Don’t lose customers before they even arrive, especially now – Rupert Macfarlane

About Rupert Macfarlane

Rupert is the MD of The Advanced Sales Network, a member of our Professionals network. The Advanced Sales Network (TASN) provides a range of sales solutions to businesses in the hospitality industry, designed to transform prebooked sales performance. Take a look at their Professionals page here.
 

Enquiry Handling through Lockdown

There was much excitement in the lead up to the return of hospitality, on 4th July, as many bars, restaurants and pubs re-opened their doors for the first time in over 100 days.  Throughout the lockdown, there’s been some truly excellent examples of businesses transforming themselves, becoming online shopping destinations, creating click and collect takeaway services and implementing delivery models, to diversify their offering and continue some level of trade throughout the closures.  Of course, there’s also been a huge amount of planning for re-opening during lockdown, with changes to layouts, ordering processes and menus and many have taken the chance to carry out a host of maintenance work as well.

One area where there’s been little movement, and that still provides a huge opportunity for sales growth in most companies, is in the ‘enquiry-handling’ process.  The sales department for most businesses was one of those most likely to have been furloughed, with any enquiries that came through, either backing-up or being dealt with by those left still working, and not normally accustomed to doing so!  So, if anything, enquiry-handling actually went backwards during lockdown and on the immediate exit from it.  The issue was further exacerbated by the extremely short notice given by the government, in terms of announcing when hospitality would re-open.  This then led to a ‘concertina’ effect of pent-up demand, which overwhelmed businesses as they unfurloughed sales staff, who were immediately faced with a barrage of hungry and thirsty customers, all wanting to return for that very first weekend!

Post-Lockdown Opportunity

As ‘pre-booking’ will become more and more important as businesses seek to manage capacities, avoid queues and trade over a longer period of the day (and hopefully an expanded trading week), attention to enquiry-handling should become a key focus for hospitality operators.  As part of our services at The Advanced Sales Network, we provide ‘mystery enquiry’ and ‘mystery caller’ analysis.  However, we also do this a matter of course, as part of our own research, especially when meeting with new prospective clients or when pitching new business proposals.  It’s the clearest way to understand the strength, or weakness, of a company’s sales operation, before actually working within that organisation.  The upshot of this research is illuminating.  In the fortnight leading up to re-opening, many businesses had not updated their enquiry management system to reflect changed capacities or even opening dates.  This meant that enquiries could still be entered for dates before the specific site was due to open, and also to enter party sizes that were no longer possible.  Some businesses took the option to close down enquiry-making altogether, as a ‘safer’ option.  But this practice has denied customers from making enquiries for well into the future, even for Christmas or for 2021, when clearly businesses would be back open, however long the government pontificated for.

Most owners (or senior management) of a pub, bar or restaurant group, ‘mystery shop’ their sites, testing the temperature of the beer, the tenderness of the steak, the attentiveness of the staff.  It’s an enjoyable thing to do, so why wouldn’t you!  But very few actually test the quality of the enquiry-handling process i.e. the first point of interaction between a potential customer and their business.  So, they miss out on realising that many of their prospective customers have been ‘turned away’ at this early stage, because of a lack of information or misinformation about availability and options to book. Those customers won’t even get to experience the most tender steak and perfectly chilled beer all served by the most courteous of staff.

Improving enquiry-handling is the single-most effective way of increasing pre-booked sales.  And it’s easy to do. Often, we are asked to improve ‘pro-active’ sales for a business.  We then feel obliged to show them the extent of their missed sales from the ‘reactive’ channel, i.e. those customers that already WANT to book with them, that are making enquiries, but that don’t convert to a sale.  It’s far easier to convert those who already have an interest in your business, than try to sell to those that don’t have any connection. 

There’s many reasons for low ‘enquiry to booking’ conversion rates…. slow response times; unprofessional and impersonal replies; lack of ‘chase’ after the first response to check progress; the constant malaise of only wanting to communicate via email, as opposed to phoning the prospective customer to simply say “we are so delighted you’ve chosen to have your 30th birthday party with us”……  And all of these things are very easy to either correct or implement from scratch, but does involve committing whole-heartedly to these standards, then tracking the sales growth that will inevitably follow, to prove their worth.

So, our analysis of the reactive channel, usually leads to an interrogation of ‘enquiry to booking’ conversion rates.  This can then be compared to an industry standard or average, to assess how a company fares, versus its competitive set.  But, often, most interesting is the range of conversion rates even within the same business.  Hence the questions of why  the London Bridge site converts at 40%, whilst Soho converts at 25%; or why Janice converts at 48% and Mike at 30%; or why birthdays convert at 50%, but corporate events at 20%…. are often those that cause the most debate.  And, of course, raising the level of each site, each sales person, each product type up to the best performing example, has a huge impact on both pre-booked and top line sales.

Five Quick Tips

In summary, improving the conversion rate of enquiries into bookings, is still low-hanging fruit, for most businesses, and a goldmine for increased sales.  A simple five-point starting position, is outlined below:-

  • Have a high-quality enquiry management system in place, that clearly shows what can, and cannot, be booked online.  For those parties that cannot be ‘auto-confirmed’, have an obvious default enquiry process e.g. separate enquiry widget, email address or phone number, immediately visible.
  • Don’t rely on the enquiry management system to do the work for you – employ great sales people to make the best use of this.  Mandate a response time from the sales team for each type of enquiry and ensure this is adhered to.  But it’s not just speed, but professionalism and personalisation, that will win the day.   
  • Make sure the sales team are persistent and continue to chase the best enquiries.  Lack of response in the first two days, does not mean the enquiry has been lost – the customer may simply be perusing a range of offers and soliciting advice from the rest of the party. 
  • Avoid providing a list of all possible options for a particular party, or sending a whole brochure of food and drink packages; the customer actually desires a tailored solution that’s personalised and specific, which shows you’ve really understood their requirements.
  • After the initial email contact, phone as many enquiries as you can to prove how much you want their business and to explain how extra-special you can make their event.  This is not a one-off party, it’s the start of a long-term relationship with that customer!

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