*Cheap Tickets Boosts Efficiency,Response Times at Centers

Cheap Tickets Inc. has been able to record significant improvements in the e-mail response times and in the productivity of its agents through the implementation of some automated e-mail technologies, training and other enhancements to its customer service contact centers.

The Honolulu-based company, which sells discount airline tickets through a toll-free phone number and through its Web site, said it is able to turn around many of its e-mail customer service queries in just a few minutes using automated technologies. The company generally turns around e-mail requests requiring the interaction of an agent in less than an hour with the help of a skills-based routing system for e-mail, according to Ron McElfresh, vice president of online services at Cheap Tickets.

Before October of last year, Cheap Tickets operated two different customer service centers, one for Internet customers and another for telephone customers. Each had a different toll-free service number and Internet customers also could contact the center through e-mail. As the company learned how efficient e-mail customer service could be, it decided to spend $5 million to integrate the two functions into a single contact center where agents can handle both phone and e-mail queries.

About half of the 120 customer service agents in the company’s four call centers – several hundred more agents handle reservations – now are trained to handle e-mail requests. The company has segregated skill levels within the service group based on the amount of training they have received.

“Like every thing else that grows rapidly, keeping up with not only technological changes but customer service issues is a formidable challenge,” said McElfresh.

The company, which last month said it had 4 million registered online users, implemented some automated e-mail response technology from a company that has since been acquired by Kana Communications Inc., Redwood City, CA, that allows it to answer 60 percent to 65 percent of e-mail queries without involving an agent.

“We read the content of the message and determine that it is a lost password or lost log-in name query, and we can run that through a special database, grab the proper information to respond to the question and shove that back out to the user within minutes,” McElfresh said.

E-mails that are more complicated get routed to an agent that can handle the job. The filtering technology sorts out the queries that require agents with a higher level of training – if a customer needs to re-book a flight, for example – and routes those to the veteran agents.

“Brand new customer service agents who are fresh out of training won’t get the real tough questions,” he said.

The service center receives about 4,000 e-mails per day, McElfresh said.

The programs have allowed Cheap Tickets to double its agents’ productivity and reduce call waiting times by 90 percent, according to Sam Galeotos, president and chief operating officer of Cheap Tickets. Although productivity has increased, the company still added several dozen agents to the centers to handle the surging volume in Web-based contacts.

“The Web is very efficient in delivering tickets,” McElfresh said. “However, the customer care requirements are different. When you go online to book your ticket, you do all the things a reservations agent normally would do, only you don’t have the skill of a reservations agent.”

Others features that the company added to its contact centers to improve service include an improved frequently asked question, or FAQ, area on the Web site that allows users to do some self-service. The company also uses some speech-recognition technology and interactive voice response system that help route phone calls and divert some calls from agents.

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