May 06 2019

Self-Service in Hospitality: Can Customer Retention Thrive without a Human Touch?

Technology-based self-service is everywhere these days enabling users to accomplish a wide range of tasks – from banking, to ordering pizza, checking luggage at the airport, checking into a hotel – even accessing your hotel room. People are increasingly expecting some level of automation because, in many cases, when handled correctly, it provides a quick and friction-free interaction, improving the customer experience.

Due to a combination of evolving consumer expectations and advancements in technology continuing to transform customer service interactions across industries, experts project that by 2020 (which by the way is now only a few short months away!) more than 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without the need for a human agent.

In the hotel industry, this is a frightening prospect for some hoteliers who still believe that machines can’t independently carry out a hotel’s most basic function i.e. to provide great service. Machines, for them, are unable to contribute to a culture of service in a hotel and exceptional guest service requires intuitive responsiveness and human sensitivity, a skill impossible for a machine to perform. Human beings alone are capable of delivering communication, as well as the ability to perceive any underlying biases that could be affecting an interaction with a particular guest.

And while one cannot argue with those statements, as Joseph Weizenbaum, a German-American Professor at MIT, wrote  “AI cannot, by definition, successfully simulate genuine human empathy” – and that is true, there is a lack of understanding of how technology, when used appropriately, not only performs tasks that need no human empathy but can reinforce the essence of hospitality.

Self-service shouldn’t be seen as a step towards the dehumanization of hospitality, but rather a way to make those human touch-points more personalized and intentional. With automation hoteliers have more opportunity than ever before to revamp and empower their customer service strategy. Self-service technology and automation improves the customer’s experience by allowing hoteliers to hire the best human beings for the most important customer-facing roles. And, by combining the two intelligently, hoteliers can provide the optimal customer experience that each customer expects.

And by intelligently, we also mean balance. Too much automation is just as bad as too little. With self-service and automation offering the ability to revolutionize the guest experience a number of hotels are upping the customer service ante by adopting new technology that provides guests the option of removing the human element. However, the problem with this sudden rush to implement new solutions is that it often happens without considering the business goals of the hotel and, more importantly, the needs of guests.

A longitudinal study that looked at the long-term effects of self-service technology reposts that if you try to go full throttle on the self-service technology at the expensive of human interaction, your strategy is doomed to fail—but, by the same token, if you ignore self-service technology completely, you’re also doomed to fail. A level of human interaction is necessary to balance the automation, and, some level of automation is necessary to balance customer expectations. The optimum use of self-service technology comes from replacing human interaction where it does not add any value, and increasing it where it does.

The bottom line is that self-service and automation now play an important role in delivering exceptional guest service. While technology on its own doesn’t make for a great hotel stay or solely retain customers, it comes from using a combination and, a thoughtful application of, high-tech tools complemented by a human touch.