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Jetting to a Better Customer Experience
The airline industry is looking for a flight plan to combat the headwind of low satisfaction scores
For the rest of the September 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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For the rest of the September 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

The airline industry as a whole has had to weather some turbulence in terms of customer satisfaction. Just how rough the ride has been is in the eye of the beholder, but the J.D. Power and Associates 2009 North America Airline Satisfaction Study recently found overall customer satisfaction with  airlines in 2009  has declined for a third consecutive year. According to the study, the decline is exacerbated by decreased passenger satisfaction with in-flight services, flight crews, and costs and fees, when compared with 2008.

“We are in an industry not well liked by [our] customer base,” said C. David Cush, president and chief executive officer of Virgin Amerifca, at a recent Forrester Research event. “If you told me I’d be speaking at a customer experience forum five years ago, I would’ve told you you were crazy.”

Looking to stem this tide, Delta Airlines recently stopped utilizing Indiabased contact centers to handle sales and reservations. In February, United Airlines (see “CRM on Twitter,” page 16) brought 165 jobs back to its contact centers in Chicago, Detroit, and Hawaii. The potential benefits for even a 10-percentage-point increase in customer experience scores could mean millions for airlines—$293.7 million, to be precise, according to a recent Forrester study titled “Customer Experience Boosts Revenue.”

Heads seemed to turn a bit, though, when news came out in June about Southwest Airlines’ decision to have Virtual Hold Technology (VHT), a virtual queuing solutions company, take a role in the airline’s customer-service initiatives. Southwest, after all, is one of the airlines held in high regard when it comes to customer satisfaction. The airline ranked only behind JetBlue in J.D. Power’s 2008 rankings for low-cost airlines; in the aforementioned Forrester study, it was the only airline ranked in the top quartile relative to its industry.

“Hold times, for airlines in particular, have gotten significantly worse over the past couple of years,” explains Ian Jacobs, a CRM magazine columnist and a Datamonitor senior analyst for customer interaction technologies such as interactive voice response (IVR) systems. “Right now many airlines are trying to get you to pay to talk to a live human being, though Southwest doesn’t do that. It has been one of the few that even tried to avoid [IVR] systems…but given economic realities, it had to scale its contact center up to meet caller demands.”

While the economic realities may be real, the company was still taking a risk. According to “Contact Center Satisfaction Index 2009,” released by CFI Group, the private-industry aggregate score for IVR systems was only 58 out of a possible 100 points. The woeful scores led CFI Group North America Chief Executive Officer Sheri Teodoru to write that “drastic changes, if not getting rid of [IVR] altogether, are necessary to see a payoff in satisfaction.”

That may help explain why Southwest approached VHT about nine months ago to improve the customer experience in all six of its contact centers. “Even though [Southwest contact centers] do not have large amounts of hold time, there are pockets of time throughout the course of a day or week when caller demand exceeds agent resources available,” says Eric Camulli, VHT’s chief technology officer. When hold time is in excess of a couple of minutes, VHT’s Concierge solution offers to hold customers’ places in line and calls them back when it’s their turn to speak to a Southwest agent. The Rendezvous solution expands the functionality of Concierge, giving customers the opportunity to actually schedule a time to receive the callback—when it’s convenient for them.

“An important piece to the technology is that even after the person hangs up the phone, the data collected in the IVR persists and will reappear in the form of a screen pop when the customer is called back,” Camulli says.

While benefits may be clear for callers, Jacobs says contact centers stand to gain as well. “For starters, agents will be dealing with happier, more-satisfied customers—so, as a result, job satisfaction is higher, employee churn is likely to be lower, and support levels will improve,” he says. “When it comes to hard benefits, the four-to-five-minute difference between when customers are called back can mean a difference in headcount and staffing. That can save money.”

As airlines look to escape the bumpy ride they’ve had in customer satisfaction reputation over the years, Jacobs believes virtual queuing has great promise—even for other verticals as well. “Ones with big contact centers [that] are resource-constrained right now—including telecommunications, finance, and retail—are where it might have a lot of impact,” he says. “Even public-sector customers, since those agencies generally don’t have that big of a staff to handle calls. It could be a significantly less-frustrating experience for citizens.” 

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To contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com
Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationCRM.com/subscribe/.
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