Frictionless customer conversations the future of contact centres in travel

With the average person expected to communicate more with chatbots than with their own spouses by 2022, airlines can start using bots to remove friction in customer conversation, without completely cutting out the travel agent, according to Mike Tansey, managing director & travel and hospitality lead, Asia-Pacific, Africa Middle East & Turkey, Accenture

Mike Tansey: by 2020, 70 per cent of all B2C customer support will be via mobile, with smart agents facilitating 40 per cent of those interactions

Frictionless customer conversations are all about finding ways to handle (and take advantage of) the rapid rise in messaging and chatbots as the preferred way for consumers to communicate with travel companies.

Messaging is huge across Africa and the Asia-Pacific (AAPAC). In China, for example, the rise and rise of WeChat has been a phenomenal success story. With over one billion monthly users, it’s fundamentally changing how people work and live, especially in big cities. We know that 70 per cent of consumers now prefer messaging over voice when they contact customer care centres.

Mike Tansey: by 2020, 70 per cent of all B2C customer support will be via mobile, with smart agents facilitating 40 per cent of those interactions

By 2020, 70 per cent of all B2C customer support will be via mobile, with smart agents facilitating 40 per cent of those interactions. And, rather disconcertingly, by 2022 the average person will have more conversations with chatbots than with their spouse.

Currently, very few travel companies are set up to handle this important and incredibly fast-growing channel. Some are using messaging for specific tasks. But there’s a wider challenge around ensuring consistent customer experiences. That’s a big issue.

Chatting for value
Today, you have to be able to deliver the same customer experience across every channel. Almost one-third of consumers expect traditional businesses (like airlines) to offer a similarly seamless experience to what they get from, say Airbnb. If a company sends a message to a customer via WhatsApp, it should be able to provide exactly the same experience on any other platform, as well as by phone, and with the number of messaging channels growing all the time, this is getting increasingly demanding.

The second point is that these channels have got to be able to deliver some value. It is much more than a simple exchange of information, as people expect to be able to transact via messaging and to not just make an inquiry. They want to be able to choose a seat, book a meal or change a flight. This means integration with back-end systems is an urgent priority.

We’re still in the first generation of messaging management. This means contact centre agents are having to handle five or six chats at a time. Admittedly, this is how most of Gen X and Gen Y stay in touch, but in the world of a contact centre agent, the need to juggle all that and find the pertinent information they need for each chat at the same time is an arduous task. If there’s a better way of managing these chats, it’s a huge opportunity for driving up productivity.

This brings up the related matter of customer intimacy. If you communicate with an airline by chat today, it should be saying “Hi Mike, how are you? Are you contacting us about your upcoming flight to Hong Kong?” Instead, the first thing you’re asked for is a booking reference number. Even though you’re using your mobile, the system is unable to connect that information to your passenger details.

Ultimately, the chat channel should also be able to make personalised recommendations, based on an airline’s knowledge of each passenger and what they’re doing, however, most travel companies are still nowhere near that point.

Doing things differently
Disruption doesn’t just create challenges, it also opens out new opportunities for doing things differently – not just more efficiently, but also in a much more joined-up way. Most travel companies run separate contact centres for inbound and outbound calls.

With the right technologies, these boundaries do not need to exist anymore. Agents will not need to sit together in physical contact centres. New technologies, could potentially virtualise and the gig economy would kick in. Working from home, agents would log in to handle a few hours of enquiries, then log out and do something else.

The possibilities are endless. What if there was an agent (working from home or in a contact centre) just responsible for managing a particular flight? A customer service agent would then log in and be allocated the Kuala Lumpur to Sydney morning flight. They’re given the passengers’ contact details and message each one to introduce themselves, provide flight details and ask them to get in touch with any requests.

The whole journey would be personalised to each passenger. It would be a huge boost to customer intimacy. And it’s just one of many new business models that become possible once the right technologies are onboard.

Taking it to the next level
Quite a few airlines are already testing out these technologies. And that’s a crucial first step in the journey. We’ve been doing some exciting things in this space with clients in AAPAC, in and outside the travel sector. With a large financial institution in Singapore, for example, we’re helping them integrate interactive voice response as a biometric tool for recognising customers by voice (we’re using the same technology with a major North American airline).

Say a weather event, like a typhoon, hits and all flights are delayed. Suddenly a very high volume of passengers needs help. It’s hugely difficult, if not impossible, for a contact centre workforce to manage that extra demand. And that means thousands of frustrated passengers stuck in the airport.

We have built a disruption chatbot for a leading Asian airline that gives its passengers options for alternative flights and lets them select and rebook at the same time. It makes a huge difference to customer service and dramatically reduces peak-time pressure on a contact centre.

These are steps forward. And now there’s a fantastic opportunity for airlines to take a lead by moving to the next level – frictionless customer conversations – developing a completely integrated, multichannel customer service platform.

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