Messaging and chatbots are surging in popularity. How can airlines take advantage of this trend to get closer to their customers?

Last time round, we looked at how AAPAC travel companies can start to take back control from online travel agents (OTAs). This time I want to introduce a new concept: "Frictionless customer conversations." It’s 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 AAPAC. In China, for example, the rise and rise of WeChat has been a phenomenal success story. With 1 billion+ monthly users, it’s fundamentally changing how people work and live, especially in big cities.1 We know that 70 percent of consumers now prefer messaging over voice when they contact customer care centres.2

Here are some other eye-catching statistics. By 2020, 70 percent of all B2C customer support will be via mobile, with smart agents facilitating 40 percent of those interactions.3 And, rather disconcertingly, by 2022 the average person will have more conversations with chatbots than with their spouse.4

Right now, however, 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

Nowadays, 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.5 If a company sends a message to a customer by WhatsApp, it should be able to provide exactly the same experience on any other platform, as well as by phone. And of course, 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. Much more than a simple exchange of information, people expect to be able to transact via messaging, not just make an inquiry. They want to be able to choose a seat, book a meal or change a flight. That means integration with back-end systems is an urgent priority.

We’re still in the first generation of messaging management. That means contact centre agents are having to handle five or six chats at a time. I know that’s how most of Gen X and Gen Y stay in touch, but in a contact centre agents need to juggle all that and find the information they need for each chat at the same time. It’s messaging, but on steroids.

If there’s a better way of managing those chats, it’s a huge opportunity for driving up productivity. Then there’s the whole issue 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 can’t 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. But most travel companies are still nowhere near that point.

Doing things differently…

As usual, 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. But with the right technologies, those boundaries don’t need to exist anymore.

Agents won’t need to sit together in physical contact centres. With new technologies, you can see how the whole set-up could 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.

What about having an agent (working from home or in a contact centre) responsible for managing a particular flight? A customer service agent would log in and be allocated to, say, the KL 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.

Next steps…how we can help

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 (IVR) as a biometric tool for recognising customers by voice (we’re using the same technology with a major North American airline).

Elsewhere, we’ve built a disruption chatbot for a leading Asian 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.

Our chatbot gives 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 all real 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.

I hope I get the chance to catch up with some of you at the recent Digital Travel APAC event in Singapore, where I headlined "Keynote: Creating Adventures in Realtime: How to deliver near real-time, context-driven and personalised experiences." And stay tuned for my next blog where I’ll share more on highlights from the event and the launch of an exciting new digital airline. Thanks for reading.

1 The next phase of WeChat

2 Accenture’s Global Consumer Pulse Survey 2017, LIVEPERSON The Conversational Era 2017, EMarketer 10 Key Digital Trends for 2018, Northbridge Group State of Customer Service Experience 2017.

3 Gartner Research

4 Fjord SIA Disruption Chatbot research

5 Accenture Research

Mike Tansey

Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Travel, Growth Markets

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