Travel’s reactive customer service model is broken – let’s kill it

A survey published by Engine, a service design consultancy, shows that the airline industry has suffered damage to brand reputation in recent months, attributing this to “poor customer service and increasing complaint levels.”

The online survey of 1,025 adults in the UK was conducted in June of this year, and reveals a 4.3 percentage point rise (to 17.1%) in customers who cite airlines among the worst sectors for service. It is the biggest rise in negative sentiment of the 14 sectors covered by the study.

Engine’s co-founder, Joe Heapy, explains:

“British Airways’ IT melt-down and the United Airlines’ passenger incident were the most high-profile examples in an industry that seems to be struggling to look after its customers. However, it wasn’t just that the incidents were bad, arguably it was their response that caused as much anger, particularly in BA’s case. In an era of rampant cost cutting, their actions and reactions can give the impression that people are more akin to cargo than passengers.

“The aviation industry is fundamentally challenged by the disjointed passenger experience, from booking a ticket to arriving at the destination, caused by the plethora of stakeholders and companies involved. However, most customers don’t know where the responsibility of one begins and ends, and when something goes wrong they don’t want to waste time tracking down the responsible party, they just need the problem solved. As such, aviation companies need to establish solid partnerships and not just see themselves as delivering a particular piece of the jigsaw but as hospitality providers instead. If the focus shifts to welcoming, supporting and entertaining passengers as guests, people’s perception will be transformed.”

“The leading sectors and companies in customer service don’t think of it as an add-on at the front line, they put as much effort into designing the customer experience as they do their actual products.”

Complicating this claim of a lack of effort put into customer service responsiveness, however, is the reality of British Airways active engagement with customers on Social Media, and integration of other technologies to boost responsiveness.

For example, British Airways is among the companies which now rely on customer service technology from Maru/edr, which gathers comments from customers and transmits the data in real-time to staff, helping them respond to complaints.

This May, during the ABTA Customer Insight in the Travel Industry conference, Maru/edr’s client director Gary Howes and Mark Gubbins, business performance and insight manager at British Airways presented the British Airways Pulse program which is designed to process customer comments quickly, tying feedback to customer records.

It would be too easy to argue that there is no technology which can get ahead of a maelstrom as a major as an IT collapse which leaves customers stranded.

Or, in United’s case, no technology is powerful enough to dynamically respond when front-line employees of a partner airline abuse a passenger, and social media staff and the airline’s CEO make matters worse through inadequate response to the crisis.

But the issue may not be one of inadequate technology but rather one of inadequate application, both of technology and of basic customer service mindset.

In an analogue age, the best one could expect from brands was customer service responsiveness. One called a phone number or walked to a service desk, spoke to a person who may or may not have been inclined to help, and dealt with the outcome positive or negative. When dissatisfied, a customer might vow never to use the brand again. When satisfied, they might be inclined to do business with the brand more often. They may even tell a friend, and that friend might tell two friends, and so on and so on.

We don’t live in this analogue age. Technology puts the Faberge Shampoo model of brand reputation , shown above, on overdrive, with the buzz building on multiple channels at once.

Technology gives brands the power to study that buzz at today’s viral speed. Brands can apply learnings from each incident to design the response algorithms for future incidents of a similar nature.

Sara Beams, managing director of consumer services at Madu/edr, touches on this when covering the benefits of text analytics and the processing of unstructured data, instead of relying solely on structured surveys.

As she writes:

“Some of the grumbles that are seen in small volumes today will be the headline themes of tomorrow. We can use Text Analytics to best understand which of these issues brands should pay attention to, working solutions into their strategies and roadmaps now.

“A significant benefit for brands is that unstructured data brings choice and control. The survey data effectively becomes a pool of customer voice that can be tapped into whenever necessary. The magic here is that we don’t need to know what question we’re trying to answer when we launch the survey, the questions can come later. Then when someone has a hunch or hypothesis they want to test, we can mine the data accordingly to get our hands on the answers to the questions we never knew we’d have – without delay.

“By automatically assigning sentiment to each verbatim comment we can quickly start to paint a picture of where customers go through peaks and troughs throughout the touchpoints of a journey or their end-to-end lifecycle with a brand. This can illuminate where a brand should invest time and resource to enhance the customer experience, and where best practice can be shared across internal teams.”

In this way, technology can assist prescience. By studying these patterns, brands can predict how customers will react to product and service failures, to change, to negative news and to disinformation.

Reaping the benefits of this technology requires a dramatic shift in mindset from customer service to customer interaction design.

And, in this, digital technology can be an invaluable tool. In fact, one could argue that it is the only tool which can deliver such a future. The “IF <this> THEN <that>” nature of elementary programming inherently implies a flexibility to respond to variables before they occur.

That much talked about and little understood savior or existential threat- depending on who you listen to -Artificial Intelligence (AI) delivers additional flexibilities into that elementary programming: learning from mistakes, adapting to new scenarios, answering the needs of many before the many know their needs.

Based on the similar principles to interaction design for systems interfaces, customer interaction design would require designing algorithms for bots which do more than auto-reply at high speeds to common problems and frequently asked questions. It should intuit common problems and engineer them out. It should get ahead of problems before the complaints start rolling in, before the negative news goes viral.

These systems should connect to systems measuring sentiment and help predict sentiment to existing conditions by similarity. They should blast adequate responses, with corners softened by personalization, offering customers custom-fit solutions to the problems ahead at light speed.

Technology will not program itself to do this on its own. AI is not quite there yet, and it will not be for a very long time. Those who design and program response systems can make this happen, though, by shifting their own thinking beyond the reactive service desk ask-and-answer logic to the basics of proactive relationship management: observe, relate and delight with empathy.

NB Image by BigStock

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