Why travel brands should be investing in chatbots, now

It is common in the consumer marketing world to engage with customers where they pass their time, spend their money and focus their attention.

NB This is a viewpoint by Mike Slone, chief experience officer for Travelaer.

This often involves employing a team of fairly articulate field marketing representatives to patrol popular events and shows, or to create and staff original events, all designed to open the channels of customer communication, and therefore drive deeper influence.

However, those communications channels are quickly changing as technology creeps into every aspect of our lives, including our travel planning. The problem is, the travel industry lags behind its customers in embracing this digital revolution, and so while most of its customers have gravitated to communicating via social media sites, messaging apps and bots, the travel companies have yet to join the conversation.

As a result they are missing the boat!

The recent news generated by United and Delta airlines are indicators of an industry that is out of touch with its customers. New research issued by EyeforTravel and Travelaer shows travel companies don’t take Facebook Messaging with customers seriously. Most don’t respond to customers via Facebook Messenger within a week, much less if they have a chat bot.

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And the small percentage of travel bots that are live don’t impact the customer journey in a meaningful way. They tend to be gimmicky and don’t fit into an overall digital strategy.

Service not selling

Travel companies don’t seem to understand that customer service is the most demanded customer feature, not better eCommerce.

The ability for passengers in crisis to communicate with an airline via Facebook Messenger – or even better, a chatbot – provides instant relief and quells potential outbursts that have the ability to go viral on YouTube.

The top travel apps such as Booking.com and TripAdvisor lead the way with millions of users. But the top social media and messaging apps pass the billion user mark. Facebook Messenger alone currently claims more than 1.2 billion users!

And overall usage of social media and messaging apps is estimated to have shot up more than 40% in 2016.

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It is becoming a matter of necessity, not luxury for travel brands to have a first-class social media strategy, of which chatbots should now form a core element.

The primary use for chatbots is, of course, for customer service requirements. As consumers conduct more travel research on mobile and start to manage complex itineraries through mobile, chatbots are well placed to help to consumers travel more efficiently, and to help brands drive loyalty through improved and much quicker interactions.

Digital focus

Travel brands, specifically, are struggling to come to this realization. Perhaps they are too focused on the wrong technology implementations? Instead of focusing on automated cars, for example, the rental car industry should instead be focused on doing a better job managing its messaging and communication platforms.

Some brands such as Icelandair and the French national rail operator’s digital arm, Voyages-sncf.com, have successfully made thousands of bookings using bots on Facebook Messenger and as a result their stories are featured as case studies in the report mentioned above.

That begs the question – how can you get started? The good news is that the cost of implementing a relatively simple chatbot is not a huge investment and is coming down as more providers move into the space and natural language processing becomes more sophisticated.

The cost of implementing a bot typically ranges from €15000-€50,000 according to the report, which isn’t a significant investment for an airline spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, a year on other digital experience products.

However, travel brands will need to have a foundation for data collection, plus the resources to monitor, test and support the bot. Without these in place, there is potential for the bot to go astray.

Data matters

Data is key as brands will need to identify and understand what are the key pain points for customers and seek to address those, rather than setting the wrong objectives beforehand.

Luxury hotel brand Edwardian Hotels got started in its digital transformation by creating apps for staff to record notes on guests, service rooms, check breakfast tables and monitor their work schedules.

Michael Mrini, head of information technology at Edwardian, said:

“Instead of saying ‘we’re going to build an acquisition tool’, we look at the customer journey, how a customer interfaces with a firm and its existing digital products…We look for a gap where there’s a huge customer need and maybe a chatbot could help.

“Then we come up with a strategy to apply the chatbot to solve it – that way, we know the chatbots will be much more successful in terms of customer satisfaction and metrics.”

Icelandair got started by reviewing data that showed what issues came up most frequently in social media team’s interactions with the public. In both cases, these brands looked at what their customer-facing staff were being asked most by their customers and then sought to address those queries, freeing up time for their staff to focus on more complex tasks.

Guðmundur Guðnason, director of digital business development for Icelandair, said:

“The first version was built around understanding key words but had difficulties with the difference between: ‘what’s the luggage allowance for Europe?’ and ‘I lost my luggage in Europe.’ It’s a delicate situation to handle a bot telling the customer who has lost his luggage that the luggage allowance is two bags!”

The advice here is that brands then need to monitor their bot and make sure that it is learning from each interaction in the right way.

The results speak for themselves. All of the brands mentioned in the EyeforTravel and Travelaer report were able to drive bookings, boost ancillary sales and increase customer service satisfaction by implementing chatbots.

The results thus far are so good that some customers think they are talking to an actual person, as opposed to a bot, and are leaving TripAdvisor reviews or cash tips for their artificial helpers! That’s hardly the Brave New World the travel industry seems to fear.

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NB This is a viewpoint by Mike Slone, chief experience officer for Travelaer. It appears here as part of Tnooz’s sponsored content initiative.



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