Expert Opinions How airlines can overcome digital challenges and gain customer loyalty By Industry Expert / Posted on 25 July, 2019 9:49 Amid competition with other online ticketing platforms, Redicka Subrammanian, founder & CEO of Resulticks, discusses why airlines need to focus on differentiating themselves through better and more integrated customer experience. Think about the last time you booked a flight. Did you visit your preferred airline’s website or call a travel agent? Did you compare prices using a third party’s online platform and then shop around for the best deal? If you’re like the majority of consumers, you booked your flight online only after you compared the costs of the same flight from different airlines. Indeed, recent research on flight pricing found 56 per cent of travellers cited price as the primary influence on flight booking decisions. What’s more, they conduct a lot of research before booking a flight – McKinsey estimated travellers go through up to 100 touchpoints before making a purchase. Because travellers booking holidays online are willing to put in lots of research time to get a great price on a flight, it’s no wonder third-party booking platforms like Expedia, Kayak and Skyscanner have become a preference and have transformed the air travel industry. It’s easy to see why they’ve been successful: these sites considered the customer journey and worked to provide a user-friendly, one-stop price comparison and shopping experience that reduces the number of touchpoints and makes finding the right deal much simpler for customers. In addressing the customer’s pain points, these third-party websites have outpaced airlines in capturing today’s digital consumer. In fact, these disruptive competitors have done such a great job that many airlines have been unable to keep up with them technologically – including mobile platform offerings and personalisation – and now fail to meet customer expectations altogether. The tech challenge The digital challenges facing airlines are multifaceted, but can generally be traced back to a common issue: outdated technology. While the majority of airlines’ desktop websites are serviceable, they are not nearly as streamlined and user-friendly as the sites from the third-party competitors. A lacklustre, clunky interface can immediately prompt customers to leave, opting for a more user-friendly site. As for mobile options, many airlines do not presently have mobile-optimised websites, leading to slow page loading times, unappealing interfaces and hard-to-use features. These inefficiencies, coupled with the amount of touchpoints required during the customer journey, cause many travellers to lose patience and head to another site. Getting an upgrade Not all hope is lost – there are ways for airlines to implement newer technologies to meet customer expectations, but it does require them to retool their thinking and to make vast changes to their digital presence. The first shift is to develop mobile-first strategies. In 2017, McKinsey found that 43 per cent of travel-related searches were made on smartphones, and it’s likely this percentage rose over the past year. This means airlines should invest in their mobile channels more heavily than their desktop options to meet customers on the channels they already use. Then, brands need to provide fast, efficient and simple customer interactions by creating mobile-optimised websites and applications. Aside from booking a flight, the rest of the air travel experience occurs offline, but there are ways to enrich that offline experience with digital tools that provide real-time offers based on location and a 360-degree customer view courtesy of personalised customer data. For example, when Singapore Airlines revamped its mobile app, the airline added features like loyalty programme user management, Android Pay and Apple Pay, connectivity with tablets and smart watches, and full integration with entertainment systems. Additionally, the app provided customers with travel suggestions and maps when they reached their travel destinations. These changes boosted the app’s ratings by 2.5 stars, and led to 4.6 million downloads and 17 number one rankings on app stores globally. Let data be your pilot By implementing digital tools such as automation and machine learning, airlines can easily store customer data such as seat, meal, and entertainment preferences and auto-populate these fields for the customer’s next booking, providing a more personalised user experience – something travellers have said they want. A study by American Express found a staggering 83 per cent of millennials would allow travel brands to track their digital patterns in exchange for a more personalised experience. And they weren’t alone – 85 per cent of all respondents said customised itineraries based on their personal interests were more desirable than mass-market offers. Airlines can also boost personalisation through customised prompts for offers and upgrades in the lead-up time to the customer’s flight. Then on the day of the flight, digital boarding passes, reminders of gate numbers, and special in-airport shopping or dining deals based on the customer’s individual data can be sent via push notifications or emails. By shifting thinking towards the end-to-end customer journey, airlines can not only overcome digital challenges, but exceed customer experience expectations. Though the changes required are extensive, and even overwhelming, they are necessary steps that airlines must take in order to be competitive in the crowded digital travel space.