Virtual assistants become the latest trend for customer service in the hospitality sector. Do they work?
Chatbots, services that allow users to communicate with an Artificial Intelligence or person through a messaging app, are becoming increasingly popular, and are fast establishing themselves in the battle to win and retain hotel guests.
The rise of Chatbots as communication tools for businesses does not come as a surprise, as Statista reports that over 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app installed, the most popular being Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
What way of offering customer service could be easier then, than providing a tool through which customers can send a chat message with their queries and receive a near-immediate response?
In April 2016, Facebook announced its Facebook Messenger Chatbot platform for business, a tool that allows businesses and services to create their own bots.
This has led to a raise in bots designed for all kinds of purposes. There are now chatbots that help users manage their finances ("Cleo"), check the weather ("Poncho"), find answers about their health issues ("HealthTap"), plan their travels ("Kayak"), and much more.
Hotels are checking in
Which brings us to the latest chatbot frontier, hotel chatbots designed to enhance customer experience.
A hotel can now choose to design and customize a bot that answers customers' queries, even tailoring its personality to best suit their hotel's style and clientele.
One of the first chain of hotels to launch an AI chatbot was Edwardian Hotels-owned Radisson Blu, who released a chatbot named, not surprisingly, 'Edward' that can respond to customer queries within seconds.
Guests of Edwardian Hotels can now chat to 'Edward' to request extra amenities or reserve a place at their hotel's spa.
Similarly, The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas has designed 'Rose', a bot concierge with a bubbly personality.
When guests staying at The Cosmopolitan check-in at the hotel, the person welcoming them hands them a card with Rose's phone number that says: "Know my secrets. Text me" and "I am the answer to the question that you never asked".
When in need, customers can now choose whether to contact a member of the hotel staff or text Rose with their query.
Rose can recommend restaurants and bars within The Cosmopolitan, can have towels delivered to the client's room, take guests on a tour of the hotel's art collection, and can even play games such as "Kiss Marry Diss" or "Two Truths and a Lie".
Rose was not only designed to answer guest queries, but also to do so in a playful tone, in order to both assist and amuse the hotel's clientele.
In an interview with Travel + Leisure magazine, Mamie Peers, project manager who worked on the development of Rose with digital marketing agency R/GA, said: "We wanted to create a spirited personality that reflects the mystique of The Cosmopolitan".
The reporter from Travel + Leisure who tested Rose's responses out, found it also answered questions about how 'she' looked, saying "If you have to ask, then I'm out of your league", and questions about the poolside parties at the resort's Marquee Dayclub, saying "This place slays all day. There are three pools to dip in and dance while world-renowned DJs drop the beat. If you really want to YOLO, snag a cabana with its very own Jacuzzi. But just keep in mind the cabana boy is half mine ;)."
This all sounds fun and it is highly likely that this is not the last time we'll be hearing about chatbot delivered customer service. Yet the question remains as to whether this trend will become the norm, or if the old-fashion 'give them a call' solution will remain the preferred option.
(Augmented) reality check
Realistically speaking, most current chatbots are unable to provide answers to all customer queries, and are mainly limited to those they have been programmed to respond to.
Testing a chatbot on queries might be fun for a while, but there will be those for whom bots can also become extremely irritating when disappearing down the rabbit hole of "I have not been programmed to answer that" or "Sorry, I didn't quite catch that", particularly at times when all you really need is a simple but vital nugget of information.
But chatbots are in their relative infancy so, we can confidently predict that, with integrated machine learning tools, their 'programmed levels of expertise' will grow exponentially.
For now, it remains tricky; hotel guests are not famous for their patience. Let's wait and see just how far chatbots will go as a customer support tool in future, and whether they will ever substitute human agents entirely.