OPINION: Freedom and Flexibility Drive the Future of Airline Customer Service

By Rahul Jolly | April 17, 2023
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“We’re seeing airlines leverage customer service innovations to enhance the customer experience.” (Photo: Jessica Reed)

Rahul Jolly, President of Global Travel and Hospitality at digital business services company Teleperformance, delves into the latest consumer travel demands and why businesses need to act now to drive digital transformation and hang on to their customers.

The travel industry is seeing a resurgence with global tourism expected to increase by 30% this year. This surge is driven by the desire to make up for lost travel time over the past few years. However, airlines are facing the challenge of catering to increasing consumer demands and making up on sales lost to the pandemic.

To help meet the seasonal demand, we’re seeing airlines leverage customer service innovations to enhance the customer experience. We are helping many of the world’s leading airlines understand and meet travelers’ evolving needs and preferences, and provide flexible support options when customers need it most.

Teleperformance has observed that airlines that leverage digital services to reduce customer friction during times of heightened demand are winning at customer experience. Digital transformation is crucial for customer service in the airline industry, especially during soaring demand and times of continued staffing challenges.

Matching Flyers’ Flexibility

One of the most significant changes and challenges in the travel industry since the pandemic is the growing demand for flexibility among travelers. Airlines must seize this opportunity, tailoring their services to meet the new expectations.

U.S. domestic flights are up 25% over 2022, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rise in demand is driving travelers to search for creative ways to cut flight costs, such as staying closer to home, booking further out from dates of travel, and traveling mid-week to avoid higher costs associated with flying on weekends. This, in turn, introduces unique staffing challenges for travel companies, because longer lead times create more avenues for service disruption. With more travel moving into weekdays, airlines and travel companies can expect customer service call patterns to also shift.

This is juxtaposed against the ongoing post-pandemic staffing challenges faced by airlines.  The pandemic triggered mass layoffs in the aviation industry leading to delays and cancellations in the past few years. In fact, almost 400,000 workers were lost by airlines during the pandemic.

To help airlines address these expected outcomes, Teleperformance is collaborating with travel clients to proactively model expected volume shifts and build delivery plans. We have also acquired a global digital recruiting firm PSG Global Solutions, and our airline and travel partners quickly scale up customer service support in anticipation of higher service volumes and new volume patterns in the coming months.

Virtual Assistants Provide Additional Service Support

However, human-powered customer support isn’t always enough. To provide even more flexible and efficient support options for travelers when, where, and how they need it, we work with clients to provide a combination of high-tech and high-touch support by way of virtual assistants or conversation bots to reduce wait times during the busy travel season. While some of these digital support solutions have been used for years, Teleperformance overlays these solutions with additional smart tech to help airlines identify, segment, and route travelers’ less-complex inquiries—such as claim processes during cancellations and delays—to automated and digital self-help service channels, which frees up human-powered support for the most complex inquiries.

The growing use of virtual assistants and digital smart help channels is at the forefront of enhanced customer service, especially during peak travel seasons and the upcoming summer period. Virtual assistants and digital self-help channels provide businesses and their customers with more options—something which is sought after in a post-pandemic world. In fact, 50% of customers now expect businesses to be available 24/7, and these emerging digital channels can quickly and efficiently respond to customers queries at all hours, regardless of time zones, geographical location, or language.

Our research center, the Teleperformance Business Insights Lab, is dedicated to monitoring consumers’ changing behaviors and expectations globally to help airlines and other clients improve their customer service strategies. In a recent study, the Business Insights Lab surveyed over 4,800 travelers in 16 countries. Nearly 70% of travelers who contacted airline customer service before and after the pandemic say their interactions with airlines have now changed to alternate digital channels like mobile apps; self-service including searching the airline’s website or browsing online; and instant messaging. Since 2020, in-app contacts saw the biggest growth in adoption, followed by channels automated chat and SMS.

Customers no longer must wait on hold to speak to airline support staff. Instead, they can pick from a variety of channels at their disposal, depending on the complexity of the ask to resolve their issue. By leveraging AI and data analytics, a virtual assistant can gauge the tone and mood of a customer, to navigate which mode of communication will be best matched to resolve the customer’s issue.

Merge Tech with ‘High Touch’ for Personalized Service

While technology has enhanced many parts of the airline industry, human customer service agents are still crucial for offering a high level of customer support. Humans are able to offer support that automated methods cannot—particularly support that is individualized, adaptable, and empathetic.

It is important to note that while technology such as virtual assistants can assist airlines, humans will always be a critical part of the customer experience journey. For instance, an AI-powered chatbot could detect frustration from a traveler’s inputs due to a cancelled or delayed flight; the bot can connect the customer to a human agent who can empathize and find the best possible solution urgently. Teleperformance combines its integrated digital services with a human touch to create positive outcomes for the traveller.

Customers now have control over their whole travel experience. From food and drink options to seats selection and baggage allowance, air travel has evolved to prioritize customer choice to produce a frictionless experience achieved through a perfect blend of technology and human touch. Teleperformance has harnessed this critical pairing of high tech and high touch to help create differentiation by enhancing the customer experience for travelers’ inquiries as well. With customers choosing digital first and foremost, it is the airlines who embrace this that will win a bigger wallet share.

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