Few industries are quite like travel. Can you think of any other industry where anxiety is baked into the product or service? Even before the pandemic, customers found themselves faced with myriad rules, restrictions, and bottlenecks to navigate before reaching their destination, leading to many a meltdown at checkpoints and terminals around the world. Everyone has a horror story about their travel experiences, be it a brutal delay or a missed flight. It’s no wonder that today, against the backdrop of COVID-19 and societal upheaval, travelers are more concerned than ever with their personal safety.
Questions from customers abound: “What are the new rules? What do I need to embark on my journey? Once I get to where I’m going, what is expected of me?”
As the entire planet navigates a pandemic, knowing exactly what to do means aiming at a moving target, with guidance changing from moment to moment. At Blue Ocean, we’ve noticed that this new level of uncertainty in the travel industry has led to a shift in what customers value: Where once the name of the game was efficiency and speed, today’s customer experience hinges on empathy and reassurance.
This fundamental change in expectations brings with it a number of interesting ripple effects for the travel industry, including how customer experience professionals must respond and which channels are actually preferred. What better time than Customer Experience Week at Blue Ocean to share our findings?
This heightened emphasis on reassurance has changed the tone of incoming CX calls. People are calling for help, including calls for simple reassurance about rules, regs, and restrictions. The long-running desire for rapid resolution has been somewhat replaced by a need for consolation and comfort. This has turned the traditional thinking about customer experience on its head, and call centers are responding in kind.
Agents now have leeway to change the nature of the conversation once they get on the phone with customers. The requisite greetings and questions about the weather have shifted toward genuine interest into how the customer is feeling, where they live, and what they need from CX agents to feel acknowledged. It’s simply a more human experience across the board.
In the midst of change brought on by the last year, the data tell us people are willing to wait longer on the phone in order to have a human interaction, whereas before 2020, they might have opted for self-serve or automation when faced with long hold times. Industry-wide, hold times increased by 50% during the pandemic as contact centers dealt with all manner of upheaval, including wild swings in arrival patterns and staffing challenges in some hard-hit regions. In spite of these record hold times, we’ve noticed that rates of abandonment are actually going down for some of our clients, a rarity in the travel industry. And while chat features will always be popular with some segments of the population, there’s a new importance placed on making the customer feel heard and removing obstacles from their path.
Call flow is also changing as a result of these shifting customer expectations. While human connection and empathy are essential parts of the experience, there’s too much at risk not to lead with what customers absolutely need to know. After all, the most pleasant customer service call in the world means nothing if essential information is left out and a customer’s trip ends before it begins.
For an example, let’s look at a leisure travel business we support. When a new international route opened up that required a passport number to confirm a reservation, that input box was added to the end of the agent call flow. Phone reservations for this travel company can take upwards of a half an hour. Imagine the frustration for both customer and agent when at the end of this lengthy process, in order to finalize the interaction, the agent asked for the customer’s passport number—something many customers didn’t have (or at least didn’t have on hand).
To fix the problem, prominent information about the requirement was added to the client’s website and the call flow was reversed, letting customers know upfront a passport number was required in order to book. Messaging was inserted on the IVR to let customers know this particular route required a passport in order to book. From that point on, most if not all passengers received the vital information that would keep their journey going. It was a deceptively simple fix that underscored the importance of arming teams with necessary information. But the broader concept was this: design the experience from the outside-in. Put your customer at the heart of the experience design process, especially during change management initiatives.
We’ve established that customer experience in the travel industry is entering a post-pandemic era. So, what does that mean for self-serve? Will this new need for empathy and reassurance make automated contact channels less popular support options for travelers? As it turns out, while self-serve still plays a significant and vital role in a well-designed customer experience, the breakdown of who’s using it has shifted to a degree.
The demographics still play out largely as you’d expect, with the digital native Millennials and Gen Z opting for automation and using self-serve as their primary channel choice. But Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are quickly catching up on the digital frontier of customer experience. According to a survey by Software Advice, the number of people aged 35 and older who use live chat has seen a recent increase: 32.9% of people aged 35-54 and 22.3% of people aged 55 and older report having used live chat for support at least a few times.
This bump in older generations’ tolerance for virtual help could be due to a shake-up in activity in the wake of the pandemic. As daily routines are uprooted, sleep patterns may change, leading to the necessary use of chat functions during off hours. One thing is clear, however: As artificial intelligence makes technology more inviting and accommodating for seniors, automated customer experiences will be a part of more people’s lives in the near future.
Everyone wonders which paradigm shifts will hang around after the pandemic subsides. For example, most people seem to agree that remote work is here to stay. Will the longing for empathy in the travel industry continue in a post-pandemic world?
It’s impossible to know what the future holds, especially as we come to grips with new and counterintuitive trends. At Blue Ocean, we know one thing for certain: Although expectations may vary wildly from client to client, a focus on helping people and giving them a clear path towards their destination should always play a part in customer experience. As long as people reach out, be it by phone or chat, we will always work to champion the importance of human contact.