By Brendan B. Read,
Senior Contributing Editor
Few industries pose as many challenges to enabling high quality customer-retaining interactions as transportation. Few others are subject to daily, weekly and seasonal peaks and slumps, with passengers and organizations traveling and shipping en masse or not at all. Or to as many variables that impact successful delivery: corporate decisions, labor disputes, equipment malfunctions, fuel/energy prices and availability, weather, disasters:
man-made and natural and the customers themselves. Yet few businesses have customers that are as demanding.
In the middle of customers and transportation firms are the contact centers. Their agents must, with smiles in their voices and fingertips, meet customers’ needs including placating them to keep their loyalty.
Robin Rees, director of customer programs at Varolii and a Boeing (News - Alert) and travel industry veteran, points out that change in transportation often come very fast, and unexpectedly. When bad weather hits and flights are delayed or cancelled, it not only impacts travelers in storm areas, but also those who are scheduled on later flights on the same airplane or with the same crew. If the crew doesn’t get to its next assignment, the airline has to scramble to find another that’s willing, able and certified to fly.
For freight shippers, the problems can be just as bad, says Rees. While packages do not complain about delays, the consumers waiting for them do, especially for timesensitivedelivery dates such as holidays. The problem is compounded when each day’s shipments get backed up. The volume increases, but the available vehicles usually do not. A package shipped a few days after a major weather delay may still be late because the shipper is still trying to catch up, a situation which the recipient doesn’t always understand.
Also consumers can be hard to reach, which exacerbates problems. An airline traveler notified of a gate change too late
isn’t going to be happy when they finally get to the new gate just as the airplane has shut its doors. If someone is anxiously
awaiting a shipment, they don’t want to miss the message telling them when to be at home to sign for it.
Transportation providers have Web sites and information numbers, and airports, stations and terminals have PA systems
and message boards. Yet these rely on customers to be in contact, to contact them, be in earshot – often difficult in busy and noisy terminals not built for acoustics – and in sight to deliver key information. The public-facing systems
cannot easily have their material personalized – and which may be of confidential nature – to individual customers.
“Companies must contend customer service issues on top of the logistical ones,” saysRees. “Consumers are flooding contact centers, demanding to know their own personal status and are often not in the mood to be placated. Minutes count. If companies can communicate quickly to large numbers of their customers, they tend to avoid – or at
least lessen – the consumer backlash.” Employing Outbound Notifications Varolii has devised and refined automated outbound voice and e-mail/SMS customer service and flight team notification solutions. These tools avoid having live agents make outbound calls and contacts and rely on inbound methods that also add to costs deliver vital messages.
For example, Varolii Customer Service & Loyalty communicates across multiple channels to ensure that travelers are contacted immediately when something changes, even if they’re already in transit and don’t answer their home phones.
Varolii automatically calls or text messages the status change, outlines new travel arrangements and then offers to connect the traveler to an agent if the new booking isn’t acceptable. If it is, Varolii can then offer to send the new confirmation code via test so the passenger doesn’t have to try to write it down while in transit.
Since 2007, Southwest Airlines has been using Varolii’s outbound notification system for flight cancellation, and more recently for delay and gate changes, in SMS as well as voice, with personalized messages. The cancellation alerts briefly
explains the accommodations being offered, and provides options to transfer to a service agent, or forward the message to another phone number.
The airline had been broadcasting flight cancellation alerts over airport PA systems, at the reservations desks and on their Web site. The company also had no way of reaching all of their customers in a timely manner using manual outbound dialing. These events usually created a spike in customer service requests as contact center agents scrambled to handle the flood of inbound calls, while airport desk agents struggled to re-schedule passengers on top of managing passenger check-ins
for those unaffected by cancellations.
“The more options we have to proactively reach our customers, over their preferred channel of communications, the better we can serve them and rise above their service level expectations,” says Fred Taylor, Southwest’s senior manager of proactive customer communications.
Managing Costs and Loyalty
Transportation firms in every mode are operating on thin margins in competitive and highly demand-variable markets, forcing them to watch every penny being spent while paying a close eye to customer loyalty.
Grant Shirk, director of industry solu- tions at Tellme (News - Alert) Business Solutions at Microsoft, which provides hosted speech
rec solutions, says these challenges can make it difficult for operators to effectively manage their contact centers in-
cluding self-service systems. They create operational challenges including an often overpowering focus on cost management and automation, unpredictable and spiky traffic, all while trying to maintain a high-level of customer satisfaction for different kinds of customers: casual, business, and high-value frequent fliers.
“While the barriers to entry in the travel industry are high, switching costs from one provider to another in any market are
very low for consumers, so there is a premium on attracting and keeping the most valuable travelers,” Shirk points out.
Tellme’s solution is highly scalable, en- abling even the largest transportation op- erators to handle the biggest call spikes; it handles 10 billion speech requests every year. The hosted model is coupled with pay-as-you-go pricing that enables firms to carefully manage their costs.
The firm has rolled into the platform several technologies that deliver highly personalized experiences. These products include a powerful personalization database that allows applications to store and manage key customization criteria to drive compelling user experiences. They also include segmentation- based call analytics to surface valuable performance insights about how individual segments interact with (and ultimately succeed in their tasks) within them.
Tellme’s solutions have enabled one unnamed airline’s customers to get to their status information 30 seconds faster, resulting in 60 percent swifter overall task completions. The carrier realized a 26 percent reduction in abandoned calls, and doubled its rate of fully automated tasks.
The Tellme application has boosted cus- tomer satisfaction. This is achieved when customers call in they do not have to ask as the systems recognize the callers, their preferences and travel plans and delivers the information that is most relevant to them at the beginning of their calls.
“That airline’s unique ability to recognize returning customers and tailors the calling experience to their needs, which leaves callers delighted, differentiates their service from the competition and lowers demand on live agents,” says Shirk.
Ensuring quality on calls is vital for transportation firms especially when there are many choices available. Southwest Airlines, perhaps not surprisingly, is on the leading edge. The Customer Relations and Rapid Rewards center is where the proverbial “buck stops” at the airline; it manages calls for its frequent flyer program and handles contacts escalated from its customer care/ reservations and baggage contact centers.
Jona Berta, customer relations/rapid rewards telephone manager, explains that the center’s mission is to serve as an advocate, resource and support for its internal (i.e. staff) and external customers; to provide a channel of communication; and to build and preserve customer loyalty.
To carry out the mission more effectively the Southwest center needed a makeover. That included putting scores to quality and to feel confident about the numbers being accurate and simplifying skills to be evaluated and shortening forms and evaluations. Several of the skills were in the wrong category.
“Supervisors rebelled against the QA form; [they] resorted to listening and coaching to calls manually,” says Berta. “It was too difficult to calibrate so we didn’t. It was also not in alignment with our yearly performance review form.”
Southwest contacted Envision Telephony, which, using industry best practices, combined the number of skills and skill
categories, measuring what Berta says only mattered from five categories and 26 skills to three categories and seven skills. The seven combined skills evaluated are: listening skills/communication, empathy/ personalization, voice tone and pace, overall knowledge, call control/flexibility, use of systems appropriate to calls, and system documentation.
“Since the program started in August 2007 we’ve received a ton of positive feedback from our representatives [agents] and supervisors,” reports Berta. “It has enabled us to increase first call resolution to 93 percent improved quality program results and a more consistent customer experience. Reps get feedback from all supervisors. Evaluations are being conducted more efficiently and effectively. There is more time for coaching. [And] we are clearly aligned with our yearly performance appraisal.”
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
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Here is a just sample of the topics that will be covered at the Social Customer Summit:
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See you at ITEXPO West 2010!
Senior Contributing Editor
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