Stepping up customer experience in our tourism sector

  • Building and sustaining a customer-centric culture to align with market needs

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s effects on tourism have been very significant, leading to a fall in the number of visitors over the past year or so. It is reported that in 2020 over 39,000 people visited the country from the USA. In that year, an estimated number of 355,000 was recorded overall according to Apparently, before 2020, there was on record an annual average of 900,000 annual visitors. This indicates a significant drop (60%) in tourism traffic from our main sources: namely the United States, United Kingdom and Nigeria.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has been instrumental in keeping our inflows down; however, there are signs of recovery. Be that as it may, looking closely at our hospitality industry there are indications that the potential to improve the sector is great – and a big part of this opportunity rests on how effectively our institutions and players can leverage and harness the immense benefits of customer experience to accelerate growth in this all-important area. We must step up our organisational capabilities and drive a culture of excellence to enhance growth.

Years ago, working in a consultancy role for a Belgian tour operator, I learned something very fundamental about what patrons look out for when using our services in hospitality. He shared with us that most tourists who travel from Europe and America, among others, usually will travel on a budget; thus they are more inclined to check-in at hotels that are relatively lower in the pecking-order. So, a tourist on a budget will not be going to the Kempinski or Movenpick Hotels for example; instead, they will look out for average hotels with decent amenities and hope to get fairly average comfort.

In doing this, their expectations are basic. The room must be neat, the facilities must function adequately – for example, in the bathroom one would expect that everything is well-maintained; your hot water functions efficiently your TV is in order the AC runs smoothly and so on. That’s all the average customer expects, he said. His observation is that as you walk into such hotels the initial impression is great. The reception is plush, ACs work nicely, there’s polite service at the counter; however, you go into your room and almost everything is out of order – the poor maintenance culture manifests.

Customer Experience is the differentiator here. By paying attention to the experience, you can set yourself up as a service provider of choice and drive in traffic effortlessly. There is enough evidence of the impact CX can make on your business if you deliberately leverage it as a strategy and work persistently to realise your goal of building and maintaining an army of loyal customers who will come, and keep coming, because you make them feel good.

Here are a few tips to help in this quest. First, be intentional about CX as a strategy for your business. Second, deliver personalised experiences. Third, pay regular attention to the customer’s voice and adjust accordingly. Fourth, develop a training culture to influence customer-centric thinking and behaviour.

CX Strategy

Understandably, tourism as an industry was hit very hard by the global pandemic and is now looking to bounce back. Hence in Ghana, to sustain the initiative that began a few years ago themed the ‘Year of Return’, focus is now on ‘Beyond the Year of Return’. To set yourself apart from the competition, you must focus on improving customer experience, and a common platform for doing this is to improve hospitality services in the tourism industry as a major touchpoint.

Daniel Ray, a marketing professor and Director of the Customer Equity Institute at Grenoble Ecole de Management, has commented that: “The more mature the market, the more customer-centric companies become… It is essential to be customer-centric before your competitors, as this gives you an inimitable competitive edge”. This underscores the argument that being intentional about Customer Experience by committing to it as a business strategy is a potential game-changer. In other words, improving the customer experience is a priority.

Here is an example of some deliberate strategising. ‘Iberia’, the Spanish commercial airline, decided to add a practical interactive map to its website to make potential customers’ lives easier. By simply entering your departure airport, arrival airport, nationality, country of residence and vaccination status, the service then informs you if you can travel to that country and the entry requirements which apply. This is a service that has been made necessary by uncertainty around the pandemic. It’s about listening to customers and their needs and proactively addressing them to improve customer satisfaction.

Although price-sensitivity is paramount in this sector, customers are more inclined to patronise services where there is enough information and where there is additional value from the quality of services offered on different channels before, during and after a purchase. It’s about discovering the needs and expectations of your customers (listening to the Voice of the Customer) and intuitively improving the various stages of contact points on the customer journey. Remember my story about the Englishman who was offered a full tour package by a hotel in Elmina years ago, that was a game-changer!

Personalised experiences

In our ‘New World’ today, the productive use of technology has become a major determinant of market success. Personalisation is now the main lever in driving competitiveness. With personalised services, customers’ needs, preferences and priorities are tackled proactively to help increase customer satisfaction and retain them to keep up with the competition. Using Customer Relationship Management software strategically positions you to increase personalisation.

For example, a CRM for travel agencies will provide you with data on your customers to help you offer packages to customers based on their past preferences. If customers are searching for places of interest in Cape Coast and other places of interest in the Central Region, you can contact them with offers personalised to their interests. To be more adept in delivering personalised content, ensure you obtain accurate feedback from customers using appropriate listening mechanisms such as surveys and direct feedback from customers.

The average operator in hospitality may find major investments into popular CRM packages as overkill in resource terms. Note that there are very skilled software developers who can help you develop bespoke systems based on your market insight at reasonable rates locally. Let’s drive an ecosystem to keep our young ones busy and resourceful, while meeting our requirements of delivering high-value personalised services to our clients without hurting our pockets. There is strength in numbers; collaboration is the key to addressing these needs effectively and efficiently.

A recent global research study by Qualtrics revealed the following. Of the 1,700 travellers surveyed, a significant proportion believes that hotel and airline feedback never reaches anyone who can make a real difference. 46% of hotel guests and 48% of airline passengers believed that their feedback was ignored. It is important to not only ask for feedback but also use the customer notes to prompt changes and improvements, and let the customers know that their feedback has been acted upon by using personalised notes. What we do with the feedback is pivotal to our CX agenda.

Voice of the customer

What we do with the myriad of data and feedback we collect from our customers can make or unmake our experience. It’s not enough to just ask for feedback from our customers. We must listen closely to what they (the customers) are telling us, close the loop with them, and make sure that we use the valuable information they offer to act and improve any pain-points. We must then let them know what we did! It makes them feel more valued to know their time spent feeding-back was useful, and that it was appreciated by the business.

Imagine what it would be like if the castles in Cape Coast could deliver a bouquet of services and products in addition to the long, boring lectures and more of the same drab services you get anytime you attend the castles and forts. An outing interspersed with unique experiences would do a world of good and make life a lot more interesting for tourists, both local and foreign. We must pay close attention to customer feedback. While this may be inconvenient, sometimes developing good feedback channels creates a culture that encourages our teams to respond promptly.

It develops the conditions which stimulate our customers to speak out and deliver positive or negative feedback we can respond to – and improve our offerings in ways that resonate with their expectations. Businesses which embrace feedback from customers will inevitably be the most-prepared to evolve. The late Eric Hoffer puts it bluntly: “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists”. A well-managed VoC programme, through a learning culture, opens up multiple channels for engagement with customers.

Besides surveys, there are several other ways you can obtain useful information from customers. These include (but are not limited to) website contact forms, ratings and reviews (on your site and external rating pages), website live chats, website visitor behaviour analytics, customer care call data, social media and interviews (online and in-person). Do not discount the role of employees’ information-gathering. Note that you can also rely on the Voice of the Employee (VoE). By combining both Voc and VoE, you gain commitment to delivering customer satisfaction at all levels. Happy employees fuel happy customers.

Training in CX

In today’s Real World, simply providing service with a smile isn’t enough. Your goal is to win at every interaction the customer has with your brand; whether it is a social media post, email or direct phone contact. There is very little time between the first engagement with a potential client and gaining their trust … hence winning or losing business. This is why it’s vital to get things right the first time. To this end, what you need in your team are people with a positive, professional and passionate outlook who consistently put the customer first.

Therefore, the customer-centric mindset starts right from the hiring process. When hiring team members, make sure to ask probing questions about their values to see if they align with your brand and your ideal customer. Perhaps your approach to the hiring interview must be a little less formal to understand the personal side of your prospect to help determine if they are willing to put the customer first. Customers who feel understood by your brand are more likely to buy again.

Map the customer’s path to your touchpoints as they progress from awareness, consideration and conversion. Observe them as they journey through your touchpoints, and use the insights gained to feed into your training curriculum. Disney increased their return rate among visitors by 70% through continual adjustments in service calls based on customer-feedback. The brand provides park employees who are knowledgeable, and ensures there are visible Special Assistants to provide a seamless transition into the park for guests with disabilities.

Ensure that your Learning and Development lead works directly with the customer support team and back-end staff to create a cycle of customer feedback and training content. Use real-time insights from the customer, such as NPS results, to adjust current training requirements and guide the rapid development and deployment of new training modules. We have the choice of treating customer service training like another box to be checked or maximising our Learning

Management System for customer loyalty and profitability. By helping our employees access CX insights at the right place and right time, we have the opportunity to create experiences which win customers for the long haul.

Fundamentally, the tourism industry aims to serve and satisfy guests. Today’s world however presents us with greater complexities, such that although we live in a connected world we must also consider people who are currently strangers – but potentially could become guests. These may include the friends of past guests who have heard about your brand and are interested in visiting it for themselves. Let us adjust our mindsets to embrace a learning posture to deliver out-of-the-world experiences.

The Writer is a Change and CX Management Consultant. He can be reached at 059 175 7205, [email protected],

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