COVID-19 causing major backlash against travel sector service teams


New data from Chattermill reveals that service staff in the travel sector are bearing the brunt of customer frustration.

19th Mar 2020

One of the most publicised sectors to first feel the full shock of the coronavirus’s effect on the economy has been the travel industry, with airlines downed, cruise ships quarantined and almost all global tourism essentially brought to a shuddering halt as of this week.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is "the greatest threat the UK's travel sector has ever faced", according to a recent quote from a prominent UK aviation boss.  

Customer service staff in travel companies are bearing the brunt of the sector’s turmoil. Los Angeles Times journalist Elliott Hester described customer service agents as a “punching bag for airline passengers”. And that was in November 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, new research from Chattermill highlights the huge negative backlash towards customer service and support teams, from consumers. Analysing sentiment data from 15 leading travel brands, it found an enormous and sudden decline in customer care sentiment related to the sector.   

According to the report’s analysis team, “an influx of concerned customers looking to cancel, reschedule and request refunds on upcoming trips in the next few months are being met with misinformation, long delays reaching customer care agents and difficulty finding appropriate contact channels.”

Customer service teams are feeling the full force of a consumer backlash, with the analysis finding massive declines in sentiment related to customer care and booking experiences among the brands analysed.  

Travel sentiment
Source: Chattermill 

Within customer care, there are a number of facets driving the decline in sentiment. Lack of response, resolution to problems and quality of service have all been cited heavily as reason for consumer fury towards those on the frontline in the sector.

Travel sentiment 2
Source: Chattermill 

According to Chattermill’s research, “customer data suggests it’s difficult for customer to find contact numbers and email addresses online. Phone lines are backed up causing huge delays in responsiveness.

“Customer do not like to be directed to chatbots and prefer to talk to customer agents as COVID-19 related issues often require immediate action.”

This issue is where the real strain on customer service reps is focused most heavily. As Tiffany Apczynski, a vice president at Zendesk, explains in a recent article in The Atlantic,  “when problems get complicated enough to push people away from companies’ websites or apps and onto the phone, things get really bad for those answering calls.

“That customer is at a point where they’re pretty angry. They tried the other tools that don’t require them to pick up the phone, and this time they have to, so the problem has gotten really intense. It takes a toll on agents.”

Support needed for support teams

Far from a reason to put the boot into customer service teams when they’re struggling under the weight of the situation, the Chattermill data is aimed to be a rallying cry for those not working on the frontline to get information in place to start supporting support teams properly. It highlights three immediate requirements for digital teams working on self-service options for customers:

  • Double down on customer service without increasing costs: “Think of ways to improve customer care experience without increasing costs. For example; providing dedicated COVID-19 help/contact pages and information. And automation of information (i.e which countries are no longer accessible, which flights are cancelled) via app notifications and emails.”
  • Clarify customer compensation: “Have a clear COVID-19 compensation policy in place. This should include how to claim, what the terms are, the time frame for cancellations and how long refund payments will take to process. This will help ease the strain on customer services.”
  • Aim to remain competitive: “Continue to remain price competitive in markets that are safe for customers to travel to. Encourage booking modification by making it easy and inexpensive.”

Hannah Steiman, chief operating officer for Peak Support, wrote in a recent blog for MyCustomer that brands should consider outsourcing parts of their service function as quickly as they can, in order to ease the pressure on in-house staff; even if this appears counterintuitive whilst financial income is so uncertain.

“If you’ve been thinking about expanding your team, you may want to do it now, to give you a buffer... If all your team members are currently in one physical location, you may want to add staff in a new location to further reduce your risk.

“Customer service outsourcing is one way to do this quickly.”

Employee mental wellbeing is also of paramount concern.

As Neil Davey explains in a recent MyCustomer article: “In terms of staff welfare, [customer service leaders] should work with your organisation’s HR team to communicate accurate and up-to-date information on how they’re protecting workers’ mental health during this crisis, as well as preventive measures, travel, remote working and quarantine.”


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