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Airline customer service reaches new heights

16th Jan 2018
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“Our business has to move at the pace of customer expectations. If your businesses can’t keep up… you will perish.”

These were the words of Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates, at the Aviation Festival Europe this September.

With the risk of passport details entered incorrectly, the adverse weather conditions we’ve seen over recent months, traffic-filled journeys to the airport and flights booked for the wrong days, planning a flight can be stressful enough to detract from the entire holiday experience for some customers. In fact, some 76% of Brits felt stressed when booking a holiday, according to research from Expedia.

So how can airlines adapt to put themselves ahead of the competition and simplify the planning process to meet rising consumer demands? Time and again at the Aviation Festival, the same solution was proposed by industry leaders - digital transformation. But this catch-all suggestion is no longer enough to satisfy the modern customer; it’s time for airlines to concretely integrate disruptive technologies into everyday operations, adapt to changing consumer habits, and elevate customer experience in every arena.

Technology takeoff

In the fourth industrial revolution, we’re starting to see significant improvements at the airport itself. New biometric technologies reducing queues, e-Passports and IoT-enabled functionalities (such as access restrictions) work to tangibly improve public security and customer experience, driving exciting change across the industry.

However, some of the most transformative tech innovations within the airport take place far before customers arrive at the gate. One such example is LivePerson’s recent partnership with Hawaiian Airlines. This industry-leading messaging initiative enables passengers to connect quickly and easily with the airline via two-way SMS texts, rather than wasting time on hold to industry-standard 0800 numbers or distant call centres. Customer adoption has been huge. Queries such as “how much do checked bags cost?” and “how can I change my flight?” can be quickly and conveniently resolved, saving hours of stress and frustration in the holiday-planning process.

It takes two: applying messaging intelligently

Brands communicating with customers via SMS is not unprecedented; we’ve seen an increasing trend in other industries of businesses texting their customers; confirming order despatch or delivery slot, for example.

However, historically this kind of communication is applied in one direction, primarily as a marketing or information tool;  the company sends a message, and the customer has no capability to reply.

With two-way messaging, both the customer and the company are able to track the whole history of the conversation in a single thread, rather than a customer repeating their predicament to various customer service agents as they are passed around and put on hold. It also enables customers to chat with airlines on the go; in those frantic journeys to the airport, they can easily ask whether flights are delayed and which gate they depart from - providing a much-needed low-stress option!

Using AI to disrupt the airspace

As well as boosting customer satisfaction, the benefits of messaging for business operations are considerable. Messaging reduces agent attrition and doubles agent productivity while cutting costs in half.

The success of these SMS communications, moving away from traditional voice calls, shows real customer appetite for different platforms of communication when interacting with businesses. We’ve already seen Facebook adapting their messenger service for brands, and Twitter has become a major port of call for those seeking customer service over recent years. Forward-thinking businesses are realising that modern, busy customers want immediate responses and real-time service, whenever and wherever they are.

Every industry stands to benefit. We are already seeing prolific tech-enabled AI customer service messaging initiatives such as RBS Assist in the banking sector, where bots are integrated into customer service teams to reduce wait times and streamline operations.

This hybrid approach to the adoption of AI - where humans and chatbots work in harmony - has already proven itself to be extremely effective. It allows the simple questions to be answered by bots, freeing up customer service agents to engage with the more complex queries.

Communicate at leisure

By adopting this approach to customer service, customers are provided with a channel to communicate with brands efficiently, and at their own leisure. Bots are able to pick up conversations when they are requested, and respond to questions around the clock.

Tracey Behler, senior director of online experience at Hawaiian, notes: "It's very popular because there's no learning curve. In fact, as soon as guests saw the option, they embraced messaging. The number of conversations occurring through messaging exceeded our original projections since we implemented it in May, and our customer satisfaction with messaging has been higher than with voice, while our agents are simultaneously more efficient”.

By adopting this customer-centric approach, organisations are able to differentiate themselves from the competition to ensure ongoing customer loyalty. After all, the airlines industry has historically led the way in loyalty programmes over the years; American Airlines launched AAdvantage, the first airline mileage programme, back in 1981. The winning combination of marketable, aspirational destinations and excellent ROI (awarding or subsidising unsold seats really costs the airline almost nothing) established the travel industry as a hotbed of loyalty schemes.

To maintain this reputation at the head of the customer experience curve, it’s essential that the airline industry continues to anticipate consumer needs. In the modern digital era, this will always be judged by the simplicity of the customer journey and the adoption of new, disruptive technology.

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