How to Improve Customer Service in the Airline Industry

July 26, 2021
12:00 am

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There’s no two ways about it: COVID-19 has thrown the travel and airline industry into disarray like never before. According to the International Air Transport Association, demand for air travel decreased by 65.9 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. At the same time, the surge in cancellations and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic created a dramatic influx in demand for airline customer service.

For those who were still flying, the air travel experience was more turbulent than ever before. Helping these customers navigate the turmoil has meant airlines have been forced to level-up their customer service and reinvent what great customer experience means in the airline industry.

Redefining the airline customer experience

Customer experience in the airline industry is complex and meandering, formed from a massive range of different elements — all the way from purchasing tickets to picking up luggage at the final destination.

Some of these factors can be controlled, like the time taken to get a boarding pass, but there’s a host of external factors that can’t be controlled, too — like the impact of COVID-19, for instance. But with the right digital technology and protocols in place, your company’s response to these scenarios can actually help foster a great customer experience.

Live chat, for example, is the most popular option for customer service, yet only 15 percent of low-cost carriers have built it into their mobile apps. This figure drops to just 4 percent for traditional carriers, according to research by Videc

As more travelers take back to the skies post-pandemic, offering a mobile-first experience that is both convenient and personalized has become a primary concern. Digital technology makes this possible. In particular, AI technology — often in the form of chatbots — has proved invaluable in improving automation and self-serve options.

There’s a number of other ways airlines can use technology to create innovative experiences for their customers, too.

  • Delta Airlines. In 2020, Delta announced their Parallel Reality experience, which displays personalized on-screen content to multiple passengers simultaneously throughout their travel journey. 
  • American Airlines. American Airlines’ adopted Google Assistant’s Interpreter to create a frictionless travel experience for foreign language-speaking customers.

To stay competitive with this new wave of customer experience, airlines should look at their current customer journey through the lens of digital transformation. It’s more important than ever to meet customers where they’re at and deliver service that truly adds value to the flying experience.

Why is customer service so important in airlines?

At the end of the day, customer service is crucial because it directly affects your bottom line. And every bit counts in such an ultra-competitive market. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say a good or bad interaction can make or break customer loyalty for your brand. In a 2019 airline satisfaction study by JD Power, customers clearly stated that they would pay a higher fare just to fly with an airline with good customer service.

Digital customer experience: A ticket to success

In the face of such massive recent upheaval, the need for a customer-centric digital approach to airline customer experience management has never been more pressing. And it’s the companies that have embraced the kind of in-app customer service experiences aligning with market demand that have seen the most success during this difficult time.

The need for a flexible, digital approach is noticeable in the increased use of social media. It’s common nowadays for travelers to use it to share their praise or criticism. As such, social media often acts as the first line of defense. Many airlines have pivoted to social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook as one of the primary methods of customer service. It’s clear that digital-first channels are easy to access and preferable to many customers.

Case in point: United Airlines. Late last year, they launched their Agent on Demand program. It really took off, and customers can now connect directly with customer service reps through SMS, live mobile video and chat.

The CMO Council and Amrit Dhangal, CEO and Co-founder at Acquire, recently sat down for a chat with Rob Bence, Director, Airport Technology & Insights at United Airlines, and Sheila McGee-Smith, President and Principal Analytics at McGee-Smith Analytics. To hear the full story of how United Airlines has transformed their passenger experience, watch the on-demand recording here.

How United Airlines used technology to bridge the gap between agents and customers

In late 2020, United Airlines started meeting their customers in-app, literally, wherever they were, whatever the time. Their Agent on Demand program serves as a prime example of excellent customer service in the airline industry.

Agent on Demand connects customers to live customer service agents through multiple channels, including chat, video call, and SMS. Customers can speak to an agent about anything from seat assignments to boarding information. The focus is on interactions that would traditionally require a trip to the gate or ticket counter. With Agent on Demand, United’s goal was clear: Give their customers a way to meaningfully interact with the brand, while providing fast and helpful service with empathy.

Watch this video to find out more:

Results from the Agent on Demand program during the pandemic have been seriously impressive. United Airlines has served thousands of passengers and increased their customer satisfaction scores. There’s no doubt about it: The ability to provide omnichannel customer service across a variety of popular platforms has been a real game-changer. 

For United Airlines, Agent on Demand enabled them to provide safety and service with empathy during the pandemic. Customers engage with the program starting with chat, and then seamlessly transition to a video call when needed.

“What we saw was we wanted to meet our customers where they’re at. And we wanted to give them that flexibility of engagement,” says Rob Bence.

So how exactly was United Airlines able to turn this program around so quickly in a pandemic?

United Airlines knew they wouldn’t be able to create Agent on Demand on their own, especially given the tight turnaround time. Instead, by quickly gaining alignment across the company at the pilot stage, they were able to evaluate vendors, learn, and make any necessary adjustments on the fly.

The team partnered with Acquire specifically because the technology is so easy to implement and use — agents could be onboarded in just 15 minutes. With expertise in enterprise technology, Acquire enabled United to get a pilot off the ground in four weeks. Perhaps most importantly of all, a customer experience platform made it possible to create a personalized experience for United Airlines’ thousands of users. 

Measuring airline customer service management success

We’ve talked about how United Airlines found success, but how exactly do airlines measure success when it comes to customer service programs? It’s a crucial point. After all, it’s what allows businesses to learn and scale operations. Whether it’s auditing current programs or implementing new strategies, you should always aim to close the feedback loop.

Airlines should look to evaluate the following customer satisfaction metrics:

  • CSAT scores. Like most industries, customer satisfaction survey results are a key direct indicator of positive (or negative) customer experiences in the airline industry. 
  • Net Promoter Score. An NPS score gives more context to customer satisfaction by providing an understanding of how many customers are promoters, and therefore likely to recommend you, and how many are detractors, and therefore likely to dissuade others. 
  • Adoption rate. Are customers actually using your designated customer service platform, or are they going through other methods? Do your customers want the service options you're providing? On the flip side, are your service agents using the technology?
  • Channel volumes. When implementing new communication methods, airlines should review which channels see the highest volumes of inbound inquiries. This can help your business understand how customers prefer to communicate with you.
  • Interaction numbers and response times. Airlines should also observe quantitative changes in metrics such as number of tickets or interactions, and the time it takes to resolve these queries.
  • Efficiency. A successful customer service program should make it easier and quicker for customers to receive a response. Evaluate if interactions at the gates have been reduced and if your agents have reduced the amount of time spent between or during interactions.
  • Repeat customers and customer retention. Repeat engagement with your customer service programs can be an indicator of convenience or even be a sign that there are gaps elsewhere in the customer’s travel journey.
  • Employee satisfaction. While it makes sense to prioritize the customers when it comes to customer service, service agents are on the front lines interacting with customers. Employee satisfaction can reflect the customer experience. How do your service agents perceive the process? What areas do they think are successful and what are their challenges?

Necessity is the mother of innovation

Customer service programs such as United Airlines’ Agent on Demand are examples of how embracing technology and innovation can help businesses meet shifting customer expectations.

And the pace of evolution is only picking up. To stay en route, it’s not enough to just haphazardly implement technology to seal cracks in the customer journey. A comprehensive omnichannel approach needs to be prioritized — one that meets customers at every touchpoint in an empathetic and helpful way. Companies like United Airlines act as proof that attaining this level of customer experience isn’t just pie in the sky.

Ready to bump up your customer experience to first class? Learn more about how Acquire helps the airline industry.


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