by Doug Kennedy

As a hotel sales training consultant, I have had the opportunity to sit alongside numerous reservations agents as they have fielded live inquires at hotels and call centers representing all segments of the lodging industry.

In doing so, I can tell you one lesson I've learned is that the types of calls being fielded by agents these days are quite notably different from those they fielded even just a few years back.

In the past, transient reservations callers could generally be classified as one of two types; 'repeat guests,' who were already well-informed and for whom our agents just needed to check rates and availability, or 'first time callers' for whom a full overview of the benefits was required.

While agents sometimes still field calls from these two prototypes, the biggest difference these days is that most callers have a very specific question, concern, or discussion point. Everyone knows today's callers are well-informed, having likely visited at least the hotel's website. More and more often, the caller has even checked user-driven hotel rating websites as Tripadvisory.com and IgoUgo2, read feedback posted at the online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity, or perhaps even visited a travel blog.

It's still true that agents occasionally here questions such as: 'Can you tell me about the hotel?' or 'What are the room like?.' But more often than not, today's callers are calling for one reason only - to hear the live voice of a fellow human being provide reassurance that they are making the right choice. Today's agents are fielding questions such as:

- 'Is this a good choice for us?'
- 'What room would you recommend since we have kids?'
- 'Is the Executive Level room worth the extra cost?'
- 'Which would you choose?'

All too often, our industry's agents have not been trained nor prepared to handle this line of questioning. So instead of reassuring the caller and reinforcing value, they inadvertently erode confidence and sow seeds of doubt with responses such as:

- 'Gosh, all our rooms are nice.'
- 'Well let's see... you get a free breakfast for the extra $50.'
- 'Um, I've not actually seen the rooms myself to tell you the truth.'

It's easy to give today's callers the reassurance they need and to offer the recommendations and suggestions they are looking for. Just carve-out some time at your next department meeting to train your staff in two key topic areas:

Improving Product Knowledge. It goes without saying that in order to personally recommend or suggest a hotel room, accommodation, or package, reservations agents need to first become familiarized with the inventory they are selling. While it would seem obvious that reservations agents can benefit from product familiarization, I can tell you that at least 4 of 10 agents I meet everyday haven't seen an actual guest room at their hotel/resort since their day-one orientation session. To improve your staff's product knowledge:

- Conduct 'FAM' tours of the rooms on a regular basis. Consider having sales managers escort the reservations sales team as if they were on a site inspection.

- Hold 'scavenger contents' to make room/accommodation tours more engaging.

- If your agents are offsite, use multi-media presentations using your own 'home movies' made with a camcorder if necessary.

- Pair-off agents and assign them a guest prototype to represent, based on the demographics of your guests (such as family, business/corporate, romance, senior.) Then have each pair list the benefits that room/accommodation types offer for each type of guest.

Make sure agents not only memorize 'features' of the room, but also the 'benefits' these features provide for various types of guests. Also, make sure your agents understand that their 'product' goes beyond the guest room itself to include the destination, area attractions, points of interest, and other nearby conveniences.

Using Recommendations, Suggestions, and Endorsements: Once they are informed, and especially after having been asked to formally do so, most reservations agents can easily incorporate these techniques into their sales approach. Here are some examples to review with your group:

- Personal Recommendations: 'Since you are traveling with a family, I would definitely recommend our suites, which would provide plenty of room for your children to play....'

- Endorsements: 'The Executive King room is an excellent choice; it's just perfect for business travelers like you who are looking for a little extra desk space in the room.

- Suggestions: 'If you are looking for something more affordable, our Moderate rooms are a great value. They are a little smaller, but the good part is they have all the same amenities and services.'

Given the popularity of hotel and travel information and rating websites, there are certainly many consumers who enjoy researching their travel options online. But the vast majority are still calling to talk with a live reservations agent at some point in the sales cycle. Whether guests are calling with specific questions before booking online, or whether booking online and then calling to make sure they did the right thing, you can make sure your reservations agents have the right responses by training them to incorporate personal recommendations, suggestions, and endorsements into their real-world sales processes.

Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network.