By Doug Kennedy Although it can be argued that many more people will read an online review or social media message, those who make the effort to call the hotel directly either already are "customers" or are "hot prospects" seeking to become one. Perhaps this lack of focus on telephone hospitality represents the hotel industry's overall bias towards electronic distribution channels at the expense of neglecting traditional channels for guest communications and sales. Yet if you take time to notice, the phones are still ringing daily at hotel front desks, sales and reservations offices. It is true that the phone does not ring as often. Those who used to call their family, friends or colleagues on their guest room phones now reach them directly on mobile devices. Vendors and suppliers now send emails versus calling, as do many meeting planners, and of course many guests do book online. However if you take time to listen-in to real calls these days you will find that those who are still calling represent the hottest prospects; they are potential guests who have tried to book online but got hung up in the system. Or they are prospects with special needs and requests. Or they are prospective guests who have read media reports that the best rates are to be had by calling directly. Or perhaps they are among those who have read the "poor" and "terrible" guest reviews that even the top-rated hotels have a few of and who need some reassurance. If the caller is already a guest, they might be calling for directions because their GPS got them lost, or to maybe because they left an important item in the room at departure. More often than not the phone calls from confirmed or in-house guests are less routine and of a more urgent nature. During our KTN sales and service workshops we routinely place calls to local competitors of the hotels we are training. When doing sales training we call in with hot leads for groups or catering functions. More often than not we get transferred to a voicemail and it is hours before a call is returned, or worse yet 15-30% of the time no one calls back. If we do get someone on the line the norm seems to be to ask for basic specs and then to quickly quote meeting room costs, rates and terms like the voice at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial explaining potential side effects. If the call is for room reservations, most ask only the questions needed to search inventory and then list-off the names of the room types and corresponding rates. Rarely does anyone engage the caller in real conversations, find out the "story" behind the plans, and then to position rooms as being a good value. When doing guest service or hospitality training it is shocking how many times we cannot understand what the person who answers the switchboard says; the name of the hotel and colleague seems rushed or indistinguishable as if the person had marbles in their mouth. When asking basic questions such as directions, hours of operations for outlets, or fees for routine hotel services it sometimes requires being put on hold as if the person answering had never heard these questions before. Yet this is not always the case. About 20% of the time across the board, no matter what the question or inquiry, the calls are fielded professionally by a warm and friendly personality who shows empathy and demonstrates a caring attitude. What a difference it makes. What a positive first impression can be made just by putting a human "face" on the brand with a proper greeting. It takes no extra time and little additional effort to exude hospitality vs. to process calls as if you worked in a factory making widgets. Best of all, sales and service staff who put forth their best efforts when answering every call tend to bring out the best in their callers' personalities and end up speaking with a lot more friendly and fun people than those who process calls for a living. Have you listened to what your frontline first impression makers are saying? Try test calling your own hotel switchboard, reservations line, or sales office number. Or if you are concerned they will recognize your number, contact me and I will personally do a test call for you as a favor! Here are some training tips to ensuring positive first impressions: - Use a mystery shopping service on a regular basis to test all types of call scenarios, including guest service requests, dining, recreation and of course sales and reservations inquiries. - Conduct your own "call monitoring" by simply paying attention to what is being said whenever you are standing near someone who answers the phone. Be sure to coach them when performance does not meet standard and to praise them when it does. - When you receive calls from colleagues, friends and regular vendors, ask them for feedback on how the phone call was handled. - Have a formal list of standards for telephone hospitality, putting in writing the expectations for how calls are to be answered, placed on hold, transferred, and ended correctly. - Make it everyone's job to "own the request or question." - Review and practice phone techniques at pre-shift meetings, monthly meetings, and informally when time allows. Just as the top sports superstars practice the essential "basics" during the pre-season each year, give everyone on your team an ongoing reminder of just how important the phone calls are. - Now more than ever in today's high-tech, low-touch world, the ringing phone line presents a rare opportunity to put a human face upon an otherwise intangible brand and is worthy of as much attention as the online reputation. Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of customized training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry.