Chatting up the customer

Chatbots, fuelled by artificial intelligence, are becoming a viable customer service channel. How do they stack up against live staff for travel agencies?

Chatbots were launched by Chan Brothers Travel to drive productivity

Amid technological advancement and changing consumer habits, more travel companies are turning to chatbots to rev up their customer service, allowing them to communicate with clients in real time and provide instant gratification.

Chatbots were launched by Chan Brothers Travel to drive productivity

Early-adopter Chan Brothers Travel introduced a Webchat system on its website end-2016 to increase productivity and alleviate the load on its hotlines, according to managing director Anthony Chan.

Said Chan: “With the enhancements of artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, the platform (since November 2017) is now able to hold up to 65 per cent of the conversation with the customer before requiring human intervention, if at all. The productivity benefits continue even after the travel adviser steps into the conversation as multiple conversations are managed concurrently.

“Since its inception, chat conversions have contributed to between 10 and 15 per cent growth in our market share.”

Meanwhile, Contiki launched Tiki the travel bot earlier this year, which allows travel agents to suggest trips for users based on a classification of travel styles it developed earlier.

However, Contiki’s spokesperson said: “Tiki is not meant to replace a travel agent or any of our representatives. It is a pre-screening process for anyone who wants to research what travel styles we have and which exact trip they should be on.”

Others, like Dynasty Travel, instead opt for human-powered live chat for online enquiries and bookings, according to Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications.

“Online customers who need to be connected with someone to answer their questions in real time and with precision can use Live Chat, which has the ability to provide convenient answers that the customers are looking for.”

While chatbots are available 24/7 and can be used to automate simple enquiries and tasks, staff are still needed to handle more complex questions.

“Chatbots can only respond to specific types of questions and still cannot fully replace humans. They are costly to implement and require time to allow machine learning before they can handle more complex questions,” Seah opined.

Customers tend to prefer face-to-face interaction when it comes to travel products, and they want to have well-informed discussions with travel consultants on their travel needs, she added.

Albert Ho, executive director, Citystate Travel, agreed and said the company did consider using chatbots but felt they was “not quite ready” to meet the needs of its “high-level corporate travel and MICE clients”.

For its cruising-focused leisure division, Ho said many customers are tech-savvy repeats who have developed good relationships with its consultants and prefer to talk to them about their trips.

Regardless, Seah and Ho said they may adopt chatbots as part of the customer service process down the road when they become more sophisticated, where the future AI can hold a conversation and provide more tailored responses.

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