Digital is on the minds of everyone today, from a variety of perspectives. But it’s important to connect those online activities and touchpoints to real life interactions to complete customer experiences, especially in the hotel industry.
Nick Ayres, global director of social marketing for Intercontinental Hotels Group, shares how IHG ties digital touchpoints together to complete the customer journey; from the dream, through to the stay, and beyond.
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Small Business Trends: Could you give us your role at IHG and how you got started with the whole idea of integrating social into customer service?
Nick Ayres: I lead our global social practice for our consumer brands, as well as our Rewards Club program. I’ve been with IHG coming up on five years, and have been in social business for a few years previous to that. And when I started at IHG, one of the things that we put on our road map early on was to figure out a process by which we could make sure that we’re speaking to customers who were already speaking to us on social channels, as a way to make sure we were having dialogue and two-way conversations with guests.
Small Business Trends: When you think about how your customers have changed over the years, the way they’re using social, their behaviors on social, their expectations, what do your customers expect from you?
Nick Ayres: They expect that, when they reach out in social, that it’s not a “nice-to-have” for a company to respond. The thing that goes along with that is the expectation for transparency of experience. When we have a guest who stays at one of our hotels, when they reach out to us via social, they expect that we are able to identify quickly the history of that guest with us, so we have a sense of not just who they are, but also the particular experience they might be having, and we as a business don’t act like we’ve never talked to this guest before. So, there is, again, this expectation that there is this red thread that ties a customer to all of their interactions with the brand. That’s certainly not something that was expected three or four years ago.
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Small Business Trends: Passing on information to the right parties to take the right action talks about how integrated, from a process and technology, and cultural standpoint, that social has become when it comes to customer service.
Nick Ayres: Yes, it was really important for us. We anticipated customers would want to make sure the information they were sharing got to the folks that could most directly do something with that information. And the real value is making sure that, when feedback is provided, the hotel is able to act on it — even immediately if there is a customer service issue that’s happening on-property in the midst of a stay.
It’s not just the surface of, “Hey, let’s thank guests for providing feedback,”. The example we use is for guest reviews, which is really important for us. If you have a hotel that has ten guests say, “Hey, your check-in experience was really awful. It took a really long time, and people weren’t friendly,” or whatever it might be, simply acknowledging that that feedback is happening is not going to solve the problem. You actually have to do something. If you have ten people that are saying that, and you don’t do anything to change it, you’re going to have just ten more people that say the same thing. So, you have to find ways to make that change.
Small Business Trends: So, you mentioned it hasn’t been easy. Do you think moving forward it’s going to be more of a challenge to stay in line with the customers’ expectations and needs?
Nick Ayres: I feel like there is always going to be something else that we have to figure out how to attack, that we have to figure out how to provide solutions to. And so, I don’t know that the challenges posed will be more difficult, but I would say that there will continue to be challenges.
We focus a lot of attention on the stay experience and the role that mobile and social play in that stay experience. And so, I think, as we get better and get even more laser-focused on delivering exceptional on-property guest experiences, it’s going to help manage some of the expectations that our guests might have. But we know that, at the end of the day, while certainly the things that my teams are responsible for from a Facebook and Twitter and experiential piece are important, at the end of the day, if you get to the hotel and you have a miserable experience, all the rest of that falls to the side. So, we have to do everything we can to deliver the best guest experience that we can and find ways for technology to enable that, both for the guests, as well as for our operators.
Small Business Trends: Give us an idea of what you’re going to be focusing in on, moving forward, maybe over the next six months to a year?
Nick Ayres: We look at the guest journey — dream, plan, book, experience (which is the stay), and then the “share” at the end. We really feel like the role of social will continue to be woven through the entire guest experience, but we know that we have a lot of opportunities to use content and social to help inspire in the dream phase, and help continue to encourage guests to share content. But we also know that, as it relates to mobile, there are a lot of interesting and innovative things that we can be doing there. Working with my peers on things like anywhere check-in, giving guests the ability to check in to the hotel directly via their mobile devices, versus having to do another process.
The speed with which customers expect that we will respond continues to be a little bit of a hamster wheel, where we just try to find ways, as quickly as we can, to respond and make sure that our service levels continue to get better. That’s certainly an area where we’re going to focus, to continue to use technologies and processes and training to continue to meet needs more and more quickly, rather than just sit back and be comfortable with what we’re doing today.
Small Business Trends: We talked about the customer journey and the different phases of it. You can map those phases to customer acquisition, lead gen, walking through the sales process, and then retention. Are there any aspects you are focusing in on more than others, and trying to make sure that once you get the customer, you’re able to have them become return guests?
Nick Ayres: My team is responsible for our Facebook footprint and things that we do on Twitter and elsewhere; and those are incredibly important and certainly play a role in helping frame brand perception. But at the end of the day, we could have the best Facebook page in the world, and if a guest gets to the hotel, and they try to check in, and they face a rude salesperson, or the pool is out of order for whatever reason—any of those sorts of things—that’s what’s going to stick with customers, right? And so, we want to do as much as we can to really deliver the best guest experience that we can in the midst of the stay.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.