were the top attributes? Fast response times (75%) and consistency across channels (55%). A survey from Nuance showed that 67% of consumers prefer self-serve to other forms of customer experience.

COVID-19 dramatically increased interest in contactless services. Today’s luxury hotel guests — especially millennials or Gen Z — often want much of their stay without staff interaction. Surveying more than 6,000 consumers, Gartner found that 52% of Gen Z and millennials said if an issue couldn’t be quickly resolved using self-service, they wouldn’t buy from that company again — and 44% would say negative things about the company or product. If we want to remain relevant to these generations, we can’t ignore these fundamental preferences for self-service enablement.

Great hospitality service now requires a balance of high touch and high tech. Unfortunately, digital is an arena in which many hotel brands have fallen behind. Some companies have developed digital apps and expansive guest portals, which may have been enough years ago. But customer expectations have risen. In 2024, great digital guest experiences don’t require app downloads, access to a laptop or sifting through account information to find the tool to complete a task. They surface access to the tools customers need, where and when they need them.

So how can customer-obsessed companies create an advantage? It takes a combination of outstanding digital experiences and the best-trained and most solicitous teams.

Creating outstanding digital experiences

Change how you create digital experiences from focusing on “online destinations” to meeting customer needs without friction. 

  1. Shift your focus to creating functionality you can take to the user. Identify the most likely needs of customers and create simple solutions that can be accessed quickly and easily with minimal interruption to the guest experience – think QR codes for room service and text messages to stay connected throughout the stay.
  2. Ensure your experiences work flawlessly across all devices, but put the mobile user experience first. Transactions that work easily on a laptop but poorly on mobile do not actually work at all. People still research and book travel on desktop, but mobile’s share of traffic is higher than most realize – around 50% on average. However, once guests check-in, a frictionless stay means serving them on mobile with minimal interruption.
  3. Benchmark to competitors and the industry as a whole. Digital leadership requires constant improvement. Start small and grow. Work to perfect your approach to a single digital touchpoint and then another and then another. Keep iterating your company’s digital experiences, making your offerings easier to use. And don’t assume that luxury brands do it best – many of the best travel experience innovations come from budget and mid-priced hotels that see digital as a way to delight guests and control costs.
  4. Find ways to help customers anticipate and avoid problems. Your customer data file has troves of information on your repeat guests. Leverage past requests, preferences and behaviors to predict needs and send helpful messages to mitigate problems. Does your guest need a dinner reservation on their first night? Car service to the airport at the end of their stay? An invoice PDF sent to their email box? In many cases, if you look at the data, you’ll know.
  5. Ensure your marketing practices are worthy of a trust relationship. Do not annoy your customers with excessive digital marketing! Do not sell your customers’ data! Younger customers, in particular, are savvy and dislike companies that abuse their inboxes. Like delivering great service during a stay, the best marketing delivers value, respects the customer’s time and isn’t overbearing.

Digital can also help improve high-touch care

People will always play an important role in customer service. Rock star employees and great training are key to exceeding guest expectations and creating memorable stays. Digital can help you continuously refine your high-touch service as well. Digital experiences are perfect for delivering satisfaction surveys that get honest, quantifiable feedback. Monitoring your social media mentions is another way to learn from your customers and to surface opportunities to enhance your brand’s reputation.

It’s also important to remember that high-touch service needs to extend from your properties to other important customer touchpoints like your call center. Every employee interaction reflects on your brand and works to build or erode loyalty. This is another area where digital technology can help enhance service delivery. Do anything to remove friction for these auxiliary steps in the guest’s journey — from offering screen-sharing during customer service calls to giving your agents speedy access to customer preference data. Not every call needs to be fielded by an agent. For example, business travelers looking for folio reprints to get their expenses in would likely be thrilled to use self-service options that will free agents to deliver high-touch service where it’s needed most.

In 2024, your customers demand digital experiences that empower them to get what they need quickly and easily. On their terms. Regardless of where you are on your digital journey, these customer expectations can feel daunting. Remember, digital is an incremental enhancement to the tried and true ways of creating unforgettable guest experiences. It simply represents new tools in your arsenal to anticipate and fulfill needs. As always, if you make things effortless for your customers, they’ll keep coming back.

About the author …

Dr. Ori Faran is the CEO of Callvu.

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