The COVID pandemic dealt the travel and hospitality industry a devastating blow, but things are looking up. In this episode of the BipGurus podcast series, Marina Bolfan, Enterprise Sales Lead at Infobip, is joined by Jennifer Uma-Kalu, Head of CX at Transcorp Hilton Abuja to discuss how the pandemic accelerated the advancement of customer experience in the industry. They also talk about the importance of strategic roadmaps, and how to achieve executive buy-in when it comes to investing in CX.
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Do you see any kind of, let’s say, changes in the state of customer experience pre- and post-COVID era industry that you’re working in? And how is this also going to change the approach to customer experience within the travel and hospitality industry going forward?
Before COVID, a lot of companies focused on the hard stuff, from customer-facing interactions to team member interactions. Dealing with contact centers and dealing with the front desk to make sure the ambiance of the company is right. Some companies, both in the hospitality industry and in other industries, banking, and so forth, were thinking about becoming more innovative and driving digital and or becoming more digitized. But you know, it was at a slow pace.
So when COVID came, it changed everything and brought us into the future. And it was a very difficult time for businesses. For us in hospitality, it was a wrecking ball. Remember that governments had to shut down travel overnight, and travel is synonymous with hospitality, right? And it got companies thinking: How else do we do business? How else do we get to our guests? It immediately brought forward the plans we had put on the back burner for innovation. Implementation started. And that’s it.
And COVID created a brand new customer. The (new) customer’s behavior is really different from what they were pre-COVID. These customers have always wanted things quicker and faster, but right now, they want safer things. People are talking more about sustainability – how to make the world better and safer. So even beyond technology implementation or driving innovation, even just the sustainability angle is an angle that is a game-changer for companies. The hospitality industry has a new face. The core of hospitality is welcoming guests into hotels, into airlines – all is still the same, but we do it in a different way.
We drive more innovation. We drive things like personalization. Customers are now more willing to share their personal data than before. We are offering things like machine learning, and they want to participate. They want to share more of their data, and hotels around the world are doing fantastic things when it comes to personalization. Just talk about facial recognition.
It made the customer feel like they had to limit human-to-human interaction. So when we talk about contactless check-in in hospitality, some companies – including my company – started doing that before (COVID). But of course, we have to scale people around the world. The hotels are now doing contactless checking, where guests don’t have to go to the front desk to check-in. They just go to the room door and scan the QR code.
Communication is different. It’s a lot more personalized. We’ve always had apps in hospitality to stay connected with our guests every step of the way – during or before the visit and afterward. But now, it’s so tailored. It’s even better. You know, it’s easier for us to communicate, and even for the customers or the guests to communicate with us.
So when we also service automation and marketing, all that has changed post-COVID for service automation. I’m from Africa, and we’re yet to get on the robots and all that, but that’s going to happen. And we are excited to see cash-free purchasing, keyless, hands-free room entry. It’s a game changer for our industry to become more innovative and technologically driven. It’s just brought the future to the present.
Strategy is key to any innovation, within not only the travel and hospitality industries but all industries. How important is it to encourage incorporating a strategic framework for innovation within the industry? And what is the impact of this on an enhanced customer experience?
I see this framework as a roadmap. If we’re to travel from, for example, from Abuja to Lagos, you will want to use some kind of roadmap, or else you will probably get on the road and go to a totally different place. So having a framework, having this map in place, helps guide the entire team. Everybody knows where we’re going. It’s so important. It just lays out guidelines, best practices, and operating principles for us to achieve the objectives we set out to achieve as a business. And I’m talking about the corporate goal.
For the customer experience goal, it’s the same thing. So we know where we are and where we want to get to. We design it with a roadmap. We know where we’re going before and after
As you mentioned, planning is the same. It leads us to strategy. So to be from one point in the present to another point in the future, you must have a clear roadmap of what you want to achieve. And even, let’s say, predict the obstacles that may appear on the way in the future so that you can know the next moves of your clients and customers before they even realize what they want to achieve or what needs they want to accomplish. You always have to [look at] the bigger picture. And to focus not only on one goal or one obstacle but take everything into consideration to serve your clients in the best positive way, which in the end leads to an enhanced customer experience.
That’s right. In putting that together, you want to consider several angles.
First, the customers, of course, your employees, the community in which you work, your shareholders, and the society at large. When putting that framework together, ensure all those pieces are covered. It helps ensure the guest or the customer gets a better experience. That’s what I think about the framework.
I read a recent blog on Customer Experience Network, and some facts highlighted that return on investment has long been a continuous issue for customer experience practitioners who want to show the value of customer experience to high-level executives. What key checklists should digital leaders in the travel and hospitality business tick before embarking on a project that will generate more much-needed return on investment when we look [at it] from a customer experience perspective?
When you’re talking about stakeholders and C-suite executives and justifying CX improvement projects, it’s been one of our greatest challenges to explain or connect the return on the investment and the investment itself. But I think we’re learning to speak the language the executives understand, which is the dollar sign.
And that takes me to my first point on the checklist: Strategic and executive alignment.
The most important part of my job, or the job of any CX executive, is stakeholder management. Now, you have to have a large stakeholder map that you know. You [need to] understand who your stakeholders are, what you are looking for, and how to work with them. So whether it’s in or proposing an executive boot camp or some strategy sessions or articulating your project strategy, you want to get your stakeholders involved. And make sure you know who your sponsors are, right? You have a sponsor who is in management. He will own the CX project for you and drive it down – that is so important. As a CX person, you’re just the glue that puts the program together.
And the second one is operational readiness. This also applies to technology innovation. And, of course, when it comes to technology innovation, it’s really about customer experience because you’re innovating or you’re implementing technology to improve the experience for the customer. So for operations, you want to look at how ready we are and prepare for it. You get to see opportunities for training, hiring – new hiring. It will show some operational gaps after you’ve done some analysis. How ready are my people? You know, is there a skill competency gap? Is there help? Do we have a change team? Do we have to reorganize the structure of the organization? Do we have new roles coming up?
For example, my role doesn’t exist in many companies in Nigeria, but it’s coming up because they’ve done the analysis and see that they need someone to anchor this. You want to look at how ready you are technology-wise and what applications you’re using. How clean is your data? Have you done the mapping governance and all that, you know, all the fun stuff? Is there an IT skills competency gap, then, of course, project governance planning as well? For me, all this has to be on your radar when you’re embarking on this journey.
Since we have the Global Customer Experience Day approaching – I think it’s on October 5th – I would appreciate it if you could share your most inspiring CX quote. So just for us to have something to remember you, let’s say, to close this podcast,
The quote is not mine. And it’s a very popular quote, the one quote that keeps me centered. It is a quote from Sam Walton. He says that there is only one boss: The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company, from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. That’s the quote. I focus on it on a daily basis. And this has helped me stay focused on the customer.
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