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Getting Personal

Increasingly over the past decade, the expectations for good customer service have risen. People expect results in seconds, via their mobile device of choice. In addition, they demand a more personalised experience: “Don't send me information that does not interest me”, but “Don't forget to include me if it does”. Good personalisation is proving to be an exact science that many companies have, as yet, failed to get exactly right.

And it's not just the top echelon of the market where the expectation for excellent service is prevalent. You only have to look at EasyJet's recent adoption of mobile passenger applications and wearables to see that it’s not just premium providers who are expected to deliver a premium service; it’s a top to bottom prerequisite for most businesses today.

We at Black Pepper believe that, if used just right, technology can bring tremendous enhancements to the personalised service customers receive. In this article, we are going to look at some of the ways technology might help you differentiate your brand.

For evidence that the expectation of personalised service is being taken to the next level, you only need look to the US and start-up companies such as Wayblazer who are leveraging Cognitive Computing to deliver “intelligent” search engine functionality in the form of contextual, personalised advice for anyone booking travel.

What is Cognitive Computing?

“Cognitive computing is the simulation of human thought processes in a computerized model. Cognitive computing involves self-learning systems that use data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing to mimic the way the human brain works." IBM, 2014, IBM Research Colloquium

Powered by IBM Watson, WayBlazer's travel solution uses natural language processing to process and return information. Let’s say you were looking for a family holiday for 2 adults, 4 children, in the Caribbean, during January. Most people would do a Google search and find some offers, be they from travel agencies, hotels or airlines. Watson, however, can read millions of unstructured documents in seconds (a single instance of Watson can consume 30,000 documents a day). Therefore, the search could process data from a wide range of sources, from research reports to tweets, so the search results would include much greater breadth and depth of information on which to base your vital holiday decisions.

Moreover, this is a trend that is taking off across sectors. Watson has recently been trialled in the US by physicians to assist with patient diagnosis with much reported success:

“After a year-long research collaboration with faculty, physicians and students at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, IBM Research has unveiled two cognitive computing technologies that can be used by Watson, and are expected to help physicians make more informed and accurate decisions faster and to cull new insights from electronic medical records (EMR). The projects known as “WatsonPaths” and “Watson EMR Assistant” will create technologies that can be used by Watson in the domain of medicine.” IBM Research website

Unbelievably, in 2011 Watson played Jeopardy and received the first prize of $1M!

This new wave of personalised solutions said to be able to simulate human thought are being called “Systems of Insight” but are better known as “artificial intelligence”. Taking this one step further, Google are reported to be part way through a project to assemble what looks to be the largest artificial intelligence laboratory ever constructed.

“Google has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find, or at least, rates. It made headlines two months ago, when it bought Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces spectacular, terrifyingly life-like military robots, for an "undisclosed" but undoubtedly massive sum. It spent $3.2bn (£1.9bn) on smart thermostat maker Nest Labs. And this month, it bought the secretive and cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m.” The Guardian (full article here)

What does that mean for the Hotel industry?

With the mind-boggling amount of new technology appearing every day, how do we attempt to keep up and how do we know what to prioritise? Everything should be Mobile. Everything in the Cloud. Using Big Data. Leveraging Social Media. Wearables and iBeacons. Adopting Mobile Payment. There are so many avenues technology leads us to, that what is becoming increasingly important is having an expert guide to match business needs to the right solution.

How can you start to adopt a truly customer centric approach that is relevant to your clientèle and brand?

One example of a recent trend to impact hotel guest experience is beacons.

Positioned around the hotel, each beacon sends Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) push notifications to guests' mobile devices (once they have downloaded the relevant app) when they come within close proximity of it.

This presents an opportunity for on-the-spot guest up-selling such as targeted offers linked to the restaurant, bar or spa. In addition, it delivers functionality that can enhance the guest experience such as: mobile check-in and check-out, hotel mapping, room preferences including preferred lighting and temperature. Furthermore, beacons make commercial sense as they are cost effective and easy to install.

But does this technology work for every type of property and every type of brand? This is where a good IT supplier could make the real difference for your business.

For example, would the Manager of the 5 star Fairmont Monte Carlo want his guests to check in via their mobile app or would he want the concierge, who knows all their top clients by name, to welcome them personally?

Recent adoption figures from the Linder Golf and Spa resort near Portals Nous suggest that following a beacon implementation last year only 6% of guests have adopted the technology, with most preferring to simply leave their mobile device in their room.

Contrary to that, CitizenM hotel group have implemented beacon technology across the board and have seen consequently impressive bottom line results.

It’s clear that a solution that works very well for one hotel group and in one type of property simply does not work across the board. Maybe the answer is to create a completely personalised solution, taking into account not only brand, but also property type and location, while utilising careful demographic and individual client profiling.

But do the existing IT suppliers offer the knowledge and flexibility to do this?

NH Hotels thought not and to this end are currently undergoing global transformation of all of their IT infrastructure following a decision to take all of their development back in-house and remove all third party product suppliers from the chain – the company goal being to provide an enhanced customer experience through creating differentiation and personalisation. NH Hotels wanted flexibility and the ability to effect change quickly and found this through ownership of all of their IT.

With this in mind, should Hoteliers expect the flexibility and personalisation from their IT suppliers that their guests expect from them? Should Hoteliers be driving the IT and not the other way round? After all, who knows their clientèle better than the people who look after them daily?

From reflective branding to strategic partnerships to customer loyalty schemes and “local perks”, each Hotel will have differing requirements. It would appear therefore that IT personalisation is the only way to leverage hoteliers' knowledge and experience and with that, deliver bespoke, guest-centric solutions that reflect the brand, while still being intuitive enough to take into account a host of other localised variables.

Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence might become the norm in a few years’ time, but we do recognise that right now, most businesses are still very much reliant on human knowledge. And the best way to leverage that is to build the technology you need around it.

At the end of the day, we might not even need artificial intelligence to deliver a personalised guest experience. Maybe we just need to get more personal.