Ed Whiting – Are they being served

Are they being served?

‘Look to book’ has become the altar at which most travel e-commerce is measured. While this transactional data is one way of assessing the commercial success of a travel website, in my view ‘look to book’ can potentially provide a dangerously misleading measure of the effectiveness of travel website design and proposition.

Of course, if travel products are offered for sale on a website then it’s important that a reasonable proportion of visitors make a purchase for the site to be commercially viable. However, in isolation, this quantitative measure provides too narrow a focus of the customer experience and ignores the enormous value of the service element of travel websites.

In terms of brand development and stickiness, providing services via a website can often be as valuable to a consumer as the actual transaction. Also, it’s not too hard to figure out that, by introducing access to non-booking related services, either pre or post sale, the potential ‘looks’ or visits per booking could significantly increase as customers search availability and price but also use other travel-related services available online. 

The potential delay in pushing visitors down the booking path, and therefore impacting ‘look-to-book’ ratios, can be a scary thought to e-commerce managers. However, offering extended online services can be a factor in improving other important measures, including overall booking growth and customer loyalty.

Equally, a strong ‘look-to-book’ rate could mask missed opportunities to reduce offline administration overheads by offering broader services online, or the potential to upsell travel add-ons online and increase revenue and margin per booking.

Perhaps a focus upon this type of measure is one of the reasons why online service is frequently cited as poor in website reviews. In a recent analysis of online service in the travel industry, Internet service Transversal found that fewer than two in 10 of travel websites answered consumers most commonly answered questions on their website.

In a 2006 report, Transversal also found 60% of travel companies failed to respond to e-mail enquires, and those that did took an average of 42 hours to reply. Maybe a poor level of service online generally is a reason why we hear more about price commoditisation in the online travel sector. With little else to differentiate suppliers, perhaps price increasingly becomes ‘king’.

Enhancing information and services online may potentially improve conversion per visitor, visitor satisfaction and, in the longer term, customer loyalty. However, it may or may not improve ‘look-to-book’ ratios as customers gather more information and potentially spend more time browsing and interacting with your website while searching the availability and price of products.

Another service aspect for travel organisations to consider is the integration of online and offline business. Providing online servicing tools – such as consumer self-service booking administration modules – can complement a service provided via a retail outlet or call centre while reducing staff overheads and empowering customers. Providing an online booking service is fundamental for most travel companies. However, the online services wrapped around the booking module provide numerous opportunities to enhance your visitor experience.

This may sometimes mean you postpone the point at which you engage customers in your booking path, but it could prove to be a much more satisfying journey for them when they take it. As a result they may be more inclined to come back again.

Providing good service has always been a major differentiator between suppliers. The online travel sector should not attempt to operate outside this simple, time-honoured law.

Ed Whiting is product director for Comtec (Europe)

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