Emotional breakdown – how Air Canada uses AI to improve customer relationships


Air Canada has lately been making bold leaps forward on mobile and artificial intelligence with applications aimed to refine the airline’s customer relationships.

tnooz spoke with Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s vice president of loyalty and ecommerce, for insight on how the airline’s commitment to mobile and AI will drive its marketing strategy of ongoing conversations with customers.

As Nasr says:

“There’s really a proliferation of channels which allow for conversational commerce both from a voice perspective and from a traditional tech perspective; channels like Facebook Messenger, for example.

“We believe that nowadays customers have certain preferences that they’ve developed, based on their wider digital habits, of how they like to interact with their tablets, smartphones and computers, and the mode in which they want to communicate.

“It’s our point to be present and available across those different channels, and make ourselves available by the preferred mode of the customer.”

Air Canada wants to be platform agnostic with conversational interactions on the web, mobile, voice assistant, or personal service. And it plans to be with customers in whatever platforms rise up next.

“There will be more options in the future as we think of virtual reality and augmented reality and brining those together for more a immersive experience.

“We’re not necessarily in the business of picking and choosing or being able to predict which platforms and channels are going to win. From an infrastructure and technology perspective, on our end, we’re looking at how we will create a solution that will allow us to participate in multiple ecosystems.”

New Alexa Skills

This month, Air Canada launched new Alexa skills offering customers flight status information, fare quotes, mobile app tips, and general travel information on travel documents, ticket policies, TSA pre-check availability, as well as baggage carousel information.

More topics will be added in the future. The airline developed the Alexa skills through a collaboration with RozieAI.

Nasr says that this initial Alexa skills project lays a strong foundation for the integration of AI in other customer-facing applications.

“A lot of what we’ve done with Alexa and RozieAi can be extended to other ecosystems, like Facebook and Google, so we are not re-building the entire solution for each of the ecosystems. It becomes more of an adaptation as required or as justified by differences from one product to the next.”

The airline selected the initial skills available on Alexa based on studies of customer interactions, looking for the most frequently accessed queries on mobile and web platforms and other customer touchpoints.

Nasr explains:

“We look at this every day as a matter of course..our customers are telling us these are the most important features to them because this what they are using more often, [so we] prioritize those in this new channel.”

“Once you get that list—dictated by what your customers want—you look at what’s the art of the possible. If we take too long to deploy something, then that’s fundamentally not meeting any customer’s needs.

“We find what can be brought to market as quickly as possible. That’s how we decided on the initial set of capabilities.”

“Of course, Air Canada is moving to a fully agile methodology for digital. The intention is to push out more features over time. We plan to start with something that adds value and keep layering on more value.”

Persado and AI in marketing

Air Canada has also applied AI to product marketing through a collaboration with AI marketing content generation platform Persado.

It has also worked in the AI space with travel companies including Caesar’s entertainment, hotels.com, and Royal Caribbean.

Persado boasts the world’s largest database of conversational “tags,” with over a million words and phrases scored based on how they inspire action.

Nasr says that Persado has helped the airline “think differently” about how it markets to customers, going beyond A/B messaging to more personalized communications which are likely to have an impact on the individual customer based on their personal reaction to copy.

For example, by incorporating anxiety language, Air Canada has experienced up to 48% more opens of emails and click-throughs were almost 220% higher when it directed consumers to “see deals” versus to “book now” in the call-to-action button of the email.

Ryan Deutsch, Persado’s senior vice president of global customer success, explains how an AI platform can make copy more compelling than a human writer.

There’s a lot of science behind it.

“We break words and phrases into five different genes: emotion, formatting, description, call to action and positioning. If you think about creating a piece of copy that could be used as a subject line, a display ad, or a Facebook ad, when we get a piece of copy from our customers, we break the copy down in to one of those five genes.”

“Then we do experiments, and we create variants of that copy to see what language works best with an audience. We leverage those classifications and assign impact to components of a message.

“Every time Persado does an experiment, I’m not comparing how message A works vs message B. I’m looking, across all the variants that I’m sending. What weight does emotion have in inspiring an individual segment or audience to take action? What weight does the formatting of the message take? What about the description of the offer? What about the positioning of those elements?”

In the case of Air Canada, Persado created sixteen versions of a piece of copy by the airline, which represent 1024 different ways to deliver the message.

Data gathered on the performance of each of the messages helps inform the AI through machine learning on what language combinations may work best going forward.

Of the five gene categories, Deutsch says that emotion carries the most weight. Language which elicits or responds to emotions like anxiety, gratitude or exclusivity, for example, accounts for 60% of the lists of messages that Persado supplies to customers.

“We’re always trying to make an emotional connection, but how you communicate emotion and language is a little more complex.

“When any of these travel companies start working with us, we begin with a number of experiments. Once a company has done about 75 experiments with Persado, we can begin to create the Persado ID, tied to segments and individuals within the customer’s CRM system. That ID understands the primary, secondary, and tertiary emotion that any individual is likely to respond to.

“From our perspective, that starts to fundamentally transform how content is created within a business. Most companies, especially in travel and hospitality, focus most on what is the description of the destination and what’s the offer from a pricing perspective and they focus a lot less on emotion. Once you combine emotion with those other things, with the right destination and the right price, you see significant lift.”

Air Canada’s Nasr says it has seen a significant improvement in the effectiveness of its marketing approach from using the Persado AI engine to draft copy, particularly because of this flexibility to personalize the message.

“We’ve done a series of tests on different products and we’re starting to roll out other technology on a broader basis.

“What’s really important is that, at the end of the day, you can use tools to ensure that more customers engage with your marketing, but you still need to provide value. You still need to make sure that when customers click through from that email or banner or tile, that they are arriving on a well-designed and intuitive digital experience.

“Persado is one part of the picture—a very important part—but if you’re not offering the right product, if it’s not priced correctly, or if the transaction has friction, you’re still not going to be able to close the deal. [Persado is] one part of the overall conversion funnel.”

But beyond the word-smithing engine, it’s the accompanying analytics of Persado that deliver added value to Air Canada, Nasr says.

“We’re transforming—like many retailing and consumer brands—and becoming an analytics driven organization on the marketing side. For us, it’s a prerequisite now, whenever we’re considering a partner or we’re going to test out a new partnership, that the results and the decisions are driven by analysis.

“That’s in the DNA of Persado. In many ways, it not a traditional marketing company. It’s really a next generation marketing company where analysis is at the core of what they do.”

From mobile first to voice

For Air Canada, part of the refinement of the conversion funnel, and of engaging CRM, is a prioritization of mobile which is in high demand by customers. This in turn means a prioritization of voice queries and chatbots.

Nasr explains:

“It’s changing very quickly. Canada is a very tech savvy country and our base of flyers, especially our most frequent flyers tend to be particularly sophisticated travelers. Technology is a way of life for them; especially our most frequent flyers and elite members, because they are on the road so often. I couldn’t tell you if we over index compared to our competitors or other industries in the country, but I would bet it is the case.

“Our customers are interacting via mobile and we see that trajectory across the board, no matter what the activity is.

More and more, we believe that we’ll see the same thing happen with voice and chat. If you think about it, once activity moves to mobile it becomes a question of what’s the quickest way of doing something on a mobile device. Voice is an especially effective input with a mobile device. If you’re on-the-go, you only have one hand free, or your in the car and you need to be focused on the road and safety in driving, so mobile and voice go closely together..two peas in a pod.”

AI Going Forward

Air Canada believes AI is now an integral part of improving operations both in the back-end and customer-facing. Nasr says:

“The question is: can the AI and other technologies be used to make it easier and better for our people to deliver service? This is not a matter of replacement as much for us as it is a matter of augmentation and enhancement on the customer service side. Customers will choose whether they want self-service or not. That’s ultimately the customer’s choice. But we will always, at least for the foreseeable future provide ground service and inflight service with our people, and we just want to make it easier for them to do it.”



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