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Can customer service cope with travel chaos?

January 13, 2014 Leave a comment

English: A photo of an Alaska Airlines Boeing ...

Recent poor weather on both sides of the Atlantic has caused widespread disruption, with flooding in the UK and subzero temperatures in the US continuing to make the front pages. Many people have been forced to leave their homes or had to live without heating or power.

The weather has also had a major impact on travel, with trains cancelled and flights delayed or re-routed. Back in early December, thick fog caused problems at UK airports, grounding aircraft, while ice has caused travel chaos in the US.

So recent Wall Street Journal research into the performance of US airlines in 2013 is very timely. Based on seven key metrics collected by FlightStats (including delays, cancellations and lost luggage), The Middle Seat scorecard found that the customer experience for US passengers worsened last year, compared to 2012. More flights were delayed by over 45 minutes (up 13%) or cancelled (15% more) and 2% less flights arrived on time. More luggage was lost too, despite carriers operating fewer flights.

Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines ranked top in the survey, with United and American Airlines bringing up the rear. To overcome this United has promised to invest in new technology and increasing training for 43,000 customer facing staff. Some of the issues were down to a ‘normal’ amount of poor weather (in contrast, 2012 had little adverse climactic activity), but others were down to operational problems at airlines.

What’s interesting is that this worsening performance wasn’t actually reflected in an increase in complaints to the US Department of Transport (DOT). The WSJ muses that this could be down to airlines dealing with customer issues better through emailed surveys and an increased focus on service on social media. So customers have their complaints dealt without needing to escalate to the highest level. While this is positive, it treats the symptoms of the problem, rather than curing the root cause.

Obviously many weather-related factors are beyond the control of airlines but what passengers want are the 3Cs of customer service – Communication, Consistency and Care. They want to know what is happening, in real-time, so that they can make plans accordingly. Information needs to be the same, whatever channel they are looking on and they want to feel valued and cared for by staff, who show empathy for their plight.

The current bad weather means that already 2014 promises to be a poor year for US airline performance. This means companies need to redouble their efforts to deliver a superior customer experience that shows that they care and value their passengers – if they want them to fly with them in the future.

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Ryanair and the customer experience

November 1, 2013 2 comments

Boeing 737-800 shortly after takeoff

Poor customer service from airlines is frequently in the press. Take the infamous ‘United breaks guitars’ incident back in 2008 or the more recent case when Hasan Syed, a BA passenger, invested in sponsored tweets to show his anger at his father having his luggage lost. EasyJet also fell foul of the Twittersphere earlier this year when it initially refused to allow a passenger who’d sent a critical tweet onto his plane.

All of these tend to be single incidents where things have gone wrong and the airline concerned hasn’t dealt with the problem satisfactorily. One of the reasons they get so much publicity is that they are out of the ordinary.

In contrast, low cost airline Ryanair has often seemed to set out to deliver a basic customer experience and has consequently become synonymous with unfriendly, inflexible service in many people’s minds. In a recent Which? customer service survey the airline performed the worst out of the UK’s 100 biggest brands, scoring just 54%, well below its peers.

However this looks set to change as the airline has launched a charm offensive, aimed at winning over passengers. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has joined Twitter, appearing in a number of online chats and has pledged to improve the airline’s website, customer service and social media channels. Additionally, a number of unpopular regulations, such as limiting cabin luggage to a single bag, have been removed, and charges for reissuing boarding cards reduced. And things aren’t ending there – it is actively seeking customer feedback (both on social media and via the web) using the #TellMOL campaign.

In his own inimitable style O’Leary commented, “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off. A lot of those customer services elements don’t cost a lot of money.” The announcement followed the company’s first ever profit warning after passenger numbers fell, perhaps focusing management on the importance of customer service.

From a customer service point of view it is positive to see that Ryanair seems keen to change its reputation. And as O’Leary says good customer service doesn’t necessarily cost huge amounts of money, and the loyalty it induces leads to repeat business from happier customers. Forrester research has found that a ten point improvement in a company’s customer experience score can translate into more than $1 billion of additional sales.

So, while the jury is still out on whether the planned modifications will transform the experience for Ryanair passengers, it is good to see that it seems willing to listen to customers and the CEO is not just backing but leading the changes. And at the very least, it has dropped plans to charge passengers for using the inflight toilets…………

UK travel sector demonstrates disconnect between web and email customer service

July 5, 2013 2 comments

The internet has transformed the travel sector, as holidaymakers can now book the separate components of their break online, rather than having to go through high street travel agencies. But in such a competitive market, customer service and fast responses to consumer enquiries across multiple channels are vital if travel companies are going to thrive.

However research carried out as part of the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study indicates that many consumers are suffering from poor service, with a growing disconnect between the email and web channels.

The study found that travel companies could only answer 30% of customer questions emailed to them. In contrast, their websites successfully provided responses to 63% of online enquiries (up from 54% last year).  So, while web-based service in the travel sector is actually above average when compared with other industries, poor email response rates risk frustrating both passengers and holidaymakers.

The research evaluated 10 companies in the travel industry including airlines and package holiday companies as part of a wider study covering 100 companies from a range of sectors including insurance organisations and retailers from fashion, food and electronics. They were tested on their ability to provide answers to 10 routine sector specific questions on their web sites as well as their speed and accuracy when responding to enquiries sent via email, and links to social media.

The Study found that service over email is actually getting worse. Travel companies successfully responded to just 30% of customers’ email questions, compared with 50% a year earlier. And while an accurate email answer was received in 19 minutes from one travel company, it took another company 5 days to respond – not much use if you want information about a last minute break!

Comparing different types of travel company, we found that scheduled airline websites were able to successfully answer 66% of customer questions, performing slightly better that package operators (60%).  These findings actually show a dramatic improvement from operators to narrow the gap – in the previous study the gap was 20%.

There was also positive news related to social media, with 80% of the travel businesses in the study providing links to Twitter and Facebook and 40% offering their own forums. However none of them linked customer service to social media, showing that this is an area for improvement.

You can see the full results in our infographic displayed below.

In an era of ever widening consumer choice, travel companies need to deliver fast, efficient and consistent customer service across multiple channels if they are to win and retain business. But as the Eptica Multichannel Customer Service Study shows, there’s a growing disconnect between response rates on email and the web that could affect the overall customer experience.

Eptica_TravelInfographic

 

How mobile is changing the travel customer experience

May 15, 2013 2 comments

The web has dramatically changed the travel industry, enabling customers to easily research and book the separate components of their break, rather than visiting high street travel agents. Organisations have had to adapt as consumers increasingly look for tailored holidays rather than ‘one size fits all’ packages.

English: Keykubat Beach in Alanya.

But the impact of technology hasn’t stopped. The rise of mobile and social media channels have made it simple for customers to give immediate, visible feedback on every aspect of their holiday – from the flight and accommodation to the restaurants they eat in and the tourist sites they visit.

Online review sites, such as TripAdvisor, are now the first port of call for many researching their break. And recent TripBarometer research from the company illustrates the importance of delivering an excellent customer experience across the travel and leisure industry:

  • 93% of worldwide travellers say online reviews have an impact on their booking decisions
  • 95% of UK properties say reviews are important for booking
  • Over half (51%) of travellers worldwide have written a review of accommodation after a trip
  • 82% of UK properties invite guests to submit reviews, and 70% respond to negative online reviews
  • 79% of UK properties actively monitor social media

TripAdvisor is obviously not a new site, but mobile is making it much easier for travellers to provide immediate feedback – rather than having to wait until they return home and access the internet via their PC. The TripBarometer study found that 47% of UK travellers browse the web using mobile devices during their break, and 34% post updates on social networks.

So travel companies are under unprecedented scrutiny. So how can they deliver a consistent, high quality experience that meets the needs of an ever-more demanding customer base? Based on Eptica’s experience working with travel companies including AirAsia and TUI, here are five key areas to focus on:

1          Embrace social media
Monitoring social media for mentions of your company, hotel or airline and responding quickly is vital. But ensure it is integrated with your overall customer service strategy, rather than forming a separate silo or team. This means that customers receive a consistent experience, however they decide to contact you.

2          Make it mobile
The rise of smartphones and tablets mean that travellers now want to contact you through mobile devices. Make sure your website is mobile optimised, and decide whether you need to create mobile apps for customer service. When leading low cost airline AirAsia introduced its own mobile customer service app, it quickly generated 2 million downloads, making it the No 1 selling app in the iPhone App store for Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. As the app shares the same Eptica knowledgebase as the rest of AirAsia’s channels, customers benefit from immediate, consistent answers, in the palm of their hand.

3          Let customers help themselves
Customers researching their holiday online have potentially limitless choice and want as much information as possible to help make their decision. Rather than forcing them to break the customer journey by calling or emailing to find out more, provide web self-service systems that allow customers to find answers online to common questions. This reduces the strain on your contact centre, allowing agents to focus their efforts on more complex enquiries.

4          Join up your channels
Customers hate having to repeat themselves, so ensure that you share customer information across channels. Practically this could be as simple as letting hotel front desk staff know about a customer issue raised on social media about their property, meaning they can solve the problem face to face without it needing escalation.

5          Incentivise good service
Service is at the heart of a good travel experience. Incentivise and congratulate staff who receive good online reviews. While it seems obvious, TripAdvisor found that only 38% of UK properties rewarded staff for positive reviews.

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