At a time when one would think employees within the tourism industry would be doing all they can to bolster tourism in Costa Rica, a recent study by CANATUR, the National Tourism Chamber, revealed glaring deficiencies in customer service.
Using a technique known as the “mystery customer,” CANATUR sent e-mails to 281 companies, pretending to be customers interested in making reservations. The e-mail was sent to 150 hotels, 27 car rental agencies and 104 tour operators. The e-mails were tailored to each sector.
Four days (96 hours) after sending the initial e-mails, CANATUR ended the study.
Of the 281 e-mails sent, only 171 companies had responded during the time allowed, for a 63% response rate. In a year during which CANATUR estimates that tourism rates fell approximately 12 percent in the first quarter, the poor response rate has caused concern within the tourism community.
“It’s obvious that when a business doesn’t respond, it is going to lose reservations,” said Henry Murillo, sub-director at CANATUR.
“Each business has the liberty to do business the way it prefers. However, if businesses aren’t responding to potential customers, it will be difficult for them to be successful.”
From the results obtained, it was found that the rental car sector had the highest response rate, with 81.5 percent of e-mail inquiries receiving responses. The response rate for hotels was 64.7 percent and for tour operators 55.8 percent.
Although the results indicate a relatively low response rate, some of the leaders in the tourism and travel industries offered explanations for the alleged deficiencies in customer service.
“I think there are two reasons why the response rate is so poor,” said Wilfrid Aiello, general manager of Horizontes Nature Tours.
“The first thing is that technology is still something of a new idea for many Costa Ricans. Some of the smaller travel locations don’t know how the Internet works and are scared of it. The other thing is that some companies just take their time in responding. They might get to it today, or tomorrow, or the next day. A lot of this also depends on the size of the organization.”
That Internet inexperience is perhaps a hindrance on response rate is plausible, as according to the International Telecommunication Union, only 36 percent of Costa Ricans used the Internet in 2008.
While many of the Web sites for hotels, tour operators and car rental agencies may offer e-mail addresses, this does not necessarily mean they are monitored.
“We get e-mails from people all the time who have tried to get reservations elsewhere and have not heard responses,” said Michael Kaye, founder of Costa Rica Expeditions.
“Some say they have sent e-mails to a place two and three times. Most (places) do not seem to have a response policy in place.”
At Costa Rica Expeditions, one of the leaders in Costa Rican tour reservations, seven trip planners are responsible for returning e-mail inquiries from potential vacationers within an eight-hour period, Kaye said.
“We did an internal study … and found that, if we responded within eight hours, there was a 25 percent increase in sale conversion,” he said.
Aiello said that Horizontes responds to inquiries within 24 hours, adding that efficient customer service is the foundation for success.
Although it seems that attention to e-mail inquiries varies according to the individual businesses, failure to respond does impact the tourist industry as a whole.
“We are a country that relies on tourism,” said Aiello. “I don’t know what is going on with some of those other businesses but, when they don’t respond, it’s bad for all tourism in Costa Rica.”