Brand call centers can do more to combat OTA bookings
 
Brand call centers can do more to combat OTA bookings
27 FEBRUARY 2016 1:12 PM

There are a number of tactics that a reservations sales agent can be trained to use when callers mention they see the same rate online. 

As a hotel industry trainer, one of my most popular topic areas is reservations agent sales training, as there are still plenty of hoteliers who recognize voice is an important distribution channel. When I solicit input during my pre-training management consultations, one frequent request is to train agents to do all they can to convince those shopping on online travel agencies to book directly.

It is not surprising that my clients ask me to train their staff on this subject. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t read at least one new hotel industry article about the rising costs of customer acquisition or how important it is to secure direct bookings and wean guests off OTA channels.

So for my article this month, I decided to do a little survey to see how the major brand call centers are handling calls from those who indicate they are comparing rates they see at OTAs. (From what I hear from my workshop participants, it is a common practice these days for consumers to be doing this.)

It should be noted that my survey was an unscientific one. The small sample size was small, and I in no way project these results as an indication of what any specific hotel brand’s central reservations office is doing. However, the results were worthy of commentary.

To start my survey, I first checked on Google to compile a few different rankings of the top five hotel brands. To complete my survey, I first conducted a search on Expedia, which is of course one of the most popular OTAs, and completed one search for the Miami Airport area and one for Times Square, Manhattan.

I narrowed down the search for each brand that I tested and then called the respective brand’s 800 number and self-identified as a caller who was traveling alone and looking for the lowest available rate. (All brands were tested in both locations, for a total of 10 calls.) After the rate was quoted, I indicated either that I had seen the same rate (or lower rate if that was the case) online at Expedia to test the reaction.

Knowing that most revenue managers these days strive for rate parity across channels, I was surprised to find that some of the hotels were completely “out of parity,” while others were in parity for a room with the same terms, but the OTA had a pre-paid, non-refundable rate open that was not mentioned by the CRO agent.

Two hotels were notably out of parity for a flexible (not advance purchase) rate. They offered significantly lower rates via their OTA channel than what the CRO agent quoted for the same terms. Four hotels had a lower rate on their OTA channel for an advance purchase, non-refundable room that was not mentioned by their brand CRO agent. (Of these four, three had the same rate for the flexible option, while the remaining one showed a higher rate at the OTA than what their agent quoted.)

Four hotels were in complete parity, meaning that the same rates showed online as quoted by phone. Because the purpose of my informal survey was more to test how the CRO agents responded to rate shoppers than a check of rate parity, it is worthy of mentioning what happened for each call. Here is the recap.

Brand One: Miami Airport
Rates were in parity. After the quote I said I was seeing the same rate online and that I would just book it there to which the agent replied, “OK, whatever you prefer. It doesn’t matter.”

Brand One: New York Times Square
Lower rates were showing both for pre-purchase, non-refundable ($292 versus $332 by phone) and for the flexible rate ($324 versus $349.). Agent did not reply to my comment that I saw the same rate online and politely ended the call.

Brand Two: Miami Airport (Call disconnected on first try)
Rates were out of parity, with Expedia showing a flexible rate of $189 and the CRO agent quoting $209 when I asked for the lowest available rate. When I mentioned seeing the lower rate online, the agent simply said, “Is there anything else I can assist you with?”

Brand Two: New York Times Square (Call also disconnected on first try)
Expedia showed an advance purchase, non-refundable rate of $281 that was not mentioned by the agent, along with the same flexible rate of $305 that was quoted. When I said I saw the same (flexible) rate online, the agent politely ended the call.

Brand Three: Miami Airport
Expedia showed an advance purchase rate of $227 that was not quoted, along with the same $249 flexible rate. When I mentioned seeing the same $249 rate online, the agent attempted to explain that if I booked directly I could still cancel the rate, which was at least an effort to save the call. But when I replied that the online rate was also flexible she then said, “Well, it’s up to you.”

Brand Three: New York Times Square
The rates showing on Expedia were basically in parity (within $1) with what was quoted for advance purchase and in parity for flexible rate options. When I mentioned I was seeing the same rates online the agent mentioned, “I see. Anything else I can assist you with?”

Brand Four: Miami Airport
The rates were essentially in parity, although Expedia showed a rate of $169, while the agent quoted $159 for the first night and $179 for the second. When I mentioned seeing the same rate online the agent also reiterated some additional benefits of the hotel in what seemed to be an attempt to save the call but did not offer to book it.

Brand Four: New York Times Square
The only rate quoted by phone was a flexible rate of $239, while Expedia showed a lower $219 advance purchase rate and a higher flexible rate of $274. When I mentioned seeing the lower rate, the agent did attempt to save the booking by first offering to check another hotel and then by mentioning something about it being inconvenient if I have to change or cancel.

Brand Five: Miami Airport
The agent quoted the same $199 rate that I saw at Expedia. When I mentioned seeing the same rate online she said, “Let me see if we can lower that for you.” Then, she mentioned a rate of $179.10 and offered to book me at that rate.

Brand Five: New York Times Square
Expedia showed a $278 advance purchase rate that was not mentioned, along with a $309 flex rate that was quoted. When I mentioned seeing the same (flexible) rate online, the agent asked if I wanted her to check any other rates such as membership programs, which I indicated not having.

In summary, when the rates were out of parity for the same dates and terms, or when the shopper views lower rate (albeit with different terms) online than what the agent can sell, it might be more of a revenue and distribution management issue than a training opportunity. In other words, it would be difficult because agents could “sell” themselves out of a significant price difference.

However, when the rates were in parity, the agents for the most part gave up on their efforts. Other than the last agent who was able to motivate me with a lower rate, and the one who implied that the terms would be more restrictive if I booked online (which they were not), the others moved on toward politely ending the call.

Training tips
There are a number of tactics that a reservations sales agent can be trained to use when callers mention they see the same rate online. Here are but a few from my training workshops.

  • Reconfirm that the rate showing online is actually the final rate. Some hotels have agents quoting the total rate including fees, while the first screen on many OTAs only shows the room rate.
  • Reiterate the booking terms of the rate being quoted so that the caller does not compare a pre-purchase online rate with a flexible rate by phone.
  • Offer to check for discounts, promotions, other rate options or other room types.

Depending on availability and terms, these techniques might help.

Yet, the most important training tip that always applies is simply to offer to secure the booking “right here, right now” as a convenience for the caller and reiterate that you will to pass along any special needs or requests, as you are booking right into the hotel’s reservations system.

For example: “I am happy to secure this rate for you right now while the availability is showing. It only takes a moment, and I can make a note of any special requests you might have. May I secure it for you now?”

With a little nudge, many travelers can be convinced to save time and cut out the middle man (and thus the potential for errors).

Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of customized training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. Doug continues to be a fixture on the industry’s conference circuit for hotel companies, brands and associations, as he been for over two decades. Since 1996, Doug’s monthly hotel industry training articles have been published worldwide, making him one of the most widely read hotel industry training writers. Visit KTN at www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com or email him directly.

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