Is Frontier Airlines right to close its call centres?by
Customers of Frontier Airlines are no longer able to speak to a support agent on the phone, following its transition to purely digital service.
Customers of budget flight firm Frontier Airlines are no longer able to speak to a support agent on the phone, following its transition away from call centres to purely digital service.
Customers wanting to make changes to their arrangements, or get flight information, certainly have no shortage of alternative channels - Frontier offers support via an app, 24/7 live chat, email, text, social media and WhatsApp. But will customers miss the opportunity to speak with an agent?
In an emailed statement to CNBC, Frontier spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said that the channels still available ensure that customers get "the information they need as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.
An ultra low-cost airline, Frontier has built a reputation for cost-cutting - charging passengers for advanced seat reservations and for carry-on bags that exceed its size rules. And in the wake of a large fine from the US Department of Transportation - which ordered the company to pay out in excess of $200m in refunds to passengers whose flights were delayed or cancelled - costs may have been a big consideration for the decision to shut its call centres.
But will it prove costly when it comes to the customer experience?
“Cutting the option to phone Frontier Airline's customer service is a nod to the success of emerging digital, social and self-service channels, but ultimately this move risks delivering a poorer customer experience (CX),” warns Martin Taylor, co-founder and deputy CEO at Content Guru.
“Even today, over 80% of consumers want to speak to a person when they need to resolve an important issue. The short-term cost-cutting potential of digital-only CX will always catch the eye of CFOs and CEOs, but brands that cut back on customer choice, might ultimately end up losing those customers. In today's ultra-competitive environment, consumers expect more, not less, effective interaction with brands, and businesses that ignore the voice of the customer do so at their peril.”
Marie Angselius-Schönbeck, chief impact officer at Artificial Solutions, adds: “Frontier is not alone in looking for solutions that can help to reduce the operational costs of its contact centres. Particularly now an increasing number of basic and standard queries can be resolved via self-service through trained bots powered by AI/machine learning.
“However, this move bucks the trend we are seeing in the scope of the contact centre, as it shifts from transactional calls to customer journeys and enhanced experiences. And while Frontier is right to optimise costs, they will be pushing their customers to their competitors as voice is a preferred communication channel by customers. Research shows that voice is still a preferred method of communication in both UK and US, even with the younger generation.
“Companies considering a similar move should remember that a reduction in operational costs and voice solutions are aligned, and a self-service approach to customer service can still be delivered in an omnichannel environment. Many contact centres are looking into how they can transform their contact centre automation to route the customer to the right person immediately, and so reduce cost and provide excellent service. Instead of moving away from voice, contact centres should look into how they can improve their routing. In many cases at least 20% of the agents can be reduced, which is the highest cost in contact centres.”
She warns: “Alienating the customer is never the right approach, offering all the channels that consumers want while still making significant savings would be a better way forward.”
Is Frontier following a wider industry trend?
But while some initial customer backlash is to be anticipated, Tom Bourlet, marketing manager for www.fizzbox.com, believes that Frontier is merely following a wider trend. “I have witnessed 40% of the brands I was managing move towards 'phone free communication' over the past five years,” he notes.
“Phone calls to customer support can often involve long waiting times, which can make people want to change brands or leave negative reviews. Of course, there are still positives to having a phone conversation with the customer. You can build a rapport with them that you simply can't over text, which can lead to positive reviews or brand advocates. Various issues are often involved in a complaint and these can all be covered relatively quickly and effectively by phone. But phone calls slow down their workflow, especially as you often get the same customers call multiple times, despite the answers often being provided in previous messages.”
Bourlet expects there to be some initial customer angst at the move away from call centres, but believes that they will quickly adapt.
“For customers, the negative is that we have become accustomed to getting an instant answer, or potentially an upgrade/bonus by calling up. The same can't always be said via instant chat or email support. However, providing the instant chat matches the name and the answers are received within two minutes, then it is a highly efficient channel.
Whether or not it’s right to lean primarily into voice or digital is entirely dependent on a company’s customer base, industry and brand.
“I ran a survey back about seven years ago and one of the questions asked how you prefer to contact companies about complaints, only 23% said by phone - 31% by social media, 45% by email and instant chat was 1%. However, this was a time when instant chat wasn't really present, while the average response was 12 hours. As you can imagine, this has changed drastically. Much of the frustration is largely around chatbots, which try to push you down an avenue and then send you to a help page, which often doesn't answer your question.”
Indeed, it’s important to note that Frontier isn’t the first airline to go fully digital. Breeze Airways - founded in 2018 by JetBlue’s David Neeleman - is another that is 100% digital. With no support phone number listed for passengers, it advises customers to use Facebook Messenger, text or email for queries, and allowing passengers to make changes to their flights via its app and website. And a recent study from Clickatell found that 89% of consumers stated they want to interact with airlines via mobile messaging.
But other airlines will surely be watching closely to see whether or not going fully digital and drooping phone support will work for Frontier.
Brett Weigl, GM of digital and AI at Genesys, believes that success or failure will come down to whether Frontier has done adequate research into customer preferences: “Whether or not it’s right to lean primarily into voice or digital is entirely dependent on a company’s customer base, industry and brand. Regardless of the channels they offer, they should employ automation and humans where they make sense, and make sure experiences are targeted, personalised, contextual and offer opportunities for self-service.”
Customer preferences. Industry. Brand. All important considerations that will influence the outcome of Frontier’s decision. And customer perception of the motivations for the move to digital, will also have a part to play, according to Michael Chadwick, head of strategy and experience at Cheil UK.
“As soon as consumers perceive that a change in touchpoints and channels is down to cost-efficiency for the business, rather than of benefit to them, there’s a potential issue. As an airline built around a low-cost proposition, this may not necessarily be an issue for Frontier – so long as consumers feel they’re getting tangibly lower prices and better value as a result.
“Overall, people are expecting greater flexibility and convenience in CX – a greater range of channels for them to connect via, more options on ways to interact, and ultimately an increased level of convenience. Anything that goes in the opposite direction and introduces more friction will likely cause reduced CX satisfaction. In that case, the customer will need to feel they’re getting a really significant cost saving to offset the pain point. And at that point, the brand becomes really important – consumers will need to feel enough affinity with the brand and its low-cost proposition to keep coming back. Indeed, if the brand is strong enough, stripping back services can even become a solid supporting proof point for the efficiency and lower prices message.”
Chadwick concludes: “Ultimately, the verdict on this move will come down entirely to the effect on customer experience. Can Frontier pull it off without it being overly detrimental to the customer? Can increased digitisation in fact create a net positive in terms of CX?”
Whether customer contact in the airline industry is entering a new frontier will become clearer in due course.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.