Tony Wheble, chief executive of Feefo, says never before has it mattered so much to know what customers are expecting
Guest Post: How travel comes back as a better version of what it was
It’s exciting to think that after an extraordinarily difficult couple of years the travel industry is getting back to business, and even more exciting to think beyond ‘business as usual’.
With a large dose of optimism to see us past the troubles in Ukraine, the resurgence of COVID-19 in China and the cost of living crisis, the next test for the travel industry is whether we go back to how things were, or whether we go back to a better version of how things were.
One thing leaps out. Leisure travel was perhaps taken for granted by many of us, and now it’s treasured more than ever. Consumers’ expectations of their hard-earned, scarce opportunities to go on holiday or abroad have absolutely sky-rocketed.
Never before has it mattered so much to know what customers are expecting from travel businesses, and to be able to respond to it. Not guess, or sense – but to actually know.
We’ve just experienced a worldwide societal shock. Working patterns, living standards, aspirations – everything has radically changed in two years. Consumers’ use of technology has adapted abruptly too, in a hugely positive way.
In contrast - and I write as a critical friend of the sector – my thinking is that the travel industry has some way to go in terms of harnessing technology to best effect.
It is tempting to look at others in the sector and maybe try to stay ahead of them, but you’re limiting your horizons if that’s as far as you compare. Consumers draw no distinction between sectors, they just recognise their best customer experiences.
To give you a few examples, before 2020 no-one had heard of Zoom, electric cars were esoteric at best, and streaming Netflix was mostly for the under-50s. Now look at them, and others besides.
‘Tap and go’ has grown exponentially while cash usage has plummeted. Fintech brands like Starling and Revolut have entered the mainstream due to their sophisticated banking capabilities and intuitive apps.
Tens of millions of people use one or several of WhatsApp, TikTok, Snap, Spotify or Instagram most weeks, beside the social media giants of course. These hi-tech but simple to use products and apps have materially improved lives.
Yes, these examples are now big business successes, but you can still use their principles and ambitions as reference points.
You can measure yourself against the best customer experience (CX) you’ve personally enjoyed, or the best digital customer experience you’ve ever enjoyed. You can and should be using tech to re-boot your business, delight customers, and gain advantage over the competition.
Two of the most durably outstanding UK companies that I admire greatly have no obvious association with technology. On the face of it Next sells fashion and homewares, and JCB make diggers.
However, behind the scenes they both invest heavily and consistently in tech and CX. They rarely hit the headlines, but they apply innovative tech solutions to logistics, fulfilment and understanding their customers.
In the travel sector there are pockets of technical expertise, but travel is not a tech-led sector and it isn’t teeming with technologists.
I doubt you’re one yourself, but you don’t have to be the data analyst or the computer scientist; you just need to recognise when to turn to the tech experts for the services that you should now regard as everyday business essentials.
What travellers really think
To cite an example I know well, Feefo provides verified customer reviews, and is a trusted provider to many in the travel sector.
In days gone by people would lean over the reception desk and tell you exactly what they think, and that would be that.
Now, we solicit customers’ views online in timely and well-presented ways and still they tell you exactly what they think.
But instead of those views vanishing into thin air, with Feefo you see the individual and collated reviews via an analysable, easy-to-access dashboard which informs you, and informs your potential customers too.
It’s up to you how you convert those learnings into new business, repeat business, or profitable business – decisions, decisions!
We find that the companies that really want to understand what their customers think, and then improve things like CX even more (a critical step in the review sequence) tend to rapidly adapt to and appreciate the scale of information they start to see, and how best to interpret it.
Reviews don’t just benefit companies of course. There is a virtuous circle: consumers see others’ reviews and make better-informed purchasing decisions; new customers then make their own comments which companies act on, which help the next prospects, and so on. Every complete cycle is a mini-revolution in itself.
What drives customer sentiment in the travel sector
Knowing why people think and act the way they do is either a gift, or a priceless insight.
For example, all switched-on travel companies bend over backwards to provide good customer service, websites and rewards, but Feefo has discovered that in the travel sector, the out-and-out driver of customer sentiment towards a company is issue resolution (37%) rather than rates and rewards (19%) or staff quality (9%) for instance. Does that mirror your intuition?
Bringing the word ‘thriving’ back to its rightful position in front of ‘travel sector’ is an ambition of ours – and yes we are ambitious enough to think we can benefit an entire sector.
Those who listen to and respond to their customers will be reaping the rewards. At a metadata level we can tell you that customers want value for money; accurate information; friendly and helpful staff; and easy to use websites.
Perhaps you could have guessed as much, but shouldn’t you know by how much; to what extent; at what point; and when higher prices are viewed as better value?
Today’s technology is so easy to use, and we all love a great app that does a brilliant job. Exactly the same principle applies to business tech.
The soon-to-be-thriving travel sector can fling its doors open once again, and this time round it can do what it does best while deploying new technology to head towards best practices, avoid bumpy rides, and make a decent return.