Thomas Cook To Expand Integrated Service to U.S.

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The Thomas Cook Group's Global Services Division, the one-stop shop for accessing the company's travel, financial and emergency services over the phone or Internet, is expected to get a boost with the addition of a North American call center later this year.


The center will accommodate travelers in North America and South America, and will back up the company's existing Global Services Division center in Peterboro, England, said Tim Olson, vice president of Thomas Cook. The company plans either to build a new center or convert existing centers in Toronto or Washington, D.C.


The Global Services Division of London-based Thomas Cook Group was created to conveniently unite for customers the travel reservation services of the company's Travel Division, traveler's check and currency exchange services of the Financial Services Division, and other emergency travel information services the company provides. The Global Services Division's integrated travel services are currently only available in Europe, and kicked off there on July 31 of last year when the Peterboro facility opened.


The Peterboro call center is not yet at capacity, said Olson, adding that plans for the U.S. center are still preliminary.


"It is a function of demand," said Olson. "The idea is not only to have an additional call center for travelers, but to provide backup."


When the call center opens, it will accommodate travelers to North America speaking English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Travelers needing other languages would be routed to the Peterboro center, which has agents to accommodate 30 languages, or eventually to Australia, where a center is scheduled to open in 2000.


The Australian center will serve all of Asia. The Peterboro center will eventually service travelers outside North America, South America and Asia as well as travelers in those regions who speak languages the other two centers do not accommodate.


"Our U.K. call center is like a little United Nations," said Olson. "And add to that the computer system, and the whole thing looks like the bridge from a Star Wars space ship."


The Peterboro center is equipped with a customer communications solution called the L25M, a product of Chordiant, Cupertino, CA. When the call center in North America opens, it will also use the Chordiant software.


"Customers are given their own phone number with their bank account [from a member bank], and can access all of our services with one phone call," Olson said. "In addition to legal and medical referrals, we also obtain tickets for sporting events, theater, anything that our members would want to do or need."


Calls to the Global Services Division are broken into four service categories: emergency, financial, travel and special assistance, which is a catchall for calls that do not fit into the first three categories. When the category is determined, the agent clicks the mouse on the appropriate dialog box and is guided through the call with a script.


As an example, if a traveler in Prague lost a filling, an agent could wire him money and find a dentist near his location. When the call comes in, the location is identified and a map of Prague appears on the agent's monitor. The program is compliant for 130 languages, though the staff at the call center represents 30 languages, Olson explained.


"The server guides our agents through the process," Olson said. "We don't want our clients' trips destroyed because they need to replace their passport, or they lost their tickets."


The software unified the company's divisions into one computer platform.


"Two or three years ago we found that the travel finances market was shrinking, so Chordiant unified all our services," said Olson. "Now anyone from any phone in Europe can access our London call center."


Thomas Cook found the software so advanced in comparison to what other area call centers were using that it began offering services to other businesses in January.


Indeed, a study conducted by Chordiant found that less than 15 percent of call centers in Europe use screen pops at work stations.


"Most people in the market underspend in technology," said Collin Bruce, director of marketing for Chordiant. "Call center companies do not allow their agents to be business developers, instead the agents are process navigators."


The Java-based computer system Thomas Cook is using can be run on any workstation hardware. A new version of the program will be released later this year. n
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