Travolution Journeys – Are consumers being served?

Foviance and call-centre specialists RXP conducted research to examine the multi-channel customer service experience provided by online travel specialists. The results were highly informative, as Paul Blunden and Paul Weald explain.

Produced in association with:


Over the years, the travel industry has rightly been lauded for its commitment to innovation and customer experience online.

Major new brands have entered the market as internet-only set-ups, and quickly established themselves as key players.

But, however desirable internet-only and self-service solutions maybe for businesses, delivering an online-only customer experience requires a massive investment in customer service.

In fact, in the retail market, only Amazon has managed to successfully deliver a truly single-channel experience; and this only after a massive and unrivalled investment in customer centric solutions. Despite this, the company has still experimented with introducing call-centre support at particularly busy times.

The success in establishing the internet as a trusted and familiar channel is not without its problems. While businesses have seen it as an opportunity to cut customer service and transaction costs, consumers’ increased familiarity with the web is not necessarily leading them to view it as an isolated channel. Research within both retail and travel has revealed that customers are expecting a seamless brand experience, and do not distinguish between one channel and another.

In the retail sector, our research revealed that traditional direct marketing companies were far better prepared to exploit the multi-channel environment, given the detailed understanding of the specific touch points throughout the sales cycle.

Meanwhile, high-street retailers had experimented with a range of solutions to meeting customer needs – the most innovative and successful of which were the use of shop-floor experts to respond to customer enquiries.

For the purposes of our research, we assumed the role of a parent attempting to book a summer holiday for a family of four with two young children. The customer did not have a particular destination in mind, but knew that they wanted to find sun, sea and sand somewhere in Europe. 

For most holiday companies, the standard customer service contact is based upon the client’s knowledge of their own product offering. However, customers are often open-minded about location and require expert assistance beyond the simple and predictable ‘do you have this…’ enquiry.

During April’s Travolution Summit, the idea was mooted that multi-channel retail could actually be viewed as a battle between on and offline, and that, if providers had a better understanding of the requirements of consumers of complex travel products, there was reason to believe that complex travel products could be provided without any offline customer support. 

However, our research revealed that this was far from the case, and such unsubstantiated beliefs are causing fundamental errors in customer experience that is damaging to both brand and bottom line.

Traditional travel agents have long understood the value of multi-channel. As far back as 2006, Thomas Cook was demonstrating that, while online offered consumers far more choice and research options than ever before, at least a quarter of its web customers were using multiple channels before purchasing.

Given the changes in the market driven by the changes in the law, how concerned should established brands be with the introduction of airlines and hotel chains into the multi-product market? Our research shows that they are some distance from being able to compete effectively with traditional travel agents.

One of the major advantages that traditional travel agents have over new entrants into the field is the knowledge of what customers expect from different channels, and hence the ability to adapt to meet changing demands. What was astonishing from the research was the lackadaisical approach taken by established brands when introducing new products or services.

Our experiences with both airlines and online travel brands revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of what it takes to deliver a successful experience offline, with no apparent interest in anticipating a customer’s requirements.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the research is the lack of focus on getting the basics right. It’s not enough to just assume that simply by adding new products, people will be comfortable buying them from you. Given the amount of money that’s spent on establishing brand awareness and developing the trust of consumers in core markets, it is both costly and risky to offer new products and not understand the support mechanisms needed to deliver them.

Given this, it’s no surprise that of the companies we researched, Expedia and came out far and away the best. Both companies have a clear understanding of what their brand stands for, and ensure that all touch-points meet the client expectations.

This reinforces the findings of our strategic partner, Keynote, in its research conducted in 2007; Expedia was seen as ‘high quality’, ‘innovative’, and ‘trustworthy’. By committing itself to establishing these values across everything it does, Expedia has a clear benchmark for customer service whatever the channel.

Even when significant investment has been made in ensuring that expected service levels are reached, as was the case with British Airways, the experience can be undermined by not focusing on the details.

The call-centre contact details provided on BA’s website do not put customers through to people who can answer questions – in fact, the agent spoken to denied that BA offered the products that the customer was calling about.

It was only when we were connected with the correct call centre that the experience became comparable with one we’d expect from BA. But would a customer be prepared to persevere through the frustrating, uninformative and lengthy calls? Probably not.

What’s also fascinating by this is that there is clearly a major disconnect between the marketing departments and sales functions. With travel demonstrating to other industries how to deliver effective multi-channel marketing (Relevance, Relationship and Multi-Channel Strategy, CDMS, June 2008), it is odd that so little attention is paid to actually converting the leads this activity generates.

Despite major strides in integrating holiday offerings within its website, Ryanair appears not to have considered that its new offers might require further explanation, or that its customers might want some reassurance before purchasing products outside of its traditional activity.

After overcoming major difficulties in finding a contact number, actually speaking to somebody proved extremely difficult and frustrating.

Three out of seven calls met with ‘number unobtainable’, two calls were cut off before speaking to an agent, and, once through, the agent was only able to book the flight – and then recommended booking the hotel first.

While this is frustrating, and there are obvious lessons to be learnt here, what is perhaps most damaging to Ryanair is not the lack of conversion, but the potential long-term damage to the brand. Certain types of travel packages, particularly family holidays, are incredibly important to the customer; and the feelings of frustration and anger an ill-informed and apparently uninterested call-centre agent can induce are likely to be vented either online or through word of mouth.

EasyJet’s partnership with Hotelopia is another example of where the seams are all too visible to the consumer. ‘Powered by Hotelopia’ does not mean an enormous amount to the web customer, and apparently nothing at all to the otherwise extremely helpful, professional and courteous call-centre staff.

Opodo’s website contains a useful feature for those who know the type of holiday they want, but are unsure of the destination. By allowing free search on the destination, customers can gain an excellent idea of the range of products that Opodo offers.

However, phone the call centre and the experience is entirely different. In fact, the only purpose that agents seem to be able to fulfil is completing a booking where the customer knows exactly what they want.

No attempts are made to help the customer make a purchase, or to find something appropriate – and that is a major missed opportunity.

Customers don’t distinguish between channels or understand the specific challenges faced by verticals. Instead, they expect a high-calibre experience – particularly in one where they are entrusting something as important as the family holiday. It doesn’t matter if you believe that internet-only service provision for complex products is possible, at the current time at least a quarter of all customers require multi-channel support before booking. Ignoring them can be both costly and damaging to your brand.

Travel brands have to have consistent measurement in place across all their channels, allowing them to understand what is happening across the whole of their offering, and be able to compare like-with-like.

Combining quantitative and qualitative measures will allow brands to understand the who, where, what and why of what’s happening, and identify flaws and dead ends in the experience you are offering.

Just providing a call centre isn’t enough. Agents have to be trained, empowered and incentivised into providing the right information and to assist in the completion of a sale. This is particularly the case when brands are offering new product sets, or if they are selling products that require a large degree of trust from the consumer.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s important to remember that old technology isn’t necessarily bad technology. By taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, brands will have a much better idea of the types of information and different touch points that need to be provided throughout the sales cycle.

Download the full White Paper –  Foviance-RXP Customer Service Survey 

Multi-channel customer experience checklist

  • Does anyone own the single view of the customer in your organisation?
  • Is your multi-channel customer experience designed holistically or within silos?
  • Are people in your organisation rewarded for assisting or selling to customers regardless of the channel they work in?
  • Is the way you handle calls to your organisation consistent with the brand?
  • Do you have metrics and measurement standards in place for your multi-channel customer experience?
  • Are the call back and email technologies deployed on your site properly integrated?
  • Do you know how quickly you are responding to emails and calls and whether this is acceptable to your customers?
  • Do you know what conversion rate you achieve when someone gets in touch with your organisation as a result of a ‘failure’ in their online experience?
  • Do you measure customer satisfaction when customers contact your organisation – by phone, email and web-chat?
  • Do you know what percentage of contact could be avoided by improvement to the information available online (FAQs, structured email etc)?

Top tips to achieve best practice

The four top tips that we believe would help travel companies to bridge the gap between online experience and telephone experience are:

1. Consider the multi-channel customer experience holistically using a contact strategy that reinforces your brand

  • Customers don’t make allowances for different sectors and are increasingly judging the experience they receive from one organisation against any other in any other sector.
  • Single channel strategies are no longer adequate and customer experience must be provided seamlessly.

2. Understand the root causes of service failings – user journey design, delivery methods, payment problems etc.

  • Measurement and analysis must be in place.
  • Combine quantitative and qualitative research to identify the who, where, what and why of failings.
  • Avoid dead-ends in the customer experience. At busy times in particular, this is a missed opportunity if callers simply cannot get through to your organisation.

3. Provide your support people with the training and tools that they need

  • Recognise that well-trained, empowered people can save a potentially brand damaging situation.
  • Equip your support people with, at a minimum, the information available to their customer.
  • Incentivise them correctly to promote the correct behaviours.

4. Implement the technology correctly

  • Test ruthlessly to make sure poor implementation does not create dead ends and drive users online.

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