Even prior to COVID-19, the travel experience has always had it stress points, commonly referred to as ‘friction.’ Friction occurs anytime a customer is frustrated, uncomfortable, confused, angry, impatient, or simply has to expend much more effort than they expected.
If you have ever experienced long amounts of time waiting on the phone to speak to a customer service representative, only to be told after finally reaching a live person that the person for whom you waited cannot help you and will now transfer your call, you certainly can relate to the concept of friction.
While travel is seen by many as an enjoyable experience, the industry has spent years trying to reduce travel friction–from sleeping in a strange bed, coping with crowds and long lines, being unfamiliar with how to get around the area in which you are visiting, dealing with traffic congestion and other infrastructure issues, adapting to language and cultural differences, or simply managing the close physical proximity with your family and/or traveling companions.
The focus of most travel-related companies involves applying creative innovations to lower the less enjoyable aspects of travel, leaving travelers to immerse themselves in more enjoyable experiences. Innovative technology has been employed across the spectrum of the travel industry to lessen friction and allow travelers to be able to concentrate on enjoying themselves more.
The Role of Technology in Reducing Friction
Technology has been the primary change agent for reducing friction. However, it is moving at such a high rate of advancement, that even seasoned travel tech pros aren’t sure which innovations will be most valued by their customers. Innovative hotel brands have tried things like in-room voice technology, robot butlers, virtual property tours, automatic floor lighting, self-service check-in kiosks, and of course, keyless room entry where travelers can use their smartphones to check into their rooms, bypassing the front desk.
The ‘frictionless’ travel experience will continue to be a priority as travel services will use technology to make all processes easy and efficient, most often utilizing the push of a button on the smart phone. Uber and Lyft have been pioneers in this regard, but other travel related companies are already working diligently to catch up. Travel booking sites will continue to be simplified to one-click booking like Amazon while filter tools will allow travelers to find the exact experience they are seeking based on preferences, profiles, and applications of artificial intelligence.
On the human side, expect traditional travel agents to continue their comeback, particularly with younger travelers who like the ease of having their experiences planned out so that all they must do is show up and enjoy them.
‘Smart luggage,’ which is designed and programmed to follow its owner like a well-trained dog, will help ease the burden of carrying heavy bags. Instant translators will eliminate the language barriers in international travel. Smart cities will continue to grow in prominence where traffic lights will be programming to adapt to the ebb and flow of traffic patterns to make travel infrastructure easier. These and more technology innovations will continue to reduce any friction associated with travel and allow people to more fully realize the benefits.
In some cases, too much technological advancement can be a source of friction itself, as it may require a bit of getting used to. For example, Alexa for Hotels, the in-room voice technology has caused some guests to feel their privacy has been invaded, prompting them to request another room. Some hotels offer in-room iPads that allow guests to control the lights, draperies and temperatures. This technology can often be so confusing, it is tempting for guests to sleep with the lights on.
However, it is likely that, in time, these technologies will become so common, and perfected to the point where today’s concerns will be alleviated, so that guests will completely embrace this technology.
Balancing the Need to Feel Safe with Creating Friction
An area that creates a great deal of traveler friction is the security experience. Some destinations continue to struggle with the ‘fear of strangers. As terrorism and suspicion of people engaging in nefarious activities continues to grow, destinations will continue to be challenged with profiling and finding the right balance between opening for tourism business while retaining secure borders.
Much of the passport control process has already been streamlined and automated in many cities and is now available via mobile app in the United States and Canada. Expect continued advancement in facial recognition and other screening techniques to make the security process less frustrating and time consuming.
With COVID-19 changing the world, and exacerbating travel fears, it may be that guests will experience greater friction for a while, and for now, it seems as if it will be a willing tradeoff. A recent Magid study showed that 46% supported guest temperature checks upon hotel check-in. The idea of spreading out guests at hotel check-in, airline boarding, or TSA checkpoints so that everyone is at least six feet apart is also a potential friction creator. Yet, for now, safety concerns look to trump convenience and efficiency.
Interaction-less Guest Experiences
There are those that already see dealing with people as a source of friction. Airline passengers and rental car customers typically look for ways to bypass human interaction whenever possible. While the nature of hospitality is embodied in the way the hotel staff interacts with guests, COVID-19 may accelerate the drive to eliminate any interaction with staff or other guests. In the same Magid study, almost half (48%) indicated a desire to eliminate human interactions from their hotel stays. This is going to pose a challenge for the hotel industry as it seeks to find new ways to make meaningful guest connections that are not face-to-face. People usually do not form bonds with buildings but rather through the positive service interactions they receive while visiting hotels.
Given the desire by many to avoid human interaction, it will be particularly interesting to see how this impacts the service recovery process. When there are problems with the guest room, engineers are typically called to the room to conduct the repairs. However, there are other problem types that require human intervention. While guest concerns always affect guest satisfaction, you can expect that the current climate will elevate the amount of friction when problems occur, particularly if it raises the level of contact guests have with staff.
Removing Friction During a Particularly Stressful Travel Era
Given the current health crisis, hotels can expect many of the practices they have undertaken to be turned on their heads. For example, many hotels have adopted a practice where they do not wash towels and linens every day to become ‘greener’. Not so in this new era, where it may require everything to be washed every day and that special precautions are taken to clean bedspreads. Smells of strong cleaning agents and disinfectants, which were once considered offensive to many, will now be seen as reassuring.
To the extent, hotels go the extra mile to assure guests of the sanitary precautions being taken, overall friction will be reduced, although perhaps heightened in some ways that guests may gladly trade off.
There are some key considerations to reducing friction which include:
1. Use guest feedback to identify particular pain points
Pain points for hotels have typically been rigid policies, long waits, inaccurate information, or unhelpful staff. While these areas continue to rank high on the ‘pain index’, COVID-19 has caused new pain points around crowding and cleanliness. Understanding which things have shifted as priority guest concerns is the first step to reducing friction.
2. Clearly communicate
Whether it involves your hotel website, phone interactions with reservation agents, or at the hotel, do all you can to make sure guests do not have ‘negative surprises’ during their experience with you. Answering questions before they are asked is always a good practice, perhaps using a Frequently Asked Questions section on your website. A very large percentage of the friction in guest experiences is due to miscommunication or faulty assumptions.
3. Prioritize tradeoffs
In the hospitality sector there are often tradeoffs that create friction. Prioritizing safety over courtesy or efficiency is perhaps the biggest friction creator, and yet keeping people safe is the ultimate priority right now. This goes back to the importance of communication. When you have to delay, frustrate, or inconvenience people, it is important to make sure people understand the reasons, assuming they are legitimate and not the product of poor planning or staffing. There are times when courtesy is more important than efficiency, and vice versa. Make sure you understand how trading one off for the other contributes to guest friction and determine which is more important.
4. Empower people
A major source of friction is encountering employees who are not able to resolve your concern on the first contact. Being transferred, having to wait for someone’s approval, being put on hold, or having someone simply tell you that ‘it’s not my area of responsibility’ is a major source of friction. The more employees are able to resolve issues on the first contact, the better the experience. Also, in situations where a guest encounters an employee, train all employees with the mindset that they are primarily in the customer service business, regardless of their formal job description. The attitude of ‘if you see it, own it’ is a major contributor to reducing guest friction.
While many find the travel experience enjoyable, especially leisure travelers, it has its stressful elements. The more hotel companies and other travel partners can reduce friction for their customers, the more these guests can relax and enjoy the experience for which they paid. It may be in these days of COVID-19, the friction will actually increase due to health considerations, but effective planning, use of helpful technology, and strong communication skills will alleviate friction as much as possible.