• May 1, 2012
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

In the Air Instead of on the Line

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US Airways operates more than 3,200 flights per day to more than 200 cities in North, Central, and South America; Europe; and the Middle East. The fifth-largest U.S. airline, it serves approximately 80 million passengers each year.

As a result of various buyouts and mergers, its contact center was using multiple interactive voice response (IVR) systems. The systems had nine voices and a variety of cumbersome menus. Its technology offered little insight into key performance metrics, like call containment, deflection, and average hold time.

What's more, an agreement with the Airline Customer Service Employee Association required on-shoring of all reservation agents by November 2011, which would require US Airways to implement a more integrated and cost-efficient IVR.

So, in December 2009, the airline issued a request for proposal for a new IVR. It eventually selected Nuance Communications, and in July 2011, launched an IVR based on Nuance's OnDemand hosted platform. One of the highlights of the IVR is natural language call steering, allowing callers to state what they're calling about in their own words. That's especially helpful considering that roughly half of all the calls coming into the system are being made on mobile phones and require hands-free communication to complete the call.

Other innovations included personalized call handling with proactive information delivery, automated collection of trip information, and a new voice using the Nuance Vocalizer speech synthesis engine.

The system also distinguishes itself by identifying callers who are members of the US Airways frequent flyer program, Dividend Miles, based on their phone numbers, and tailoring the interaction based on that information. The system can greet callers by name, pull up information about their next flights, and anticipate the reasons for their calls.

"The more we know about our customers, the more efficiently we can provide the assistance they need," says Kerry Hester, senior vice president of operations planning and support.

The switch took place over two days in July 2011; the system was handling 100 percent of calls right away. A month later, when Hurricane Irene hit, the system saw a spike in volume in response to all of the flight delays and cancellations; an assessment of airline hold times by STELLAService found US Airways had the lowest times of the top 10 airlines.

Since then, more capabilities have been added, allowing customers to use the automated system to confirm itineraries and seat assignments.

Five months into the deployment, US Airways had already noticed a 5 percent increase in call containment, which it expects to result in at least $1 million in savings every year.

Prior to the deployment, US Airways turned to Cyara Solutions, a provider of solutions for simulating, testing, and monitoring IVR and contact center systems and applications. It continues to use Cyara to test and simulate callers' experiences as they make reservations, confirm or change flights, and access preferred member mileage support in self- and assisted-service scenarios.

"Our partnership with Nuance has allowed US Airways to offer our callers an industry-leading IVR and CTI platform designed to deliver cost savings for the airline while improving our customers' experience," says Tim Lindemann, vice president of reservations and customer service planning at US Airways.

The application also comes with reporting and analytics tools that allow US Airways to gain visibility into many key call center metrics, such as containment, transfers, and task completion.

"By integrating [our understanding of our customers and their needs] with cutting-edge speech recognition technology, we are providing our customers with the convenient, quality care they have come to expect," Hester concludes.

The Payoff

Since deploying the natural-language call-steering IVR from Nuance, US Airways has seen:

  • a 5 percent increase in call containment;
  • its hold times ranked as the lowest of the top 10 U.S. airlines; and
  • a savings of at least $1 million a year.

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