In any business, an unanswered phone call is a customer lost. But for an airline, an unanswered call is even more damaging since superior customer service is often the deciding factor for customers in an extremely crowded and competitive market. That initial contact can be crucial in creating the right perceptions, especially with frequent flyers, the highest yielding passengers.
Airlines and others in the air transport industry were among the early adopters in the use of call center operations. These sectors now represent around 16 percent of the call center market in Europe and a similar figure in the United States.
Advances in call center technology offer a means of getting closer to customers and, most importantly for an inherently international business segment, serve as a way of cutting costs. The industry’s large volume of calls, with specific peak hours and seasons, has provided a thorough means of testing most vendors’ service offerings.
Extensive networks of remote sales offices traditionally result in airlines facing the heavy burden of very expensive fixed operating costs. Call center technologies allow these office functions to be centralized and help further improve operating efficiencies. Additionally, they have helped ensure consistency in operations ranging from passenger reservations to providing flight information and improving the management of frequent flyer applications.
Highly skilled agents, all rigorously trained, can provide a uniform service that may also provide an uplift in passenger service levels, key for competitive differentiation. The possibility of specific telemarketing campaigns also offers opportunity to further improve yields for frequent flyers and other passengers.
Low-Cost Airlines Drive Changes
The emergence of low-cost airlines using new technologies to ensure the lowest operating costs from day one has certainly had an impact in the market. These airlines sell direct short haul or point-to-point services, mainly from secondary airports, which has opened new routes and removed the travel agent and global distribution systems from the chain.
Global alliances among airlines, with the objective of providing a passenger with an end-to-end seamless service throughout a journey, are also affecting the industry. Sharing sales offices abroad may offer one way of achieving the goal of reducing operating costs for all members. It may also result in a strategic review of call center operations to refocus and reflect the needs of the alliance, especially in integrating their frequent flyer programs.
Call centers enable airlines to establish a direct relationship with customers, and could allow them to by-pass the travel agency network and global distribution systems. The next few years should see the evolution of the travel agent into providing a much wider range of value added services for their customers.
Time to Change?
Call centers are an essential marketing tool for the airlines, but new technologies offer opportunities and challenges to the myriad of suppliers offering these solutions. The Internet is used more and more by passengers to search for information. The number of online reservations continues to grow, and the travel processes will be further streamlined by linking e-ticketing applications directly with call centers.
These Web sites may be further improved with the addition of ‘click to talk’ buttons that link the Web user to a call center for extra assistance – a capability already being used. These services will become more prevalent as the convergence in telecommunications continues and fully managed end-to-end integrated voice and data services from suppliers become more widely available.
Suppliers will also need to provide ‘virtual call centers’ where a true ‘follow-the-sun’ strategy of seamless service can be adopted by intelligently networking and routing calls. To increase the value of each ticket sale, database integration will be used to offer add-on services for car rental, hotel bookings, etc.
Of course, the call center will need to train agents accordingly to manage these more complex sales. Computer telephony integration is already being used by large airlines to provide frequent flyers with more personalized service and this will become more widely used by all airlines.
In conclusion, over the next few years the need to provide high quality seamless passenger services will further drive the application of call center technologies across the air transport industry. Customers want suppliers to provide complete business solutions with strong service management and service level agreements and guaranteed availability. Suppliers will also face more and more demand to offer a seamless service worldwide and fully managed integrated voice and data services.