By Jean-Francois Hector, User Experience Strategist at The App Business
It is a fact of life for many in the travel industry that to sell their services they have to go through intermediaries to reach their customers at scale.
Take a look at airlines, for example. Most airlines sell the majority of their tickets through travel agents and other intermediaries like Global Distribution Systems (GDSs).
Airlines pay $7 billion each year (twice their annual profit) to GDS companies that link them to travel agents. While not the only factor, this has helped contribute to airline profit margins being less than 1% on average over the last 50 years.
Now, this model has many advantages obviously, but there is also one big problem: it puts a barrier between a company and its customer.
It means airlines – continuing the example – struggle to differentiate on anything other than cost because they have lost significant control over the customer relationship.
So what’s to be done?
The biggest opportunity to reclaim this direct relationship lies in mobile.
We are in an unprecedented new era: a programmable world where new customer behaviours and new, disruptive business models are emerging at lightspeed.
At the core of this disruption is the new reality that people turn to mobile to interact with everyone and everything around them every minute, of every day.
Some 88% of 15-35 year olds in the UK own a smartphone, and 33% see it as the most important device for going online.
Their smartphone is always with them, always on and it is the most personal device they own. For the first time in history, a business can deliver a highly personal, direct service with each of their customers at remarkable scale.
The idea that they need mobile isn’t a new one to the travel industry or indeed airlines, largely because at a top level, the benefits are plain and clear. But ultimately, so many miss the mark.
To really seize the mobile opportunity, travel companies need to do more than just build an app.
For each step of their customer’s journey, they need to ask themselves religiously: what outcomes are customers trying to achieve right now? What pain points and problems are getting in the way? How can we make it easier?
If we think about a typical air travel holiday with these questions in mind, then it is plain to see it is riddled with problems and pain points that no-one is solving – and the companies that do solve them will ultimately stand to reap the rewards.
Let’s take a closer look:
1. On the day of the trip
The fear of running late and/or missing a flight is the second biggest contributor to stress when travelling.
What positive impact might travel companies see on their bottom line if they could make it so much easier for their customers to catch their flight on time, without the stress?
Imagine a ‘Today’ screen widget that adapts itself to show your customer’s real-time flight information, in addition to their itinerary.
This includes a countdown for when their gate opens or the plane is due to depart, with flight delays indicated.
Perhaps it also illustrates their estimated time of arrival at destination, based on their current location. If they require help finding the best route to the airport, they can request navigation assistance with just a tap.
2. At the airport
‘Spending time in airport’ is actually the number one pain point reported by travellers. So, again, what would happen if an airline helped their customers to have an easier, more enjoyable airport experience?
Let’s say that once the customer has passed security, their app automatically shifts to ‘flight board mode’.
It provides them with live information about their flight status, and the length of time it will take to get to the gate based on their current location.
If they’re running late, the app notifies them and asks if they would like to be guided towards the gate.
3. Onboard the plane
And what about when you are onboard? Air travel is, for most of us, often uncomfortable and unenjoyable – making it the most requested experience improvement customers want from airlines.
But what if travel companies could leverage mobile to improve their customers’ in-flight experience? If your airline did that, wouldn’t they become your preferred option when you next travel?
For example, it’s often difficult to get a flight attendant’s attention during a busy flight. With mobile, an airline’s customers can use their device to request food, drinks and duty free, or call for assistance.
Being able to make direct requests means customers are served more quickly, and cabin crew can avoid the usual back and forth.
4. Arrival at destination
We all suffer the fear that our belongings might be misplaced during our journey – it’s the third biggest contributor to stress when travelling.
What if airlines and travel companies could reduce their customers’ anxiety concerning lost luggage – what impact would that have on loyalty and choice?
Throughout their journey, customers could receive live updates about the location of their checked luggage to help them feel reassured and at ease.
As soon as they disembark, they receive a notification telling them which carousel their luggage will be available to collect from.
If the airline does misplace their luggage, they can be alerted directly via the app so that they can promptly organise its return.
5. After the trip
Finding good prices and booking flights is a hassle, we all know that. 92% of travellers hope for a more streamlined process.
What if booking flights directly with an airline was so easy that your customers wouldn’t bother booking through anyone else?
Well, because their app already ‘knows’ the customer, booking flights becomes a seamless, intuitive experience – making it feel inconvenient to book with any other airline.
The app also serves customers with relevant travel deals and promotions based on their travel history, and information they provided about their interests and future travel plans.
In this brief post there are just some of the ways that travel companies can leverage mobile technology to solve their customers’ problems, and by doing this, build more direct and profitable relationships with them.
But there are many more opportunities waiting to be discovered. To discover them, you have to ground your thinking in deep insight, answering that crucial question: what outcomes are customers trying to achieve right now?
If you don’t have the answer to that, your app is missing a powerful opportunity.