Digital transformation in travel industry is an understatement. If you are not on the digital wave yet, you have already missed the bus. For a lot of young travellers, travel is an extension of digital experience that engulfs their everyday life. From entertainment to food, fashion to shopping, millennials want an instantaneous digital experience. Travel is fast becoming part of a similar expectation and in a short time, the expectation has skyrocketed. They want to get all inputs from their influencers in real-time, see and experience as much as they can, chat and talk to people who have experienced it before them—but they would still like to make their own decisions and would always want a personalised experience.
According to a consultancy study, 84% of travel businesses have a digital transformation function. Hence, it is no surprise that travel companies are spending billions in improving their digital experience. While it is no match to the entertainment or an Amazon experience, travel companies are pushing their envelope in implementing and embracing technology to provide an extended digital experience. They are working with smaller and nimbler companies to provide agile and quick solutions that are becoming an extension of their core product.
When it comes to the digital travel experience, shopping or 'inspiration' as travel companies would like to put it, gets the lion's share of attention. Booking and confirmation are a natural second. Companies are further categorising the digital travel experience into pre-travel, in-trip, and post-travel segments; and a few of them even focus on additional micro segments within each of these. Rightfully so, shopping is the area of focus, where a large number of customers come in touch with their digital touch points through apps, bots, websites, kiosks, reviews, etc. A friction-less booking experience is very important in converting the sky-high expectations into revenue channels. A company which has not figured out the booking flow will convert less compared to one that provides a hassle-free booking experience. An in-depth look into the top priorities of travel companies will provide the clue as to where the investments are flowing.
However, in this digital travel experience and life cycle, one important area is often missed out. Customer service, as in the case of company strategy, is always a secondary thought. Neither the technology investment nor the digital experience has gone into upgrading customer experience to a truly digital customer service. Customer service handling agents still use tools from the early 2000s, make phone calls with limited understanding of the customer profiles, and have no insights into the customers' buying or channel preferences.
The cost of non-digital transformation of customer service is very high in this age of integrated brand experience. Customers do not see customer service centres as a back-end function any longer. They are not amused by the lack of integrated view of themselves. Customers are demanding an experience similar to what they are promised in the initial digital touch points.
To add to the cost, customers are no longer interested in sending a feedback form or an email to an unknown email ID. They take to the same digital tools which brought the brand closer to them. According to a study in the hospitality industry, 10 percentage points of difference in reviews have 25% difference in demand and a bigger difference in conversion for similar rated hotels with comparable amenities. A negative customer service experience can take the sheen off all the innovative work done upfront to capture the mindshare of the customer.
If the cost of non-DX is well understood, why is there a reluctance to spend on digital experience with customer service? Not all travel companies and brands think alike; there are a few exceptions to this though. However, most of the travel companies take a piecemeal approach. A chatbot or a mobile app with limited functionality is often the extent of digital experience when it comes to customer service. They are loosely (read non-existent) integrated into the customer profile or the booking engine. The data that is generated out of the booking engine is not available for the customer service agents to provide any intelligent or personalised solution to the problems reported and they can at best provide only a generic answer.
It is interesting, and perhaps ironic too, to note that the piecemeal approach was dominant in the shopping and customer experience as well, earlier. It took almost a decade for travel companies to switch to a holistic view of customer experience.
As stated earlier, in most companies, customer service strategy comes in as an after-thought. One of the reasons is that customer service is not seen as a profit centre or a revenue growth engine. It is a residual thought from the earlier decades, where customer service is seen as a cost and operational expense. As with any operational expense, the strategy is to lower it and not to invest further.
As companies ponder on how to transform their customer service, there are a few established practices and approaches which would help them start on the journey faster. While these are not easy tips and techniques, they lay foundation for the changes that are required in the transformation process.
The first and foremost step is a cultural and mind shift. Companies that are serious about their digital transformation efforts have to take customer service strategy into account. Customer service strategy should be seen as an integral part of the brand strategy. Customer service and the handling agents cannot be viewed as an operational expense, but as a unique touch point, which combines both digital and human intelligence. While the investment ratio can be decided based on the nature of the travel product, its maturity in the market, it still has to be thought in the similar lines of customer experience.
Customer service must be seen as a digital touch point, similar to web and mobile apps. Customer service agents should also have tools such as bots, apps, or kiosks which are well integrated into the booking engine and customer relationship databases. The tools should provide a 360-degree view of the customers, insights into their buying patterns, preferences, nature of issues they typically face, types of customer connect, customer satisfaction metrics, and more. It is futile to have a one-sided integration; the integration has to work for both the customer experience and the customer service. The data generated by the customer service is equally important to improve the customer experience, and hence there is a need to have a holistic view.
Customer service tools have to be upgraded to match the promise of innovative technology in customer experience. There are several solutions in the market which can provide data and artificial intelligence-driven technology to better the customer service, and thereby the ultimate customer experience. Predictive tools which can provide recommendations based on chats/emails and calls are becoming popular and should be part of the customer service arsenal. Chat analytics is a more powerful tool than web analytics, since it is customer need specific and the need is very clearly articulated. Clearly, there is a lack of precedence when it comes to investment in customer service technology, but it indeed is an area of opportunity to invest and create a competitive edge.
In terms of customer experience, one of the step improvements was the seamless browsing experience, or as the industry puts it, 'omni-channel' experience. It is the ability to move across different channels for shopping and booking and yet have a seamless experience. For customer service, it is high time we moved from a multi-channel (phone, web, chat, email) to a truly digital omni-channel experience. It will provide a step function improvement in the digital customer service experience. Solutions like Virtual Contact Centre which combines different channels and provides a one-view of customer conversations are here to stay. Companies which adopt them faster will make a leap in their digital transformation journey.
Digitalisation of customer service is no longer a desirable goal, but a step needed to develop an integrated brand experience and to provide a unique customer experience that the brand vouches for. A truly digitalised customer service is no longer relegated to back-end operations, but provides a unique proposition for the digital customer experience.