COVID doubled the penetration of digital channels for travel booking and servicing, but also raised expectations, heard at the Amadeus Altitude22 airline executives conference this week.
Tristan Thomas, director of digital commerce and customer care at Etihad, told delegates that despite the impact of the pandemic, there were some positives.
This caused customers to turn to digital and direct channels to manage their trips, but he said this “presents challenges” in terms of “levels of expectation that we’ve never seen before”.
Airlines were forced to react to COVID by accelerating the development of self-service and automation solutions to enable travelers to access information and upload travel documents.
“Customers want real-time information, they want certainty about their trip and they want to manage it,” he said.
Jeff Jones, vice president of business and customer technology for Southwest Airlines, said a 100% self-service goal was realistic, though it won’t solve everyone’s problems.
He said human-served contact centers will not go away, but will evolve into “intelligent service centers.”
“It’s more about channel choice and the customer having the freedom of choice,” he said. “It’s perfect control.”
Jones said the channels need to be interconnected so that the customer can go from the Internet to mobile devices, chat and, if necessary, talk to someone as part of a seamless experience.
He described the experience the airline seeks to offer as “smooth.” “That’s a very good word for what I’m talking about,” she said.
“It’s a good way to think about customer service. We want it to be easy, it will happen.”
The pandemic caused Southwest to switch to a 100% remote virtual work model in six months, something previously expected to take up to six years, Jones said.
“We are all customers, our expectations have changed and that means the expectations of our employees have changed.
“We’ve hired 1,500 people this year and we’re not hiring airline professionals, especially in the call center.
“We are bringing in people who have no desire to be agents who work in a call center and are now working from home.
“You’re not going to get someone who understands cryptic, so we’re investing in our tools. You can’t expect tons and tons of training or getting people to become airline experts.
“We need to think about our digital experience, not only for our customers but also for our people.”
Thomas agreed that systems training should be a “simple process.” “What do you want your people to do?
“If you can free them up to do more high-value tasks, it opens up a whole new area for contact centers. It becomes more like a TMC [Travel Management Company].
“If we can automate, we can change what an airline contact center does, so it doesn’t matter if we bring in people from other non-airline contact centers.
“We attract people because of the way they deal with people, their warmth.”
Jones said Southwest, which uses Salesforce’s contact center and services platform, is simplifying its tools by consolidating them into a single application.
“You can’t expect new hires to know which of the 15 requests to go to to complete something,” he said.