,

Revolutionizing Communication: new opportunities for the Concierge industry

This is a Picture of a traveller using a cellphone in a middle of nowhere

Whether we ignore change or embrace it, we face the consequences of our choice and the concierge industry today is the best example as it finds itself at a crossroads in 2017. Until now, much of the industry has shied away from technology and modern communication out of fears that embracing it would threaten the human touch and level of service we strive to provide.

But the reality is that modern technology affects absolutely every aspect of our lives, and as clients come to expect and demand accessibility and mobility, industries that rely on communication are greatly impacted. Any hospitality organization that wishes to differentiate itself from the competition simply must use digital tools to provide extra personal care and supreme customer experience.

The exciting news is that those concierges and companies who wish to embrace this technological momentum have myriad opportunities to implement it in their daily work.

 

PRE-DIGITAL AGE CONCIERGE WORK

Before we had ubiquitous access to the internet, consumers had far fewer places to find the information they were seeking. Furthermore, there were only a few ways to get in touch with a concierge, and the best way was generally a trip to the concierge desk. The only thing you had to worry about was finding a hotel with a reputable and experienced concierge, and you were good to go.

Sure, you might spend a couple of hours planning everything once on site, but in the end, it was still less than the endless hours of research and preparation consumers often engage in now. Faced with fewer choices, less information, and less lead-up time, customers could make quick decisions about a restaurant, a show, a service, etc.  There wasn’t the option of unlimited, never-ending information we now face, an overload of data that makes it far more likely for a customer to have second thoughts about the options.  Pre-internet, concierges’ currency was their voice, charm and opinion; we trusted them to know the options best.

In the past, the concierge service was fairly isolated, and communication would happen at a single point in time (or two, at most) –at the beginning and the end of a stay. If clients encountered a problem in between these moments of communication, they had no choice but to solve it themselves; immediate, online access was not there to save the day. The evolution of technology over the last decade has changed not only the position of the customers in the communication and research cycle, but also their expectations.

 

THE CURRENT STATE OF CONCIERGE WORK: AN INDUSTRY STUCK BETWEEN TWO ERAS

Clients who are old enough to remember the pre-digital concierge industry might view it with nostalgia or a sense of relief, depending on their persona: some prefer to have someone else take care of everything for them, and some want to double and triple check every detail themselves.  Many clients fall somewhere in between, but regardless of an individual client’s preferences, the general movement of connectivity and use of digital tools is a wave we must ride, or we will be washed over.  “We are truly living in a hyper-connected world that is enabling quantum leaps – in 2010, 1.8 billion people were connected, and today the number is somewhere around 3 billion, with the expectation that everyone on the planet will be connected by the year 2025.”

Millennials have never known life without the internet; for them, information has always been available at the touch of a button. They are accustomed to operating with an overload of data. According to David Amsellem, founder and CEO of concierge services provider Jon Paul, there is a common belief in the hospitality industry that “millennials are digital and older travelers are not digital.”  Amsellem believes this is a detrimental mistake: “It’s absolutely wrong. In the real world, we are all more or less digital and more or less human depending on the type of request we have.” It’s essential for the concierge industry to become aware of and admit that the vast majority of their clients are, in fact, plugged in.

These kinds of mistaken beliefs create a disconnect in an industry that is fighting to protect strong values based on human touch and outstanding service. The more technophobic concierges and organisations fear that by embracing technology, they will face challenges meeting clients’ expectations for assistance, interaction, and trust. What they don’t realize is that while the digital avenues may look and feel different, they present countless opportunities for providing the same kind of care they seek to provide in an analog, pen and paper way. More importantly, the use of digital communication would allow these concierges to meet their clients in a space that is increasingly familiar and comfortable for them.

 

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CONCIERGES IGNORE THE DIGITAL WORLD?

Customer expectations are changing: the demographics of consumers are shifting in ways that have a significant impact on the industry, and technology is evolving to become more specialized. Customer service is becoming simultaneously more complex and more crucial to success. Currently, many hospitality businesses are struggling to ride the wave: implementation of new technology, new directives, and new methods can take a while. Unfortunately, to stagnate is to lose relevance, and it would behoove our industry to speed up this process.

Concierges are expected to offer a unique and authentic experience every time, for every client, but the means of doing this are changing. For example, a concierge may feel he is providing an extra special touch by printing a client’s reservation confirmation on expensive, attractive paper, when in fact, most customers today are mobile and don’t want to carry around an extra piece of paper when everything else fits in their phone: their calendar, schedule, contacts, maps, family photos, etc.  And while it may now feel somewhat exotic and unusual to receive printed documents, most clients today are looking for efficiency and simplicity, not ornate papers they need to stuff in their purses.  Many times I’ve seen a concierge go to these lengths to impress a client, only to have the client take a photo of the document before discarding it in the trash.

Clients are looking for the best experience, hassle free. In addition to their desire to store all their information in their phones is their expectation of digital payment options.  Hospitality services that accept only cash are falling far behind when we can jump the line at the coffee shop down the street by pre-ordering on our phones and order a taxi, automatically paid, from an app in fifteen seconds.

Our phones tell us exactly when the bus is coming and send us texts when our flight is delayed.  We can easily sync our plans and obligations into our digital calendars. This doesn’t mean that all clients want only digital options.  Many hotels now offer self check-in, but this is available alongside the reception desk check-in. A modern company must remain flexible and ready to adapt to all customers, from those who prefer all-digital interaction to those who are more comfortable speaking in person.

While there have been some limited attempts to digitize the industry, they have not necessarily gone in the right direction.  There is a lot of talk of developing concierge-related apps for clients, but this is not the solution. In order for clients to make use of an app, they need to be willing to download it, something that takes an extra step of effort, uses data, and doesn’t always instill trust as clients become more wary of spyware and other add-ons built into apps.  While apps were, for a brief time, an innovation, we are now aware of app fatigue and, furthermore, that  “80-90% of apps get deleted soon after a quick test drive” and that over 60% of smartphone users download less than one app per month.

Concierges’ lack of digital availability, coupled with the fact that “a lot of consumer habits have changed so radically that we might not think of going to look for a human to help out,” (Jason Clampet, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Skift, a provider of travel industry intelligence) has put us in a tight spot, and we need to act quickly to climb out.

 

WHY CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER FOR THE CONCIERGE INDUSTRY

We now live in an era when, in order to stay afloat and thrive, a business absolutely must put in the work to create fantastic customer experience (cx). According to a recent study, by the year 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. And 22% of companies already prioritize cx over content marketing, mobile marketing, personalization and social media. Most importantly, we know that 86% of buyers/customers will pay more for a better customer experience.

What Is customer experience? It is your customers’ perception of how your company treats them. These perceptions affect their behaviors, build memories and feelings, and may drive their loyalty. In other words: if they like you and continue to like you, they are going to do business with you and recommend you to others. This is important not only in the concierge industry, but in any industry.  Whether you’re selling a product, a service, or an experience, clients now expect extra care and skilled assistance.

And for your customers to like you, you need to know them very well to create and deliver personalized experiences that will appeal to their sense of loyalty. How do you gain this kind of individual knowledge? You do it be leveraging digital tools to collect customers’ data from which you then extract valuable insights with speed and precision. No doubt, this is well worth the effort. But in order to even begin this process, you must begin utilizing digital communication.

What happens when the modern client has a bad experience or doesn’t develop this loyalty?  He leaves.  67% of customers mention bad experiences as a reason for churn, but only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers complains–this means that by the time the client has had a bad experience, it’s too late. They’ve already turned to someone else. It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in – improving the experience for your customers is the key to increasing retention, satisfaction and sales. When we have so many digital tools at our fingertips to accomplish these goals, the only logical way forward is to make use of them.

Why Improve Customer Experience:

  • To increase customer retention
  • To improve client satisfaction
  • To develop opportunities for cross-selling and up-selling

What might efforts to improve customer experience look like in our industry?  The opportunities are absolutely endless and are limited only to our imaginations. Hilton hotels, for example, have teamed up with IBM to develop a robot concierge. As part of a 2016 pilot program, the robot, stationed at the front desk of Washington D.C.’s Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, was able to greet guests and offer information about hotel amenities, local attractions and dining options in multiple languages. The adaptive technology, which includes picking up and processing non-verbal cues such as eye movements and body language, means the robot becomes savvier the more guests interact with it. These robots still need the concierge’s insights and specialized knowledge–their existence doesn’t by any means make the concierge obsolete. On the contrary, a client who feels welcomed by this effective, personalized communication is well on his way to having a great customer experience and begins to develop a sense of loyalty to the hotel’s concierge services.

 

A PRODUCTIVE AND FORWARD-THINKING PHILOSOPHY FOR OUR INDUSTRY

It’s essential that we recognize the new role of the client in the communication process.  The customer is not interested in simply passively receiving information from a brand when the brand is ready to deliver. He is, in fact, the one initiating the conversation. We must meet the customer wherever and whenever he expects it. We no longer live in the era when marketing and concierge work were two distinct departments. Today, the concierge is the reason why a customer will choose one service/product over another. Our role as concierges is changing, and we now have to be part of the marketing/selling process, quickly and efficiently communicating with a client who knows he can go elsewhere if we don’t deliver. We accomplish this goal by being readily available on the client’s chosen communication channel.

We must do our all to understand what makes a great experience for the customer, and in 2017, this absolutely, without question means that we will use digital approaches. The heart of our emerging approaches and techniques is not the concierge–it is the customer and his or her needs.

 

WHAT ARE THE WAYS IN WHICH WE CAN EMBRACE CURRENT TECHNOLOGY TO GIVE THE CLIENT A FANTASTIC EXPERIENCE?

We have entered a new phase of technological advancement. We already possess fast, small, powerful, accessible tools to automate tasks and processes. When we master this component (something we’re still working on in our industry), we have the opportunity to make things far more efficient with the use of artificial intelligence. The more connected we are and the more information we have access to, the better we can understand a client’s intent and context and the more accurately we can select the most relevant information. It is essential, however, that we successfully integrate these technologies into people’s lifestyles; the goal is that it doesn’t *fee* like technology or that we are replacing humans, but instead that we are helping humans become more efficient. This is exactly what we do at Ask PAM.

As the way we communicate advances, so does the communication lifecycle. It is becoming more spontaneous, brief, and at the same time more human:  you can video chat with someone and feel almost like you are in the same room.  This use of technology arguably gives us *more*, not less, of a human touch.

As mobile technologies become increasingly more common and the use of social media a normal part of our routines, the extended communications cycle is now a crucial part of the customer experience.  The need for more frequent and relevant engagement is undeniable, and there is no reason why concierges cannot take advantage of the ubiquity of social media to engage with clients.

With the development of new communication tools and media, concierges now have the opportunity to seize the moment and engage with their customers both online and offline like never before, building stronger relationships than previously possible. Information, ideas, and values can be reinforced through the use of social media, email, mobile and other platforms, and this is where you get to really know your customers to provide an even more curated experience.

 

HOW CAN WE LEVERAGE OUR CURRENT TECHNOLOGICAL CAPABILITIES TO CREATE NEW, MORE USEFUL TOOLS FOR CONCIERGE COMMUNICATION?

Key benefits and goals for successful, seamless communication in the concierge industry:

  • Proactivity, on both the concierge’s and client’s end
  • Complete transparency
  • Immediate assistance
  • Compatibility with client’s digital lifestyle

With customer experience an ever more central requirement for companies to stay competitive, and with data collection an ever more integral part of the communication process, brands must also engage on an invisible level with their customers and behind the scenes with their colleagues. Clear, consistent, and timely communication is essential at every level of a company in order to provide a seamless, non-intrusive experience for the customer. Concierge organisations must create a positive, modern, communicative internal culture, engaging efficiently not only with their customers but also with their employees, partners, and service providers. This is key to keeping messages consistent, timely, and most relevant for clients.

With the emergence of multiple and varying communication channels, it is becoming harder to predict, adapt and manage information. We will overcome this challenge by maximizing our internal processes while constantly adapting and evolving. The next important technological innovation in the concierge industry must be the development of a unique communication process that operates independently and is not hindered by changes/advancements in technologies.

 

CENTRALIZED DIGITAL CONVERSATIONS ARE THE NEW KEY TO HAPPY CUSTOMERS

What does the future hold? Quite simply, the future is about communication through conversation. There is no denying that the communication revolution is here, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. This doesn’t mean we must completely overhaul all communication processes and drop any forms of traditional communication. Some clients will still very much appreciate printed notes, enthusiastic calls and lengthy in-person conversations. Our goal is not to ignore these clients, but to meet their needs while also adapting to the needs of those who feel most at home texting, accessing information at the push of a button, and communicating primarily in a digital world.

Clear communication is already a complex task, even on a face-to-face, 1 on 1 basis.  You have two different people/minds trying to clearly transmit ideas in hopes that they will be understood by the other person.  Add to that both individuals’ assumptions, interpretations, personal contexts, along with distance, technology, varying languages, culture, etc., and things can only get more challenging. Concierges navigate these complexities on a regular basis, often dealing with international clients who come to them with problems or high-demand requests. The concierge’s job is to assess the situation and all the details that would be missed by any other normal individual and fix it.

Multiple communication channels can add to the confusion and challenges already present in concierge work, so we must move forward carefully and thoughtfully with our digital evolution. Some information is shared through instant messaging, while other files are sent via email, and yet further conversations are completed with texts; it is easy to see how vital information can get lost in transition.  If you factor in the time spent searching for a particular file while battling a deadline, you can end up with chaos.

One efficient and modern way to deal with this issue is to use centralized communication.

 

WHAT IS CENTRALIZED COMMUNICATION?

Centralized communication is a system in which all stakeholders are connected to a central hub that stores all the communications in one place, including all the necessary documentation and related information.  Aberdeen Group, Inc. claims that companies with the strongest omni-channel customer engagement strategies retain an average of 89% of their customers, as compared to 33% for companies with weak omni-channel strategies. In an industry like ours, where communication and data are so relevant to customer satisfaction, we cannot ignore these numbers.

A central system allows communication to be contextualized into subjects and projects, and it can even be broken down into sub-sections so that each conversation is tracked and meticulously maintained, including all relevant documentation and scheduling. This is a revolutionary development for concierges–it not only dramatically increases efficiency and communication–it also allows a second or replacement concierge to jump in and continue to seamlessly help a client without the client needing to re-explain his or her situation. This kind of development goes far in creating happy, loyal customers.

The aim of any communication system is to ensure clarity of information and thus pave the way for a clutter-free project. The end result should always be increased productivity and ultimately profits, but the journey to get there should be as straightforward as possible.

A centralized communication system has benefits to the company, but also to the user:

  • It takes away the frustrations of finding what you need, when you need it.
  • It simplifies the discussions within a certain task.
  • It offers transparency across the board, while still allowing security of information.

 

EARLY ADOPTERS IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY ARE ALREADY USING CENTRALIZED COMMUNICATION

In November, Airbnb announced a massive service expansion called Trips, designed to arrange customized host-led tours and activities that allow travellers to live like a local and tour their destination as if they’re a savvy insider. “You can spend as much time planning your trip as on your trip,” co-founder Brian Chesky said during the company’s annual conference, Airbnb Open. “We want to fix this.” Trips was designed “to be both magical and easy,” he said. The service is available in a dozen select cities around the world, including Tokyo, Paris and Detroit, and the company hopes to roll it out to 50 more by the end of 2017.

Developments like this can’t spring forth without a solid internal communication system. As members of the concierge industry, we should be moving towards using such a system so we can begin to use technology to innovate, make ourselves increasingly relevant, and remind customers what concierges are good for.

 

HOW WILL WE GET THERE?

Smart companies today see technology as the great enabler, and they understand how to leverage connectivity and user data to not only improve their level of service but also to automate and grow their business. Every time they introduce relevant technology into their communication system and processes, they become better, smarter, faster. Our smartphones are today an extension of our bodies and minds – connecting us directly to the internet, integrating us with social media and an endless cast of characters and resources. Modern companies need to be there, readily available, and the innovative ones are on their way if they aren’t there already.

 

ASK PAM: AN EMERGING CENTRALIZED COMMUNICATION TOOL FOR EXCELLENT CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Today, customers expect to engage with companies using their preferred communication channels, which vary from one situation to another. Consistent, personalized, real-time conversation not only saves customers time, it also improves their overall experience, increases loyalty, and drives revenue to the company. At ASK PAM, we offer concierges access to the kind of centralized communication system that facilitates this improved experience.  ASK PAM is a suite of tools providing a modern, seamless, outstanding customer experience that hospitality organizations can leverage to respond to, support and engage with customers. Our tools are designed to be compatible with popular messaging apps, SMS, websites and mobile apps.

Our unified multi-channel messaging web app, coupled with our growing global network of concierges, uses artificial intelligence to bring customer experience in the concierge industry to the next level. We are currently the only system tackling the local concierge niche market in order to improve the overall customer experience at lower cost, and we currently work with a variety of segments of the hospitality sector such as airports, airline companies and banks to facilitate/upgrade their customer/concierge departments.

THE TIME IS NOW: WE HAVE THE TOOLS; WE NO LONGER HAVE EXCUSES

There is now simply no way to move forward in our industry without making use of modern and emerging communication channels and tools. How exactly we use these tools will surely vary by sector, specific company, and so on, but ignoring them completely is no longer an option for any hospitality company that wishes to remain relevant and grow. This has the potential to be an exciting time for our industry, and I have faith that we are capable of using and creating the kinds of communication innovations needed to bring our work to the next level, as long as we choose to embrace rather than ignore the technology surrounding us.