Chatbots in Hospitality: The What, the Why, the How
By Amy Allen - Content Marketing and Social Media Manager at Benbria
27 June 2016
These days, chatbots are the Next Big Thing in mainstream tech. This should come as no surprise: humans have been tinkering with the idea of robots since the fourth century BCE, when ambitious Greek mathematician Archytas was rumoured to have drawn up drafts for a mechanical, steam-powered pigeon. For decades, scientists, machinists, and dreamers have predicted a world where labor is obsolete — a utopia of leisure for every man, woman, and child — all made possible by the toils of our robotic inventions.
For hoteliers, automation has been held up as a panacea to productivity issues, a solution to labor costs, a way to ensure consistent, streamlined production processes across the board — and chatbots in particular have gotten a lot of attention from the hospitality industry in recent months.
What Are Chatbots?
You've probably heard of Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana, the world's most famous voice-based chatbots. And how about Microsoft's Tay? You may remember the uproar she caused after Microsoft released her to Twitter last March; within hours, she had begun using inflammatory language that other Twitter users had deliberately taught her.
In a nutshell, chatbots are computer programs that utilize natural language processing or keyword matching capabilities to convincingly mimic a human being for the purposes of conversation. They can be used in a variety of situations, particularly customer service; Facebook recently introduced chatbots to its Messenger app, and many retailers are already using them with great success to assist customers with online shopping and orders.
Of late, the hospitality industry has been looking at them very closely as a way to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Why Are They Useful?
Barring any Tay-style breakdowns, chatbots can help hotels in a number of areas, including guest services, time management, and cost reduction.
- They can assist guests with simple questions and requests, freeing up hotel staff to devote more of their attention to time-sensitive, critical, and complicated tasks;
- They are often faster and more cost-effective than their human counterparts;
- They are available to guests around the clock, reducing the need for night staff; and
- They can be programmed to speak to guests in a number of languages, making it easier for guests who don't speak the local language to communicate.
What Are the Drawbacks?
One need only look at Tay to see that introducing bots to a hospitality setting has the potential for disaster, and hospitality professionals must be careful to balance this technology with the need for impeccable customer service. The technology is still a work in progress and, as it has shown time and time again, far from perfect.
- Chatbots sometimes go on the fritz, and hoteliers run the risk of having their bots send inappropriate, incomprehensible, or annoying messages to guests;
- They can lack the warmth of genuine human interactions;
- They can't always handle more complicated dialogue or requests; and
- Some guests would simply rather talk to a real person.
How to Use Them?
Assess your guests' needs and determine if it's right for your property. Guests staying at economy and mid-range hotels will have different expectations than those staying at a luxury property. Those who choose an economy-class hotel tend to do so for the price rather than the perks, so they likely won't mind if most of their needs are met by a bot, even if that bot isn't functioning at 100 percent capacity. Meanwhile, guests at luxury hotels expect high-level service — the kind only a human being can provide. Keep in mind how your guests will react before you make the leap.
- Next, figure out how much automation you want to implement. From auto check-in to mobile guest communications to fully automated rooms, there are many different ways to enhance the guest experience. But you don't have to do them all at once; budget constraints and service considerations may dictate how much automation you can reasonably bring to your hotel. For example, you may wish to install smart technology in your rooms for the convenience of your guests, but keep the reception desk staffed with human beings for a personal touch. Or you could do it vice-versa and install self-service check-in kiosks in your lobby.
- Make sure it works well, and don't forget backup. In the eyes of the guest, inefficient or malfunctioning technology can often be more frustrating than no technology at all, so there is sometimes need for human intervention. And while it's fine to automate the check-in process, for example, some people will prefer to talk to a human if they have additional questions, and others still will need a human's help if the robot isn't working. It never hurts to find a middle ground between technology and old-fashioned customer service!
- Never use chatbots to deal with an unhappy guest. When guests are dissatisfied, they want to feel like they're being heard and understood, and chatbots will give them the impression that they aren't. This approach could come off as flippant or uncaring, which will only serve to make the guest more upset — and you should avoid alienating your guests at all costs!