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Good Help Is Hard to Find—User Assistance on Hotel Web Sites

By Judith P. Burns

About a year ago, an Internet trade publication, The Industry Standard, reported that 66% of all online transactions were not completed because of a lack of customer support. With the Internet becoming an increasingly significant sales channel for hoteliers, Hospitality Technology Consulting (HTC) undertook a survey of major hotel web sites to determine if those sites are meeting the Internet customer service challenge.

During two weeks in August, HTC reviewed 75 hotel sites offered by the 30 largest hotel companies. Each site was examined to determine if user help is available on the site’s Home Page and on its Reservations Page. The results of the survey are published in Hospitality Upgrade, Fall 2001.

If there was any doubt that customer support or online help is vital to site users, it was quickly dispelled for us as we undertook the survey by the serious problems we encountered in using 12 of the sites, often when attempting to access the Reservations Page or to view rates and availability.

HTC’s survey found that 89% of the sites visited provide some user support on the Home Page while 80% offered some form of user support on their reservation processing page. On the surface it would appear that hotel companies are providing needed user support.

Looking deeper, however, we found that user support on most hotel sites is limited --indeed sometimes very limited. Thirty nine percent of the sites offer only generic "Contact Us" functionality or simply provide the toll free number for their reservation center on their Home Page. On the Reservation Page, help is even harder to find with almost 43% providing only generic Contact Us functionality or a toll free reservation center number.

Contact Us functionality on sites is often a catch-all of options including such things as brochure requests, guest stay feedback, guest satisfaction surveys, site privacy policies, media inquiries, greeting cards, investor relations, employment opportunities, etc. The most common help function provided by the Contact Us option is an email form (for feedback or problem solving). Few sites, however, provide an email response time commitment to their users.

Moving up the scale of support, some of the reviewed sites offer specialized Internet user support including answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) that relate to the site, to online reservation processing or to topics that are more general. Others provide a special Internet support toll free telephone number or step-by-step instructions on completing an online reservation. The number of sites offering this level of support, however, is not high. Thirty percent provided this more extensive support on their Home Page but only 20% provided it on their Reservation Page.

Two of the reviewed sites provide detailed instructions by using pop-up windows. Six Continents offers a pop-up window on its newly redesigned site that provides both new and returning users with an overview of site changes as well as detailed instructions for new users on how to make online reservations. Four Seasons Hotels offers an "Online Users Guide" in their pop-up window. Recognizing that many of their customers might not be familiar with how to print material displayed in a pop-up window, Four Seasons provides the instructions on how to do so.

A few sites have adopted the support strategy of walking users step-by-step through the online reservation process. The site for hotels at Walt Disney World provides a list that checks off each step as it is completed in the booking process. Outrigger Hotels takes a similar approach in leading their users through the process.

What do Baymont Inns, Hilton Hotels group, Red Roof Inns, and Woodfield Suites have in common? They make up the approximately 10% of all sites in the survey that provide "Push to Talk" user support on their sites. "Push to Talk" permits a user to click on a button on the open page to access technology that allows them to talk directly with a reservation agent, either through a phone number or through the microphone on their computer. Each company offers a slightly different version.

Hilton provides push to talk service to users in not only the US and Canada but in eight other countries (the United Kingdom, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, Australia, Japan and Dubai). When Hilton offices in these countries are closed, the push to talk button is suppressed and a message displayed indicating this. The push to talk service is provided on each of the Hilton brand sites.

While the other companies offering "push to talk" support do not offer worldwide support, they do provide an added service of permitting the user to select a call time (in fifteen minutes from now, for example). This is useful to users who have only one phone line or who would rather delay talking with an agent.

HTC tested the "push to talk" functionality on each of the sites where it is offered. Each site returned the call request immediately although there was a slight hold time (under 10 seconds) waiting for an agent to come on the line.

While "push to talk" is considered the highest level of user support and very easy to use, the technology must draw on the resources of a customer service center or central reservation office to provide this service to the user. Staff responding to "push to talk" requests must be suitably trained in both basic Internet use and online reservation processing.

The results of HTC’s survey overall would indicate that hotel companies have yet to embrace the idea of providing extensive user support. As hotel web sites continue to attract users, particularly those unfamiliar with making reservations online, insufficient site support threatens to undermine an important sales channel, presenting a significant competitive disadvantage to those hotel companies that are not up to this challenge.

What Can Hotel Companies Do to Improve Service?

How can hotel companies improve their user support and increase online bookings? We at HTC suggest the following incremental steps for hotel companies to take to support their Internet customers:

  • Review your site from a user support perspective. Ensure that user support is available and is easy to find on all pages, particularly on your reservation processing pages.
  • Allow web site users to communicate with you through electronic means. Do not ask them to use your postal address.
  • Include a Help icon wherever possible on the site. This icon might access FAQ’s, instructions for online reservations, or Internet support toll-free assistance numbers.
  • Use a different toll-free number (from your general reservation number) for web site related support requests. Agents answering these calls should acknowledge the caller as a web site user. For example, rather than use a generic, "XYZ Hotels, what city please?", agents should use terms such as "XYZ Hotels, web site support".
  • Indicate response times for email processing. Remember to include hours of operation. If you do not provide support on a Sunday, for example, let your users know.
  • Evaluate "push to talk" technology and install when reservation or support volume warrant.