Virtual Agents Can Improve the Travel Experience

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What would you say if I told you that getting travelers from point A to point B is no longer an airline’s primary function? Hard to believe, right?

Well it’s true. In our on-demand society consumers are adapting their travel experience (both business and personal) to fit their “plugged-in” way of life, starting with the booking process. Think about it, can you remember the last time you didn’t use the internet to find and book a flight? With travel now on the rise, airlines are improving customer experience within the channels that their customers are already flocking to—the website. According to the Global Business Travel Spending Outlook 2011-2015 study released by the GBTA Foundation, global spending on business travel is projected to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2011. With that much money at stake that means that airlines need to adapt their thinking to match that of their customers and potential customers (if they haven’t already). By staying competitive in the online battle for fliers, airlines will better ensure they get a portion of those revenues.



Improving the online customer experience

The truth is the shift from travel to web service provider in the airline industry happened several years ago. An airline’s website has become a consumer’s first interaction with the travel provider, and in many cases can make or break a ticket sale, which makes operating and maintaining the website an airline’s top priority. Without being able to win customers’ booking online, airlines would be out of business before the next fuel crisis.

According to It’s Time to Give Virtual Agents Another Look” from Forrester Research, 72% of consumers prefer to interact with a company’s website versus a live agent over the phone, making the push to improve site navigation and response time to customer inquiries an urgent need.

The best way to ensure customers stay on the website (and ideally book a flight) is to provide the information they want—how (online) and when they want it (now). In the same report, Forrester Research also stated that 57% of the time customers will abandon their online interaction if they can’t find what they’re looking for—opening up an airline to lost revenue.

Airlines, like many other industries, are turning to online customer engagement methods such as intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) to make sure customers find what they are looking for and as a result improve the online customer experience and revenue generation. IVAs represent the best of both worlds;mdash;the attributes of the best and most experienced customer service representatives with the speed of automated search tools. Unlike customer service representatives that man a call center or act as “live chat” agents on a website, IVAs are scalable. And, the capability to field multiple conversations at once frees up live representatives to handle more complex inquiries – a more efficient, cost-saving use of resources.

IVAs are equipped with in depth knowledge of the company and products and services available to customers. They can answer customer inquiries by helping customers navigate the website or, when needed, seamlessly pass the conversation on to a human counterpart via live chat—with a history of the interaction so the customer won’t need to repeat himself. IVAs stand out from tools such as search bars or FAQs because they allow for a conversation, and therefore a better resolution. More advanced IVAs interact with dynamic data, such as flight schedules and seat reservations—allowing customers to perform booking modifications such as via online self-service—removing an expensive burden from your contact centers.



Top-of-the-line assistance, 24/7

Many airlines and travel sites, including Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines, are already employing the technology. And, in 2012 United Airlines and Expedia will launch their own IVAs.

In fact, “Alex,” the resident virtual assistant at Continental.com, addresses approximately 25,000 questions per day. During the 2009 Icelandic volcano eruption which grounded nearly every airline, Alex met a 57% increase in user demand and answered as many as 106,000 questions in a single day. It is next to impossible to scale a contact center to meet the demands of irregular operations without giving up time, money and quality. Alex scaled to meet the demands instantly, with no additional cost, while providing top-notch service.

Travelers and airlines are reaping the rewards of improved online service. Customers are getting their questions answered in a more accurate, timely fashion. They don’t need to deal with the frustrations of long phone queues or agents that aren’t equipped with the information needed to answer their question. Best of all, help is available 24/7. According to Avaya research quick query resolution is the top reason consumers will rate a customer experience as excellent—something that is very attractive to companies trying to expand their loyal customer base.

It also benefits airlines financially to keep customer interactions to one channel. According to the Customer Contact Council, every time a customer picks up the phone to call a live representative it costs the company approximately $6 and increases the chances of losing the sale. That’s a risk no airline should be willing to take.



Customers are growing accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it. And the travel industry is no exception. To keep pace with customer demands and to remain relevant airlines need to focus their efforts on the entire customer experience, starting online. Otherwise, they’ll learn the hard way what it means to lose a customer to a competitor.

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