Beth Benjamin

A version of this article originally appeared in Hotel Executive on March 7, 2016.
As the use of social media becomes more pervasive, its impact on businesses becomes more significant. Digital conversations about your hotel are taking place all the time, and if you’re not engaging in that dialogue, it’s a huge missed opportunity to strengthen your relationship with consumers. By taking advantage of social media interactions, you learn more about your customers and their experiences with your company. Furthermore, you can leverage that information to enhance your operations, create new sources of value for your guests, and influence perceptions about your brand in the global marketplace-ultimately increasing your bottom line.
Go Where Your Guests Are
Your guests are everywhere — not just geographically, but virtually. While Facebook and Twitter are two of the more common social networks where consumers congregate to share information, they are no longer the only avenues. Newer applications such as Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram are wildly popular and interactive, thus influencing the way users share ideas. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 52 percent of online adults use multiple social media sites; and that number is sure to rise further as additional platforms emerge and continue to disrupt the space.
These advanced applications empower users to communicate in new and vivid ways-using images, videos, audio, emojis, etc. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, what your guests are posting online can say a lot about your brand. In other words, while traditional methods such as surveys are still relevant for capturing feedback, social media has drastically expanded how people share information about your brand, how people research and perceive your brand, and how your brand can interact with consumers-from hashtag campaigns to personalized snaps.
Social platforms provide a critical forum for engaging in a rich and valuable dialogue with guests and potential guests. In order to take part in that dialogue, you first have to become an active participant, leveraging technology to enhance your communication with customers. It’s also critical to have best practices in place. These platforms, by nature, make your interactions highly visible to other people, so there’s a great deal of responsibility involved. Tone and professionalism are obviously important considerations, but how you follow through can have an even greater impact on your guests and your bottom line. Online engagement today is about much more than brand awareness and promotional content; it’s about learning from your guests, adapting your services and products in line with changing expectations, and demonstrating responsiveness.
Learn from Local Experiences
Guest feedback — positive or negative — most often derives from specific local experiences, which frontline management and other customer-facing employees must be equipped to resolve quickly. Yet localized experiences also present an opportunity to look across properties for common themes, trends, and practices that can be improved more broadly across the entire organization. For example, a guest in Chicago might think that the dinnertime room service is too slow, so she shares the complaint on Twitter. Another guest, this time in San Francisco, might also complain on Twitter about your hotel’s slow dinner service. These are two seemingly distinct customer feedback events, but they might add up to a larger problem, perhaps poor training for the food service staff. When you systematically track localized experiences at the corporate level, you can reveal broader issues, identify root causes, and discover potential opportunities for systemwide improvement.
Negative experiences aren’t ideal, but they are valuable learning opportunities for your business, and you can turn them into positive interactions. The trick is making sure the right people get the right feedback to take quick action. Empowering all employees — from the frontline to the c-suite — is the most effective way to ensure problems are resolved effectively and efficiently. In most situations, frontline managers and employees who have been directly involved are usually best suited to take swift action; they should be the ones who are notified right away and held accountable for fixing problems and identifying their root cause. Looking beyond the local level, technologies like text analytics can help companies detect patterns and trends in large quantities of unstructured customer feedback, including online sources such as review sites, social media, and other platforms.
Using social media to localize customer insights and deliver them swiftly to the right people gives your employees agency and makes them more accountable for solving real-time problems. The days of having market research teams collect data and spend months sifting through them to compile results are over. Forward-thinking businesses localize social media feedback and rapidly disseminate it to relevant employees at every level. With access to insights, employees can continually test new ideas and capture learning across locations, which, in turn, can drive company-wide change. Moreover, when guests experience responsive employees bustling to resolve their issues or spearheading innovations that provide them with greater value, those guests are more likely to become brand advocates; they know your brand cares about its customers and that it’s committed to meeting their needs, and they will share that information socially. This is especially the case for younger generations. According to a recent study, 85 percent of Millennials report that they write online reviews or post on social media after a standout experience.
Deepen Relationships with Guests
Hospitality companies understand — through centuries of experience — the value of prioritizing guests and their needs. However, not all hotels are equally effective at delivering consistently positive results. To separate your company from competitors, strengthening brand loyalty is fundamental. Encourage your guests to provide feedback on social media, and then personalize your responses to that feedback to deepen your relationships. Personalized ongoing dialogue shows you are genuine about wanting to learn about your guests and how they view your brand. It also shows you are committed to providing better results based on their feedback (after all, you wouldn’t ask for their input if you didn’t intend to use it to drive change and improve). Done routinely and systematically, such conversations are paramount to creating brand loyalty.
A customer-centric culture breeds brand loyalty. To establish such a business environment, you must prove that you value the customer voice. This means emphasizing customer experience as part of your day-to-day operations, including paying attention and being responsive on social media. Here are a few tips to guide your online interactions that will encourage guests to embrace your brand:

  • Stay true to your brand. If you preach a fun, friendly, close-knit culture, that should be reflected in your online persona. Keep responses fresh and unique to the individual, and don’t use generic or scripted answers whenever possible. Boilerplate text is obvious and lacks personality, so it’s best avoided. Be true to your brand identity-whatever that may be-and communicate with transparency.
  • Be proactive. Make social media an emphasis, not an afterthought. When you operationalize social media engagement and actively integrate it into your business strategy, it becomes more natural and effective. This means moving beyond passively waiting for complaints to roll in. Companies that only use social media to identify and neutralize issues as they occur-rather than learn from them and improve-fail to fully capitalize on the information that social media unleashes.
  • Drive action to the local level. You should have some guidelines in place not only to guide local behavior, but also to establish parameters for frontline management. Your goal is to help them engage with confidence and authority without constraining them. These response guidelines should emphasize general principles, such as the importance of focusing on the issue at hand; exhibiting genuine concern and compassion; and deciding when and how to take a conversation offline.
  • Learn and innovate. One of the most unique aspects of social media as it relates to your business is that it enables you to gain insights about your guests and their evolving preferences. What do they enjoy? What do they do when they visit your hotels? Which services or amenities do they use frequently? With a better understanding of your guests, you can test new services or amenities tailored to reflect their desires and interests. You can then track reviews and other social media exchanges to see whether your efforts paid off, by providing guests with new value.

Strengthen Your Brand and Your Business
To fully tap into the far-reaching benefits of social media for your brand, you must learn from both positive and negative experiences and operationalize that knowledge to improve your service. As you collect customer experience information, track patterns, and drive system-wide innovation, you accomplish two things: You show your guests you care by being responsive and quickly closing the feedback loop, and you decrease the number of future problems your brand might encounter because you’re able to learn and identify root causes.
Social media has thus emerged as an essential instrument for broadening your client base. That’s because, according to a 2012 Nielsen report, online customer reviews are now one of the most trusted sources of brand information, second only to recommendations from friends and family, which are also commonly shared on social media today. What these sources have in common is the social component: As more and more people utilize social media to find and share information, more and more people are trusting the information they find. In other words, consumers care less about what you say about your brand, and care more about what others are saying about it. If you want to influence those digital conversations, you have to participate in the online dialogue.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. The same is true when it comes to the customer experience. Social media presents a huge opportunity for your company to act on what people say and think about you. And, social word of mouth is increasingly important to competing successfully in the global marketplace. According to the Keller Fay Group, customers acquired through referrals from their social network generate more long-term sales than those generated through marketing alone. This is because customers acquired through social word of mouth tend to stay longer as active customers and generate more value over time.
Clearly, the dialogue that occurs between you and your guests is valuable-both for your brand and for your learning. Not only can it be leveraged to attract new guests, but it also gives you the organizational capabilities to continue improving and adapting to changing customer expectations over time. As an example, one study found that hotels responding to 50 percent or more of their online social reviews on a popular rating site not only increased their NPS and social scores, they also increased their year-over-year occupancy rates by about 7 percent. In contrast, less responsive properties didn’t simply maintain the status quo-they lost ground. When properties responded to fewer than half of their social reviews, their NPS and social scores actually declined.
What results like these indicate is that monitoring and responding to guest feedback through online channels is an increasingly important means of staying abreast of your market and implementing changes necessary for staying competitive. If you’re not engaging in the digital dialog and learning, your competitors almost certainly will be. As a result, hoteliers who invest in social media engagement are actually investing in their customers, their brand, and ultimately their business.
 

Photo Credit: Karim D. Ghantous