Delivering an improved experience under cost pressure
Article by Debbie Glenister and Ruth Birkin, Airline Customer Experience Specialists
In 2020, the struggles of the air travel industry have been well documented. In the past week, Virgin Atlantic has filed for bankruptcy protection, it has been publicised that 6000 British Airways employees have accepted voluntary redundancy, Boeing has announced that they are ceasing the manufacture of their iconic 747 jet, while EasyJet is scheduling extra flights to cope with a sudden upsurge in demand. Sadly, that upsurge is nothing to be too optimistic about – with the airline currently working at just 30% capacity and seeing a 10% increase in holidaymaker numbers.
The economic climate is incredibly challenging for the airline industry, illustrated by the potential bankruptcy protection of Virgin Atlantic, the significant reduction in British Airways workforce and EasyJet considering a 30% reduction, while Boeing reported a loss $3 billion in the three months to June 2020.
The physical disruption, caused by Covid-19, to contact centre operations has been a major challenge. With agents being forced, at short notice, to operate from home and access key systems remotely. Then there is the dilemma of move agents back to the contact centre – willing or not.
So in this global environment, how do air travel businesses plan and deliver excellent customer service?
Changing customer service demands
Historically, air industry contact centre volumes have been relatively easy to predict. Seasonal variations repeated year upon year, with any spikes in demand usually driven by marketing campaigns or weather events which were restricted to specific geographies. 2020 has been vastly different.
With Covid-19 restricting international movement of people, demand for air travel abruptly fell to virtually zero. At the same time, the demand for answers to questions spiked alarmingly, but understandably, with millions of anticipated holidaymakers and business travellers suddenly needing to alter or cancel their travel plans. Airline customer service teams were faced with an unprecedented situation.
Following the initial spike in demand for news about cancelled flights and refund handling, call volumes dropped again and settled into more predictable enquiries, giving companies an opportunity to redraft FAQs for agents to deliver consistent standards of service. However, this period of relative stability did not last.
More recently, regional, national and international ‘mini-lockdowns’ have caused unpredictable spikes in demand. The recent decision by the UK Government to impose quarantine restrictions on travellers returning home from Spain, for example, was given with only five hours’ notice. Understandably, customer service departments were faced with a new situation they were mostly unprepared for.
How can the industry cope?
With no end to the pandemic insight and outbreaks being handled on a more local basis – enormous variations in customer service demand are likely to be the norm. How do travel companies build a service capability which can deal with this?
As airlines stopped flying, some companies deployed their cabin crew to support other departments. Commonly, the multi-lingual skills and industry knowledge that cabin crew possess have provided much needed assistance to teams struggling to cope with demand. Although, as flights gradually recommence this temporary measure needs to be replaced.
For a permanent solution, air travel businesses are planning to use two important enablers:
- Outsourced help
Technology – the enabler
To enable agents to cope with new questions and periods of unprecedented demand, implementing improved or more sophisticated technology is being viewed as a must have by some businesses. Technology platforms are available which can be implemented surprisingly quickly, capable of rapidly expanding numbers of agents to satisfy changing volumes. In addition, automated systems can reduce the demand on human agents, allowing your team to spend more time dealing with complex enquiries while simpler transactions are handled without the need for intervention.
To enable agents to cope with new questions and periods of unprecedented demand, implementing technology is being viewed as a must have by some businesses. Technology platforms are available which can be implemented surprisingly quickly, capable of rapidly expanding numbers of agents to satisfy changing volumes. In addition, automated systems can reduce the demand on human agents, allowing your team to spend more time dealing with complex enquiries while simpler transactions are handled without the need for intervention.
Online automation, coupled with fast transfer to agents when needed, can also smooth out sudden increases in demand. Data collection also enables FAQs to be updated more rapidly, further improving agents’ ability to deal with changing issues more quickly and consistently.
Outsourcing – the facilitator
The ability to rapidly bring additional support on stream may be the defining characteristic of those businesses who survive to emerge as winners once the pandemic subsides. Some airlines already have additional outsource capacity on a retainer, deployable when required. By building this capacity, costs are reduced in the core business whilst customer service levels can be kept high during peak demand.
Outsourced teams can be tasked with FAQ responses and transactional business, leaving internal highly skilled agents to handle more complex issues. These same agents can also build up a knowledge base as new situations develop, future-proofing your teams in a rapidly changing business environment.
Specialist outsourcers can be used, in addition, to deal with specific elements of the customer journey or enquiry, for example when handling transactional data. Fully PCI DSS compliant operators can handle payments and refunds within strict guidelines, supported by other businesses dealing with conversational enquiries and online requests via chat or social media channels. Technology gives a seamless way of connecting these teams, which enables your business to give its customers a positive and risk-free experience.
Beyond 2020: converting a problem into an opportunity
One of the inevitable side-effects of the changes due to Covid-19 will be an increase in prices for flights and holidays. Travel firms will need to add extra value to encourage travellers to book again, especially international travellers and customers who have either lost money or gone through the painful process of obtaining refunds from cancelled flights.
For premium brands, there may be opportunities to offer direct services including rapid Coronavirus testing and additional PPE and barrier protection in airports, as well as at the customer’s home before and after flights.
Long term effects could result in customers becoming happy to pay a premium price to take advantage of online advice with a human touch delivered via apps such as Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams or through branded online travel gateways. By delivering a travel agency experience online, companies might be able to maximise loyalty by using a lower cost, non-intermediary advice channel for premium clients.
Whatever the future looks like, it will certainly be very different operating landscape for the travel industry. The short-term prognosis is very challenging and difficult decisions will need to be made. Companies who survive and emerge as front-runners beyond 2020, will need to provide enhanced customer service in a more challenging marketplace than the industry has ever seen.
If your business needs to consider how to deal with post-Covid customer service volumes, or to look at strategic options for technology and flexibility, CCP can help. Our skilled and vastly experienced team, backed by our comprehensive Contact Centre and Technology Networks, are able to advise your business on ways to improve your customer experience and introduce contact centre technologies that will help reduce costs and improve customer interaction. Get in touch today for a free no obligations consultation.