Altitude22: Customers' digital experience expectations took off during COVID

Altitude22: Customers' digital experience expectations took off during COVID

Southwest Airlines and Etihad discussed how contact centres need to adopt technology to be smarter and improve the service they offer travellers at this week's Amadeus airline executives' conference in Dubai

COVID saw penetration of digital channels for booking and servicing travel double, but it also raised expectations, the Amadeus Altitude22 airline executives’ conference heard this week.

Tristan Thomas, Etihad director for digital commerce and customer, told delegates that despite the impact of the pandemic there were some positives.

This saw customers turn to digital and direct channels to manage their travel but he said this “presented is with challenges” in terms of “expectation levels we have never seen before”.

Airlines were forced to react to COVID by accelerating the development of self-service and automation solutions to allow travellers to access information and upload travel documents.

“Customers want real-time information, they want certainty about their journey and they want to manage it,” he said.

Jeff Jones, vice-president technology customer and commercial for Southwest Airlines, said a 100% self-service target was realistic although it won’t solve everyone’s problems.

He said contact centres staffed by people will not go away but will evolve to become “smart service centres”.

“It more about the option of channels and that the customer has the freedom of choice,” he said. “It’s seamless control.”

Jones said channels need to be interconnected so that the customer is able to move from online, to mobile, to chat and if needs be to talk to someone as part of a consistent experience.

He described the experience the airline is looking to offer as “smooth”. “That’s a really good word for what I’m talking about,” he said.

“It’s a good way to think about the service to the customer. We want to make it smooth – it will happen.”

The pandemic saw Southwest switch to a 100% remote, virtual working model within six months, something it had previously expected would take up to six years, said Jones.

“We are all customers, our expectations have changed and that means our employees expectations have changed.

 “We have hired 1,500 people this year and we are not hiring airline professionals especially in the call centre.

“We are bringing in people who have no desire to be agents working in a call centre and now they are working from home.

“You are not going to get someone who understands cryptic so we are investing in our tools. You cannot expect tonnes and tonnes of training or to get people to be an airline expert.

“We need to think about our digital experience, not just of our customers but for our people as well.”

Thomas agreed that training on systems needs to be a “simple process”. “What do you want your people to do?

“If you can free them up to do more high value tasks then it opens up a whole new area for contact centres. It becomes more like a TMC [Travel Management Company].

“If we can automate we can change what an airline contact centre does so it does not matter matter if we bring in people from other non-airline contact centres.

“We bring in people because of the way they deal with people, their warmth.”

Jones said Southwest, which uses the Salesforce service and contact centre platform, is simplifying its tools by consolidating into  a single application.

“You cannot expect new employees to know which of 15 applications to go to complete something,” he said.