Coca-Cola has its secret formula. There's Colonel Sander's secret recipe at KFC. Now, Choice Hotels International has its own "Magic Formula" for call center success.
Last month, the company took home a Training magazine Top 125 Best Practice Award for its sales training program, which goes beyond recording guest orders to understanding and responding to their needs.
Training recently spoke with Christopher Yellen, the company’s VP of associate development and quality assurance, about the program, its impact, and his tips for success.
Training: Why did you launch a new call center program? What were the drivers?
Yellen: Our customers' booking habits were changing. Before the Internet took off, calling into our contact center was the only way customers could book with us. As booking on the Internet became more prevalent, call volume declined significantly. About two years ago, Internet bookings actually outpaced bookings made through our voice channel.
The Internet essentially changed the equation. Suddenly, guests calling into our contact center were armed with more information and tended to spend more time researching various hotel amenities and rates before making a booking decision. It quickly became apparent to us that we needed to stop being order takers and begin building relationships with the guests who call us. To do that, and to convert as many calls into bookings as possible, we needed to arm reps with the tools necessary to establish rapport with guests and tailor their conversations to guest needs.
Training: What did you do to achieve that?
Yellen: In 2004, management partnered with Signature Worldwide to create our "Magic Formula." The Magic Formula is a sequence of about 20 steps that guides reps through each call. The Formula isn't scripted. The goal is to empower reps to focus on relationship building—not to dictate exactly what they should say.
We then embedded elements of the Magic Formula into our new-hire training. Everyone else was introduced to the Formula through a mandatory half-day course.
After we introduced the Formula, we continued to provide recurrent training two times per year for every rep. The training focuses on building on what we have already established by introducing new elements of the Formula, expanding upon existing ones, or focusing on areas identified as weaknesses.
The team also redeveloped the call monitoring process by changing the focus to improving interactions between sales reps and customers. Mystery shoppers from Signature Worldwide now call our reservation contact center at random, on a regular basis. These calls are posted online so that reps and their supervisors can access them for coaching and feedback. We also do internal monitoring; our supervisors monitor and score calls for each rep at least two times per month, then follow up with one-on-one coaching.
Training: What are the results of the program thus far?
Yellen: Choice began this process in 2004. By fall 2007, our central reservation system had handled six $10 million days and two $11 million days of gross revenue. The training improvements also resulted in a conversion increase from 36 percent to 43.8 percent in the last four years. This conversion brought an incremental $5.6 million in revenue through our reservations centers in 2007.
Training: If you could point to one or two Magic Formula elements that have made the biggest difference, what would they be?
Yellen: There are two elements of the Formula that I think are primarily responsible for driving our conversion rate.
First, whenever a guest calls in, we ask the reason for travel. Understanding why a guest is traveling helps us to customize the conversation. Even if we are talking about the same hotel, what we present to a particular guest can be personalized to a particular travel opportunity. For a guest who is going on a family vacation, for example, we are likely to highlight hotel amenities such as large rooms with sofas and refrigerators and an indoor pool. If we are speaking to a guest who is traveling on business, we are more likely to highlight amenities such as high-speed Internet access and an on-site business center.
Second, we always ask for the sale. After we present our rates and amenities, we ask if we can confirm the booking. How we react to the answer we receive is very important. If we encounter resistance—perhaps because a guest wants to do more research, check with his or her spouse, or simply thinks a rate is too high—we create a fallback opportunity. We don't just give up. We ask what is stopping the guest from booking. We ask what other information we can provide today that would help the guest to make a decision. And we provide our reps with fallback tools to address any resistance they might encounter.
Training: What tips can you offer to others interested in designing a similar program?
- Integrate. If we had introduced a new dialogue technique and left it at that, we would not have achieved the level of return that we have. A big key to our success was the fact that we integrated the Magic Formula into everything we do—from how we refer to our reps (They used to be called reservations agents. They are now called reservations sales representatives.) all the way through to how we monitor calls, coach and train, and even compensate and incent our reps on an ongoing basis. We essentially re-engineered our call center positions.
- Coach the coaches. We have spent a significant amount of time coaching our supervisors on how to coach, and we continue to look for ways to make the coaching we offer more robust and effective. One upgrade we'll make this year, for example, is to move from a manual call-monitoring process to an electronic process. Doing so will allow our supervisors to provide more coaching to reps and record more calls. During the first quarter, we’ll also provide our supervisors with additional training on how to coach. The goal is to help them better understand their associates' individual personalities, then use that knowledge to tailor their coaching accordingly.
Choice Hotels International is a global lodging franchisor headquartered in Silver Spring, Md. Its brands include Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn. In 2008, it placed 102nd on Training magazine's Top 125 list, an annual ranking of organizations that excel at human capital development.