Customer Service Award: Trip.com

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Planning a voyage? Maybe you should first travel to Trip.com.

One of the most visited online travel agencies, Trip.com prides itself on getting back to customers quickly. Since mid-1999, the company has been using Brightware's e-mail assistance suite to answer customer e-mails without delay.

Trip.com's software investment seems to be paying off. In the most recent Gomez Advisors rankings, Trip.com was ranked third overall and second in customer confidence among online travel sites, due to a remarkable set of perfect scores in both the e-mail and telephone customer service inquiries categories, according to company findings.

Trip.com is a worldwide online travel planning service for business travelers, reservations services, worldwide destination guides and local city resource information, as well as intelligent search technology. Its real-time flight information service, called flightTRACKER, allows users to track a U.S. commercial flight's air speed, altitude and arrival time while en route to its destination. "This information comes from the Federal Aviation Administration," says Pat DeFazio, Trip.com's customer support manager. "It's more reliable than information you get from the airlines because it only starts when the wheels leave the ground."

Based in Englewood, Colo., Trip.com spun off from telecommunications company U.S. West in September 1996. In March 2000, Galileo International (www.galileo.com), a global travel distribution services company, acquired Trip.com, making it a wholly owned subsidiary.

E-mail Overload

Trip.com has more than 4.5 million registered users. More than 1.5 million people receive the company's e-mail newsletter.

Prior to licensing the Brightware suite, Trip.com handled an influx of about 5,000 e-mail messages a month in Microsoft Outlook. DeFazio and her colleague manually determined every subject, sorted messages into folders based on content and then routed e-mails to the appropriate representative who had to cut and paste a response from a rudimentary FAQ folder. There was no way to prioritize messages. Routine inquiries for passwords, for example, could take an entire day to reach the front of the queue, while more complex issues often waited 48 hours for replies.

In the travel planning industry, time is critical. Trip.com knew that it had to speed up e-mail response time in order to ensure customer loyalty. In mid-1999 a new vice president of marketing joined the company, and "had lots of plans for the Web," says DeFazio. Under the new vice president, the company increased advertising, revised its Web site and revitalized its customer loyalty program. Thanks to these efforts, Trip.com experienced dramatic growth in incoming message volume. It became essential to increase speed and accuracy of e-mail responses, while handling the 400 percent annual increase in e-mail volume.

The Search Is On

So DeFazio and Trip.com information systems engineer Graham Hetherington set out to find a solution that filled these needs and had an easy-to-use interface with a strong artificial intelligence component. Trip.com was also looking for a solution that offered the ability to add integrated Web assistance and chat capabilities as the company grew. (Now, almost two years after initial implementation, Trip.com is ready to add some of those capabilities.)

DeFazio and Hetherington conducted a three-month search of the e-customer assistance marketplace. "I went from knowing nothing to knowing everything," says DeFazio. "I was talking to everyone I could find through Web searches or in print." Trip.com looked at a host of vendors, including eGain, Mustang and Siebel. But the company found that not all vendors had the components they needed. "The big determiner for us, which made it an easy choice in the end, was artificial intelligence," says DeFazio. "The Brightware system could figure out what an e-mail was saying."

By June 1999, Trip.com had chosen Brightware's full e-mail assistance suite, including Brightware Contact Center and Brightware Answer, with both Assisted Answer and Automated Answer components. Implementation by Brightware consultants was completed in six weeks, including design, implementation, testing and user training. Trip.com went live with the Brightware suite in August 1999. "We've not had to do much tweaking of the system since," says DeFazio.

What Does It Do?

Trip.com wanted to automate as many replies as possible, says DeFazio. Her time spent in the trenches, answering every e-mail message that came in, paid off in the end. "We knew what the big questions were," she says. While answering e-mails manually, she adds, "We were griping, but we were also gaining knowledge. All the time we spent cursing benefited us."

Trip.com had huge amounts of database query e-mail (password look-ups and requests to unsubscribe to the e-mail newsletter). Brightware Automated Answer now issues responses to these queries. For slightly more complex messages, Assisted Answer automatically understands them, classifies them and composes replies that agents can rapidly review, edit and send.

DeFazio didn't want to let go of the one-on-one communication with customers she had before implementing Brightware, however. So she keeps the number of automatically-answered questions to about 8 or 10. All others are routed to agents for handling. Trip.com is not unique in this, says Brightware's Erin Stevenson. Many companies start with Assisted Answer, she says, and only as the accuracy of responses grows do they turn on Automated Answer.

Both Assisted Answer and Automated Answer rely on the same sophisticated natural language processing (NLP) technology. Using information extraction, a recent breakthrough in NLP, Brightware can extract data such as order number, product name or ZIP code and use it to route messages. This is better than the keyword matching technique for automatically understanding text, says Stevenson, because keyword matching requires exact matches. On the other hand, Brightware compares message text to a dictionary of words and phrases. It can recognize different combinations of words and group these under a single "intent." "There is one rule for each intent," Stevenson says.

In Trip.com's case, a customer might write, "I forgot--or lost--my password," or "please send--or I need--my password." Brightware recognizes all of those queries as the same intent, looks up the information in the database, copies it and pastes it in an e-mail, then sends the response to the customer.

At the bottom of all automated e-mail responses, Trip.com includes a disclaimer, according to DeFazio, saying, "If we did not respond to your question, please send this e-mail back." Send-backs are almost non-existent, to about two a week, says DeFazio. "So we know we've been hitting the nail on the head."


When the Brightware system went live, Trip.com immediately started reaping benefits, according to DeFazio. Requests for passwords and deletion from the newsletter lists--which together make up about 70 percent of Trip.com's e-mail volume--are now answered automatically by Automated Answer, within seconds. "We can watch on the system how long it takes to send an automatic answer," says DeFazio. "Usually, it takes about five seconds. It's outrageous. I can't believe how fast it is."

Customer reps who had been dealing with 100 e-mail messages a day are now, with Assisted Answer, responding to an average of 250 to 300 messages in the same amount of time. This is a 250-percent increase in per-agent message-handling capacity. "With the reporting piece of the software, we can see what each agent is doing," says DeFazio. "It's not uncommon for an agent to answer over 400 messages a day." Without Brightware, DeFazio would have had to hire two or three additional customer service reps to handle the 25,000 e-mails a month her group gets now. By using the software, Trip.com showed a 50-percent savings in staff costs and a 33-percent reduction in staff requirement.

Thanks to the technology's intelligent capabilities, incoming messages that aren't answered automatically are interpreted by the software's classification engine. An appropriate reply is selected and forwarded to the agent to review and edit if necessary.

Also, by imbedding links back to its Web site in the e-mail responses, the company was able to drive traffic to appropriate areas on its site. Trip.com is pleased with the ROI. "We recouped the cost of the system in short order," says DeFazio. The online travel company also has received a great deal of customer compliments on its speed of response. "We hear thanks a lot," says DeFazio. "Thank you e-mails are not automatically answered. Reps want to read every one of those."

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