Guest and employee expectations have changed since the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, an “experience ecosystem” that incorporates both can help hospitality companies meet the needs of a new reality and gain a competitive advantage.
Overbooked flights. Cut routes. Rescheduled vacations. They’re all part of the travel industry’s bumpy trip back from the Covid-19 pandemic. As restrictions eased, travelers multiplied. But it’s not just their numbers that changed — their mindsets did as well.
In the last two years, customer expectations shifted as people spent more time with digital and self-service options to manage pandemic protocols. The customer experience recentered around multiple options, from touchless check-in to simple cancellations. Convenient, online, and omnichannel ways of meeting customer needs became the norm, and that isn’t going away.
Customer behavior isn’t the only change: Pandemic-era staffing shortages remain throughout the travel industry, along with accompanying training and retention challenges. In fact, in a recent study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), 97 percent of hotels surveyed reported experiencing a staffing shortage, 49 percent severely so. And while ramping up incentives helped slightly — 90 percent of hotels surveyed have increased wages, and 71 percent say they’re offering greater flexibility with hours — labor challenges persist.
The combination of shifting customer behaviors alongside hiring difficulties highlights how crucial the customer and employee experiences are to one another. However, updates to the employee experience haven’t kept pace with the dramatic pandemic changes to customer experience.
Because customer and employee experience are entwined, hospitality companies must think holistically. An “experience ecosystem” considers customers, employees, and business partners to make disjointed processes seamless, serving all the new and ever-changing needs of today’s reality. Here, we look at how hospitality brands can maintain flexibility, launch new capabilities, and offer more relevant services through digital transformation of both customer experience and employee experience systems.
Streamlining Employee Operations to Enhance the Customer Experience
Travel and hospitality brands have long understood that the quality of interactions between guests and employees shapes the guest experience with a brand, in addition to the product offering itself. Combining customer experience with employee experience is a winning business combination: One study found that brands that invest in employee experience outperform those that don’t. Yet, while brands in the sector accommodated multiple changes to the customer experience during the pandemic, such as adding online check-ins and curbside pick-ups, the architecture and processes underlying these new capabilities often remained the same — leaving employees to fill the gap. In some cases, employees were forced to jump between platforms to enable these expanded customer experience offerings.
In addition to the increased effort required, these service enhancements and changes also inhibit flexibility. As employees adapt to toggling between systems, they get accustomed to certain workflows and services, which may not support changing preferences in the future.
“In the case of hotels, it is typical for employees to access multiple systems for regular processes such as checking-in, special request management, reserving restaurants, and other amenities,” said Joe Rajadurai, vice president and general manager for travel and hospitality at Cognizant. “Most systems that employees will access use design principles from a generation ago and require specialized knowledge to operate.”
Consolidating tasks on a single platform ensures a frictionless system for employees that translates to better customer experiences for guests. For instance, Rosewood Hotels’ digital platform connects multiple systems and makes it more intuitive to serve guests. The platform combines reservations with pricing that maps to demand. In air travel, American Airlines and Microsoft Corp. are working to create a customer and user experience solution that streamlines operations for both customer and employee benefit.
Modernizing Analytical Models and Unifying Data Platforms
It was difficult to predict how Covid would change travel habits. True hospitality leaders might have imagined the popularity of staycations or the preference for contactless systems. But predicting capacity amidst sudden surges and cancellations was challenging, and Covid put pricing models to the test.
Transformation to a unified digital ecosystem enables data collected by multiple systems to be combined and used in machine learning models to develop customer expertise. That enables greater flexibility to adjust offerings and rates as demand fluctuates and customer wants and needs shift.
Legacy systems don’t offer that ability to pivot. “Traditional analytical models do not connect the immense amount of data available across a company to generate insight to enable real-time actions,” said Rajadurai. And the opportunities are concrete. He continued, “These could range from suggesting an upsell or cross-sell based on interests, to recommending rates to hotel owners for different seasons, or even making loyalty work for the new breed of traveler combining business with leisure.”
A single data stream makes it easier to discover monetization opportunities and predict costs and pricing. Organizations like IHG and American Airlines are already working to modernize their data platforms, prioritizing these capabilities as an avenue for future growth. For instance, American Airlines plans to utilize a combined customer and employee platform to streamline everything that touches their analytics systems, like bag tracking, weather rerouting, and finding operations efficiencies with enhanced modeling.
The approach is gaining popularity and goes beyond thinking about customer and employee experience. Instead, it’s focused on “total experience,” including user experience and multi-experience in a single spot. The concept is common among fast-food and delivery companies where efficient ordering, routing, and delivery make a better experience for employees and customers alike. Other companies outside of hospitality, like networking services provider Lumen, are using it to wrap multiple business analytics and operations into a single platform. The payoff? Their analytics can flow across experiences, and the company can more easily elevate and streamline experiences for all.
Fast-Tracking Business Processes
Improved analytics are just the start of a digital transformation helping employees anticipate customer needs. “In my experience, giving associates the right data conveniently, at the right time, is the number one thing to do, ” said Micah Friedman, former chief information officer of Rosewood Hotels. He added, “The more enabled an associate is to deliver on a service promise, the more likely the associate is satisfied and feels empowered to do their work.”
One example of a unified platform that helps employees do more meaningful work for customers is the Seven Rooms booking engine. Customers use it to book dining reservations, but employees enjoy heavy-duty features on the backend to track profiles, manage tables, and leverage data in the long term.
Other use cases take the burden off employees altogether, allowing customers to self-serve queries that are faster and easier to complete digitally. As Rajadurai explained to Skift, recent Cognizant engagements include building a ticket cancellation bot that processes refunds and a smart airport app that delivers booking information, wait times, and weather.
Integrating Smart Devices to Enable Smarter Service
Technology-enabled services make light work of simple customer queries. For instance, IoT trackers that customers can access from their smartphones offer reassurance without using employee time. In a staffing shortage, hotel guests can order room service via smartphone app for robot delivery. Automating both processes allows employees to focus on more valuable tasks.
Friedman also notes that these platforms lead to “having a more engaged, rested, and eager workforce.” He explained, “These capabilities also help reinforce company culture in today’s challenging times. With recent labor market issues, these business capabilities have become a priority for hospitality companies looking to continue services traditionally offered while managing staffing constraints.”
Customer experience is a differentiator, but companies would be wrong to think they must embark on a massive digital transformation to accelerate these experiences as they emerge from the pandemic. Instead, there are plenty of creative ways to bridge customer experience and employee experience for offerings that realize the advantages of the “experience ecosystem.” From simple bots to take rote tasks off employees’ desks to extensive data unification for business analytics, this ecosystem ultimately serves customers and employees better. And that’s a new normal where everyone can thrive.