Keep it Simpler

What shouldn't happen with a new hotel system

So you signed-up for a software system to help manage your small hotel. Excited with the idea that your life as a manager would finally be a little easier.

But what was supposed to be easy to use, turned out to be more complex and confusing. Now you've added the work of maintaining the system on top of everything else you need to get done in a day.

Why does this happen?

Let's take a look at the problem of The Sunny Side Resort. This is a fictional account based on a real hotel.

Eric is a bubbly executive in his 60s who retired to run his resort full-time. He loves the hotelier lifestyle. Meeting guests, attending travel conventions, leading service teams. Every day, several customers express their delight at meeting him and his team.

But Eric isn't making a lot of profits. In fact, in some months, they're taking in losses. And they're slow to react as the hotel's reports take a long time to prepare. They have a lot of existing tools, but somehow, things are frustratingly more difficult than it should be.

I met Eric at the breakfast area. I was there to help fix their software system. We sat down in a quiet corner.

"Eric, I don't think you need to switch to a new system right now.", I began. "There is a lot of confusion surrounding the applications. And we risk transferring that confusion to whatever new system we will implement. Everybody needs to be clear first on what the problems are and why they have to resort to so many workarounds."

"Go on", Eric said.

"Amy, for example, uses a separate excel file alongside the PMS (property management system). She uses that spreadsheet to keep track of bookings and duplicate them into the PMS for you.

"This is so silly! I already told her so many times to stop using that secret excel file!" Eric's cheeks flushed as he repeatedly slams his fist on the wooden table.

Little to no staff buy-in from the beginning usually dooms a system.

Asking the actual users to try out the system is the best way to set it up for success.

Ignore this step and you risk staff not fully engaging and reverting to tons of workarounds to do their jobs the way they know how.

Using the new system becomes an exercise in compliance rather than a tool for increased productivity.

Involving the actual users, and not just the management team, helps build a sense of ownership. Making them more invested in the success of the program. This means we can more quickly identify if the system is the right fit, and which parts of the system need to be altered to best match the hotel's needs.

Thru the user's active participation, we'll know if it's better to change the process, or put more emphasis on training. This can even be an opportunity to review and make improvements to the hotel's standard operating procedures.

Fast forward to when the system has already been implemented. If the actual users were involved early on, they would be more constructive when inevitable errors come up.

Instead of sweeping the problem under the rug, and potentially aggravating the situation, active users know that there might be a simple solution waiting. They would feel empowered to find solutions or reach out to the customer support team.

Often, small details can compound into larger complications that then necessitates various workarounds. Before you know it, you end up with a convoluted mess.

No system is perfect, and occasional errors are unavoidable. In some cases, this is even a good sign that the system is continuously being improved. What's important is the engagement on both the users and the software provider to solve issues together.

Early indicators of success

Most systems now offer a free trial. Take advantage of that. This small investment in time would pay off in spades later on.

During the trial, pay attention to indicators that signify a good match. Assuming you are a small hotel, these are, among others:

  • How easy was it to get started? Sign-up for the trial. Ask your front-desk, reception manager, general manager, auditor, accounting, concierge, everyone who would be needing something from the system to do the same. If the system is good, this should take less than 5 minutes. How many steps did it take to get to the first valuable task? How easy was it to set up your rooms, room types, rate plans, etc.?
  • How cluttered is the screen? Anything on the screen that is not essential to performing your task is a distraction. And distraction leads to lower productivity.
  • How many steps to accomplish the 3 most basic tasks For the tool to improve performance, your team must be able to wield it effortlessly. Any friction during these steps would add-up to lost time and lower engagement. The tool should be sitting quietly in the background, never distracting and always ready to spring up when needed.
  • How easy was it to contact customer support? Did you have to fill-out a long form? How long did it take before they responded? Were they quick to throw a templated response to you or did they patiently read thru and respond to your questions? To read more about identifying good customer support from vendors, click here.
  • You need something, but the software doesn't have it. How responsive are they? Do they just say "Sorry, we don't have them" (or even no sorry). Or do they offer a more nuanced reply, indicating the reasons behind it and offering possible alternatives? Think long term, is this a company you would like to grow with in the future? Does it feel like you are integral to their success? Or does it feel like you are just another customer amongst hundreds of thousands?

I asked Amy from reception what's the most time-consuming part of her day. She showed me her browser with what seemed to be an infinite number of tabs open.

"Each tab is a file I need to prepare each day for check-ins, check-outs and housekeeping. It takes me 2-3 hours a day." She said.

"And you can't automatically generate these from the PMS?", I asked.

"I can generate half of it, and then I have to edit it one by one to fit the layout we need. It's faster to just do the report manually."

Next, Amy shows me the old PMS they are using. There was a screen prompt that appeared, which Amy quickly dismissed. She said she doesn't know what that prompt is about, and she just hits close all the time.

The main page was clearly designed for a much larger property. It had 30+ links listing loads of features.

"How often do you click on those links?", I asked.

"Never tried them", she replied.

I pointed to a common feature used daily. "Is this how to amend bookings?"

"Yes, I just do this, and I click here. And then I click this, and this.", Amy said as the screen flicked in rapid succession. "But for repeat guests, I have to do something too."

"Wait.. hey Patty!!", she yelled at the nearby receptionist, "What do I do with repeat guests again?".

If the system needs a lot of upfront training, it usually needs a lot of continuous follow-up too.

For small hotels, the system should be mostly self-explanatory. Users should be able to use the basic functions within 10 minutes of signing up.

If it requires hours of training, it could be a sign that the system is too complex for what you need. Consider the following:

  • If the users can't easily figure out how to do things themselves, they would drag their feet until followed-up on. And you don't want to waste time having to chase people around.
  • What happens when staff goes on extended leaves? If there's only one person who is very familiar with the system, you might end up with inconsistent transactions while they are away. Loose-ends that you would need to clean-up later.
  • What if staff takes a leave, permanently? There go all the hours of training and trial & error. You will have to start over again. Which exacerbates the next point.
  • If users can't easily figure it out, the chances of errors go way up. And these errors can have a direct hit to the bottom line. The more complicated the system is, the more users will forget the right way to use it. Avoid all these headaches by keeping things simple. Try to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for lengthy training. For advanced features, ask yourself: Do we really need those bells & whistles? Remember, you might have to pay for it later in complexity.

The next morning, I was about to have breakfast at the Sunny Side Resort.

I was finishing the plans to transition the resort to the new system. I must have been fully engaged in the laptop for an hour or so. Then the low battery indicator started flashing. I quickly pulled out the charger and tried to look for an outlet nearby.

When I looked up, a smiling attendant was standing beside me.

"Sir, would you like an extension cord?", she asked politely.

"Thank you, but maybe I should just move to another table closer to an outlet?".

"Very well sir, and would you like to have your breakfast now?", she asked as she gently placed a warm cup of lemon water on the table.

I forgot all about the breakfast, again. And I realize this was my pattern for the past several days. Yet there she was the entire time, waiting for the most appropriate moment to inquire about my disposition. Never interrupting, but always ready to help.

Regardless of how everything else is going, for a few brief moments that morning, I felt so cared for, I didn't want to leave. These are the encounters in hospitality that make all the difference.

Every minute these talented people spend figuring out complicated systems is time they could have spent making people feel the way I felt. We need to help change this.

I met Eric shortly, and we got started.

The best systems act like a well-trained hospitality professional

Wouldn't it be great if the system learned to behave like your ideal hotel team member?

Stands quietly in the background, working tirelessly, never interrupting, but always ready to assist. Methodically arranging things so you don't have to spend hours trying to figure out what to do.

The ideal team member excels at 3 things: Knowledge, genuine care and consistency.

Can the system replicate that, or is this going to be a hotel horror story in the making?

For the system, this means:

  • Knowledge. Deep understanding of the needs of small hotels. And appreciation of the challenges and limitations of the situation.
  • Genuine care. Excellent customer support who passionately cares about your success. Treats you like a welcome guest and are honest about what they can and cannot do.
  • Consistency. Performs at their best all the time. Even when problems occur, they are at their best performance, handling the situation with quick action and a good attitude.

In Summary

When signing-up for a new hotel system, set yourself up for success by asking your team to do a thorough trial. Make sure to involve the actual users, not just management. Pay careful attention to where your team is having difficulty and how responsive is customer support.

The best system amplifies your team, not slow them down.

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