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ANALYSIS: How airlines can keep service consistent across all channels to customers

As airlines and passengers find new ways to engage with each other, an omni-channel strategy will ensure a consistent level of service across all points of contact says Ursula Silling, founder of consultancy and training company XXL Solutions 

Have you ever found your flight being delayed and the airline staff have no further details? Then, when you browse the web or call customer service, you are able to obtain precise information? Similar disconnections between different communication channels are not an exception, and can lead to frustration and distrust with customers and staff alike.

In today's omni-channel world, an organisation has a lot more touch points to reach customers - and staff - to inform about products, pricing, special offers, customer service, and company and brand-related information. So how can airlines avoid inconsistencies and develop an omni-channel strategy to turn demanding consumers into loyal ones?

In various research projects that we have conducted with airlines, the number one customer need when deciding on a flight was having adequate information. PhocusWright, in their recent research about travellers' appetite for ancillary services, reconfirmed these results. In terms of deciding which websites to visit, ease of use was the number one criteria - more important than price. In particular, they wished to see overall prices being displayed and for relevant information to be easily found.

The starting point of any strategy should be to ensure that information is transparent and consistent at all customer touch points. This means understanding customers' need for information during the journey and presenting it simply and consistently from where they start dreaming, to the booking, landing and beyond.

Web usability tests and focus groups can lead to huge improvements. Typically, the introduction of a search function on the website and a knowledge management solution will help ensure customers can find any additional information they are looking for easily.

The knowledge management solution will ensure that customers get relevant answers to their questions. This can be done by creating a single repository and adding native language capabilities to the search engine. It adds a human element as customers can post questions they would ask a sales or customer service agent, and the system will understand - often better and faster than a human, with 24/7 access.

Looking at examples of natural search processes, we entered "best offers" in the search tool of a major European airline - and received no results. Entering "latest offers" gave an example of overbooking and offered compensation in such a case. No flight offers or other deals were shown or referred to in both cases - a missed opportunity in times where airlines desperately need to gain any customer already in the shop.

The omni-channel approach could be employed by offering online chat opportunities to ask questions, with increased human intervention at critical points, for example at the airport. Taxi companies have realised that customers are very concerned about whether the booked taxi will arrive on time. Some have reacted by instructing drivers to call customers 10min before arrival. Others have an application showing the taxi's position at any time.

Airlines could think more proactively in similar ways, for example, by giving better information in the last 90min before departure, advising customers about opportunities to relax or shop, or reconfirming that their luggage is on board, and so on. Instead, airlines seem to focus on negative information, and communicate what customers are not allowed to do on the flight. As a result, they have to wait until arrival to find out their luggage has not arrived, for example.

Another key is to introduce customer feedback opportunities, and use an automated process to categorise and send feedback to relevant departments to follow up and make further improvements. Ideally, customers will be asked for a simple satisfaction rating at the end of their journey, based on the net promoter score or similar methodology. Eurostar does this via SMS.

Once the website has been set as a starting point, solutions can be extended to other touch points including call centres and mobile. Staff will benefit as they will find information easily, and they will contribute customer questions to the site, hence improving quality and sales opportunities.

With an omni-channel strategy, airlines can achieve first class service for their customers, as if their best sales and customer service agents were present all the time. The ultimate goal is reduced customer effort - the less time they need to get what they want, the happier they will be and the more likely they will be repeat customers and brand advocates. Take off on your omni-channel journey now.

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