Travolution’s latest business breakfast saw leading travel brands The Travel Corporation, Cosmos and Ocean Holidays discuss best practice in customer experience with event sponsor Babble which launched a report having surveyed travel brands
Third party travel agents were warned that they must invest in technology to help them engage with a younger generation of travellers or they will see their businesses decline.
Speaking at a Travolution Business Breakfast on customer experience (CX), Brett Tollman chief executive of The Travel Corporation, said firms must understand millennial and Gen Z customers expectations.
The Travel Corporation, which includes brands like Contiki, Trafalgar Tours and Insight Vacations, does around 80% of its business through agents.
But Tollman said as it looks to build more personal relationships with its customers, its trade partners are at risk over the next decade if they fail to keep up with demands.
“Unless more of our B2B partners, which is the substantive part of our business today, are going to start adapting to what customer experiences are and investing in technology I think their future is unfortunately very challenged.
“We have seen a huge drop off in the last couple of years in our Contiki customers engaged with STA or Flight Centre. They are just not adapting fast enough to the consumer of tomorrow. That’s a red flag to all of us.”
Tollman said firms must invest in chat and other direct messaging channels, through which it is seeing increased number of bookings, to offer different ways of engaging with someone. “It’s not walking into a bricks and mortar store,” he said.
Lesley Taylor, chief customer officer at Cosmos Tours and Cruises, said: “We treat direct or trade sales in the same way. But I echo the point made by Brett.
“What does the bricks and mortar add to the experience? There has to be something there 0therwise there’s just too much technology available. It seems strange these days to go to a third party unless you’ve got very good reason to do that.
“Maybe if there’s someone there you’ve built a relationship with and you like or they are adding some sort of value. You have to think about your own buying habits and when you would do that. Not very often.”
Asked for one thing he would like to see change to improve customer experience in travel, Tollman said agents should providing customer contact details so operators can personalise the experience.
“We are renowned for never stealing a customer,” he said. “We give travel agents commission on bookings when a customer comes back to us and they previously registered with an agent, and yet we just can’t change that behaviour.
“As a result 20% of our customers today are providing us with their personal information, so certainly our goal for next year would be 95% of that data is being captured from our travellers in advance so we can surprise and delight each and every one of them with personalisation and deliver what they want of their holidays.”
Measure performance and reward your people
Firms’ human resources are at the heart of providing great customer experience and employers should look at how they reward their employees to drive the right approach.
Dan Ox, co-founder and chief executive of Ocean Holidays, said all parts of a company are involved in delivering customer experience, not just the contact centre.
“We set a vision of what we expect,” he said. “We call it Love Ocean and that’s not just about making the customers love who we are but staff and everyone else.
“You need everyone from all teams all involved in your customer experience strategy, it’s not just the contact centre. But you can undermine the experience delivered by a contact centre just through the way you pay or remunerate your staff.
“So, if you pay commission only customer experience can sometimes take second seat to wanting to make the sale. You can do ways of collecting NPS (Net Promoter Score) for individual agents as well as for the business as a whole.
“You can take that score and attribute that to a proportion of their salary. Every quote they get, whether the customer books or not, they get a quick survey saying rate me out of 10 and that score can drive an agents’ behaviour.
“It’s a difficult balance because sales people have different attributes and it’s really difficult to find the magic mix.
“You have metrics like number of minutes on call and number of emails sent but it’s very difficult to encapsulate what it is about a sales person. You have great sales people who sell completely differently from the next great sales person. It’s a challenge every day.”
Matthew Parker, chief executive of Babble, said: “Providing information about what’s going on and the key performance indicators is one thing, but it’s only a smallish part of answering that question. You have metrics but different types of people work in different ways.
“Trying to have a recipe for what success looks like when you are dealing with people is really, really, difficult. You are dealing with more than one person because you’ve got your person and you’ve got the customer and people are just different, and they’re different on different days.”
The challenge of finding and retaining staff
The Babble survey of nearly 40 UK travel brands found two thirds of respondents said that the average length of time of employment of call centre agents is between one and five years.
Just under a quarter of the brands that completed the survey said average employment is over five years, meaning brands have a challenge providing a consistent experience over time.
Tollman said TTC’s average employment is two to three years and where the agent is in their employment cycle, from initial training on systems and product to three years in, has a big impact on the experience they offer.
Tollman said: “How do you be a great employer? It’s certainly challenging today in finding and keeping great people.”
Cosmos’s Taylor said the travel sector, as a whole, is improving its processes but it must give its people the authority to provide great experiences. “Empowering people, that’s one of the points where you can distinguish your customer service,” she said.
“That, to me, is the benefit of having the right training and having the right culture. It’s the remarkable moments I think we are all looking for right now. We have got lots of great efficiency in customer experience, but there’s not a lot that distinguishes it as great.
“Something we have thought about is empowering staff in the moment while the customer is on the holiday. The more that you can do then, the more you can turn around any issues very quickly.”
Ox said Ocean Holidays has brought data science skills into the business but the challenge is turning that insight into something actionable for the business.
“We have a data scientist but he’s a mathematician essentially. We are saying can you tell us how likely someone is to buy, and he will go off and use modelling which is very, very complex and say there’s your answer.
“But there’s a skills gap between bringing these are new types of people into your organisation to connect the data dots and then handing that data back to your marketing people who have been traditionally using the classic channels and say there’s a whole world of data we have here, a whole world of propensity and segmentation, now use that on the platforms.”
Leading from the top
An ethos of putting customer experience at the top of a firm’s proprieties must be driven from the very top of the organisation, delegates were told.
TTC’s Tollman said: “We put the customer at the heart of everything we do. Our family motto is the pursuit of excellence and that’s the way we differentiate ourselves from our many great competitors out there.
“The chief executive has to understand how well we are walking the talk and delivering and also being involved in understanding where our customer experiences are and where they should be.
“So, it’s the quality of delivery in the contact centre, what we’re delivering on the ground, how good our digital is, our feedback, our emails, our response times, requests for quotes, and so on and so forth.
“It’s all that as well as ensuring we’re delivering experience which are every bit sas good as Airbnb’s local experiences, which I think are one of the examples that keep me up at night.”
Tollman said TTC makes sure nits brand leaders regularly experience the product themselves and talk to clients and while each brand has nuances there is a core set of values within TTC.
“Overall the key is still the same, we have the same core beliefs and values for each one of our brands and every one of them is putting the customer at the heart of everything we do, ensuring we are delivering outstanding, consistent service and experiences and therefore value,” he said.
Taylor added: “It’s a lot to stay on top of. You have to try to ensure you have clarity in terms of is the overall proposition as good as it can be and I don’t think the work ever stops on that one.
Something we are trying to do much more now is to work across the business. We probably all have a clever chap in marketing with an enormous amount of information at his fingertips but what’s it for, what’s it telling us and what do we do about it.
“Wrestling control of that and sharing it with the business so we can do something useful that genuinely enhances the customer experience is something we are working towards.
“Information is shared up and down and with our global teams. We are all selling the same product whether it’s sold through our offices in north America, Canada or New Zealand. We all have the same goal and, actually, we have much more in common than we think.”
Technology is not the only answer
Technology is an enabler of great CX but it is not the only answer although it is vital in making sure firms offer a consistently positive experience.
Babble Parker said: “What tech allows is consistency. I don’t always have to be dealt with in the same way.
“Tech does the Holy Grail of helping me as a customer to speak to the right person in the way that I want to communicate them at the time of day I want depending on where I am and how I want to.
“And I can do this through the right channel with the person who has the right information and has the right level of authority to be able to help me get to where I want to get to and have a plan if it doesn’t go to plan.
“That’s what tech brings. It helps deliver the information in front of that agent that, on the balance of probabilities that’s, what I as a customer want to talk about.”
Ox, of Ocean Holidays, said: “Consistency creates scalability. We are always trying to leverage technology and channels and processes within our contact centre as consistently as possible because it allows us to scale our business.”
Tollman said: “I spend about a quarter of my time on tech. We’re not perfect. Across all our brands we have numerous technology platforms.
“We have developed mobile tools we use on our guided holiday brands and front end for the customer to be able to personalise and customise their experiences. An opportunity to surprise and delight someone when on holiday is critical. Everyone wants customisation today.
“We have certainly worked hard on that. And that integrates to a backend tool for our travel directors so that by being able to capture in advance what people want to do on holiday in advance and deliver it.”
Parker added: “Just saying we’re going to spend loads on technology to do this won’t solve the problem if you don’t start with then end in mind. Where do you want to be, what are we trying to achieve here? Then technology become the enabler.
“The thing that drives me mad is the stuff that gets done that doesn’t need to be done. What do you need that piece of information for? Why do you need me to do that? If the answer is because we have always done it, stop doing it immediately.”
Customer feedback and transparency
Listening to what customers want and being transparent becoming more important aspects of customer experience as expectations rise driven by web giants like Amazon.
TTC uses customer questionnaires, TripAdvisor, and Feefo to gather customer feedback on their products and services and use the insights derived from this to improve the CX they offer.
Tollman said: “We attended a Google thinktank in 2007 that talked about ‘if you lie, you die’, so we certainly buy into that and believe in transparency. Then there’s user generated content, that’s what it’s all about; user experiences, user journeys.”
Taylor said Cosmos also uses Feefo, but warned against complacency if brands are consistently achieving a high score.
“The devil’s in the detail,” she said. “We have a team of people who read every Feefo review and then we respond and we share all of the feedback across the whole team, which is really important in terms of the culture of the whole business.
“That’s important to us, you keep enhancing, keep doing your best. There’s always something more you can do, and the game keeps changing up.
“We find our customers really like to talk to us and they genuinely have an interest in making sure the next holiday is a great experience for us and for anyone else who’s going on those holidays.”
Taylor added great CX is rare because customer expectations are always shifting. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who spends a lot of time on Amazon, but I expect to find what I want very quickly. I’ll run through the customer reviews, I’ll make a choice and I expect it to show up the next day.
“I think we have all shifted in terms of what’s expected, and Amazon has done that by creating the benchmark.”
Coping with a proliferation of channels and maintaining a consistent presence on everyone is a major challenge for travel brands, breakfast delegates heard.
Taylor said its customer might start looking at a brochure and then browse the web before moving to web chat or social.
“What’s telling for us is the majority of our customers will still make a phone call and talk to someone before they purchase their holidays.
“The information is clearly available but there’s something around that validation process – making me feel good about my decision. It’s a lot of money, so customers wants to know am I doing the right thing, am I going to have a nice time.
“So, like many companies we put a lot of time into the contact centre and trying to make that as warm and friendly and enjoyable an experience as we can.
“Web chat’s an interesting one. Not everyone wants to pick up the phone, but it’s harder to get across the warmth and the chatty experience. You don’t want to template that experience too much.
“Someone who’s wonderfully eloquent on the phone might not have the best grammar. It’s a different skill set. I think that’s probably something we are all challenged with.
Cosmos does have specialist people working in social, but Taylor said they may not be the people with the best product knowledge.
“There’s an opportunity there in terms of staff retention and keeping people interested, if you’ve got the brightest and the best you can forgive someone spending a couple of years selling holidays and being ready for something new. The trick is to keep them in the business.”
Ox said Ocean Holidays’ concierge service Winged Boots operates more like a personal account management service for clients and a lot of the interaction happens on WhatsApp.
“Some of the relationships those guys have are personal, they’re contacting them and 10pm at night and they’re using their own personal WhatsApp. So it’s been a problem because we can’t expect the guys to copy and paste that into the contact so we can keep an audit of that information.
“For the guys working that way it’s difficult for them to log and centralise their data compared to mainstream Ocean Florida which is 10,000 enquiries and 50 agents streaming through email, phone calls and live chat.
“A new channel, when it comes up, is always a problem for the tech team because you have to integrate that channel into the CRM.”