Put twenty senior travel executives in a room and ask them to talk about customer service best practice and what do you get?
Well, Travolution and d-flo, provider of the customised post-reservations communications platform TravelComms, did just that at an exclusive dinner during World Travel Market last week.
We asked each of our guests to highlight instances of good or bad customer behaviour they have experienced, not necessarily in travel, but in commerce in general.
Amazon, the firm whose mission is to be the world’s most customer-centric company, drew the widest praise but car manufacturers Audi and BMW, banks Barclays, Santander and First Direct, and Marks and Spencer, o2, Netflix and lesser known brands Bam Clothing, Sonos and even one guest’s local Indian restaurant got the thumbs up.
In travel Premier Inn, Virgin Atlantic, Generator Hostels and Eurostar were praised for their approach to customer service, for being easy and simple brands to deal with.
On the other side of the ledger two firms that have recently hit the national headlines for the wrong reasons, TalkTalk and Volkswagen, were criticised, as was Sky, Virgin Media, National Savings and Investments and Vodafone.
In travel British Airways, Cosmos [now Monarch Holidays] and easyHotel were in the bad books.
What all the brands talked about in positive terms had in common was their approach to personalising their service, reacting to problems with simple and effective solutions and communicating to customers at the right time and in the right way.
Firms that send regular speculative emails with non-specific offers were slated for taking a dumb approach to marketing that was likely to turn more people away than convert.
The issue for travel, however, was how companies can maintain regular communications with existing customers when the holiday purchase is so infrequent.
Regular users of Amazon are used to receiving multiple communications because of the frequency of purchase and the need to provide updates on deliveries and orders.
However, travel has a tendency to over-rely on offer emails to maintain that contact when firms actually have enough information on customers to do something different, like wish them happy birthday, or welcome them home from a trip.
Advantage said recent new members to the consortium that have come from a multiple background have a policy of finding out four things about each customer that are not related to the purchase which they can follow up on later.
However, this wealth of data is only usable or actionable once it’s entered into a Customer Relationship Management system.
One interesting suggestion was that firms that know they appeal to a similar demographic and are likely to share the same customers should collaborate knowing that those customers are not going to go away with the same company every year.
This approach could be particularly powerful in niche areas of travel in which firms should be encouraged to be a little less precious about the USP of their databases and develop joint-branded, aligned product lines.
Another challenge particular to travel was said to be how and to whom customers attribute good service; is it the hotel, the tour operator, or the travel agent?
Kuoni measures Net Promoter Score three times during the customer journey and assesses the “promise gap” – the difference between the score when they book and when they come back.
This explains why travel brands like Kuoni and Tui are striving to take full ownership of the product from the point of booking to the point of returning home after the holiday, and thereafter. It’s all about ‘owning the customer’.
It was pointed out, however, how it is far easier in travel to acquire new business than to retain existing customers, leading to a sense of ‘acceptable churn’.
This was why Sky was criticised for its apparent lack of interest in providing existing customers with deals to reward their loyalty in comparison to enticing new customers with attractive discounted subscriptions.
When it came to resolving issues, Santander, First Direct, Audi and Marks and Spencer, were picked out for praise for making the solution easy, automated, or personal, or for going beyond the call of duty.
Automation was seen as key, but not as a replacement for human interaction, for that reasonm the travel agent was considered to still have a vital role to play in the choices customers make. This goes down to individual agents working within agencies.
For this reason G Adventures puts a great deal of investment in its people to deliver consistently high service, because the product won’t deliver that by itself.
Ultimately, the challenge all travel firms have is to ascertain what sort of on-going communications their customers have either explicitly or implicitly given the brand permission to send, when and in what way.
Companies who can crack that will be able to continue deriving greater commercial benefit out of each customer throughout their journey, while providing an enhanced, more relevant and personalised service. The distinction between service and sales blur and the brand avoids the pitfalls of spamming its customers, or looking too desperate to extract every last penny out of them.
While this approach may prove to be more successful in some areas of travel then in others, in the age of the web any brand that fails to deliver on its promises can expect to be talked about in negative terms in far more public forums than our WTM dinner.
Business Development Director & Co-Founder
Technical Director & Co-Founder
Head of Commercials & Product
President & Chief Executive
Destination Weddings Travel Group
Head of Commercial and Marketing
Advantage Travel Partnership
World Travellers (UK)
Chief Executive Officer
Head of Tailor Made Cruise
Head of UK/IE Sales & Marketing
Pierre & Vacances
Director Tour Operations
Head of Sales and Marketing
Mark Warner Ltd
Marketing and Product Director
Group Director of IT
Abercrombie & Kent
Great Rail Journeys
Ex IT Director
360 Engagement TTC