Opinion.

Tech removes friction, humans add the X factor

James Waters, Global Director of Customer Service, writes about getting the balance right between technology and human interaction to create a great experience

by James Waters, Global Director of Customer Service, Booking.com

Topic: Guest experience Innovation

Click. Takeaway

  • Technology is only as good as the strategy it supports
  • People are often happy with online self service up until things get too complex, or they feel out of their comfort zone
  • Companies need to invest in technology and be innovative, but the benefit of being accessible and personable shouldn’t be forgotten
  • There used to be an expectation of personal and local flavour from hosts of smaller accommodations and complete concierge services from large hotels. Now guests want it all from everyone

Welcome to the new normal. Your guest has booked their accommodation, it’s time to check in – no interaction with anyone needed. They walk into where they’ll be staying, survey their surroundings and like what they see. They’ve got their swipe card on their phone. Everything goes smoothly, they head towards their room and their stay begins.

As far as a check-in experience goes, this scenario is perfect right? Well yes, depending on the guest’s need at that particular moment in time. Anticipating the perfect experience when a person’s wants on a Monday may be different to what they crave on a Friday is always going to be difficult.

What if at that moment at check-in the guest had done their research about where they wanted to eat that night, but decided on a whim they wanted to speak to someone in person about that special restaurant that exists in every neighbourhood, slightly off the beaten path, frequented only by locals? What if they wanted to see one of the big attractions in the area and needed advice on the best time to head there?

It’s working out how to strike this balance between self service and human interaction that makes our industry both challenging and beautiful.

Evolution of guest expectations

Guest expectations are changing, something we know only too well at Booking.com. Once upon a time it was a novelty simply to be able to search and view accommodations on the internet. Rapidly this became the norm and the quality of content, the quality of service and the ease of use and simplicity of the product became differentiators. Today those too are offered, to some degree, by everyone and so companies are exploring live chat, and speech technologies to see what might offer that next breakthrough customer experience. And those expectations apply to the stay as well. We used to expect a personal and local flavour from hosts of smaller accommodations and complete concierge services from large hotels. Now guests want it all from everyone.

I often use the analogy of the recent retirement of Usain Bolt as an example of how quickly the bar is raised when it comes to customer expectations. For his last race, replays were being shown on television of past performances. The thing that struck me the most was just how much the visual quality of these replays had improved in two or three years.

It goes without saying that companies need to invest in technology and be innovative, but the benefit of being accessible and personable shouldn’t be forgotten. And where human interaction comes in, it’s crucial that it’s more than just a functional service that could be done by technology. How can you use your wealth of knowledge and experience to give customers golden nuggets of information or warmth that makes them feel like they couldn’t get that particular experience anywhere else?

How can you use your wealth of knowledge and experience to give customers golden nuggets of information or warmth that makes them feel like they couldn’t get that particular experience anywhere else?

Leading the customer service team here at Booking, I’m often asked, ‘tech vs. humans, where is it heading?’ While we can already see fantastic tangible uses of Artificial Intelligence in the industry, the real question is why should it be one or the other? What should be more important is creating an experience that blends both. Technology is only as good as the strategy it supports afterall. People are often happy with online self service up until things get too complex, or they feel out of their comfort zone. So as a business it’s about understanding the boundaries of comfortability and reducing the friction at every step possible.

So it’s up to us in the travel industry to explore new ways of working together, so we can continue learning and deliver the best experiences for our customers and guests.

Humans have never been more important.

James Waters is Global Director of Customer Service at Booking.com

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