As issues like Brexit dominate the agenda in 2018, travel firms will have to work harder to retain talented staff who put customers first, says Jo Causon of The Institute of Customer Service

The last 12 months have continued to be an eventful period for the travel industry on a number of fronts, with the sad demise of Monarch and the woes of Ryanair being just two recent examples.

We have also seen the continuing impact of the Brexit vote on inflation, exchange rates and, in some areas, business confidence.

As consumers we have less money in our pockets but there is growing evidence of our changing behaviour, as we focus more on experiences and memories than products and possessions.  I suspect that these changes will continue in 2018.

Against this backdrop a genuine and sustained focus on the customer experience is required if the year ahead is to be a good one.

Our research indicates a worrying trend that customers have to expend more effort to get what they want – this happens when an organisation sees service as a transactional activity rather than a core differentiator.

Brexit will continue to dominate the business and political agenda; but we still don’t know what our trading relationships will be with the EU and the rest of the world, and we still remain somewhat unclear about the status of EU residents in the UK.

However what is clear is that we will need to work hard to retain and attract the talent within our organisations and people development will become an increasingly important aspect of employee engagement.

The Institute’s research has shown that engaged employees are more likely to apply discretionary effort, generate business improvement ideas, deliver consistent performance and create memorable customer experiences.

In addition the delivery at the point of ‘the experience’ is only going to be part of the story.

The trend of people sharing their experience online will only grow, so the challenge and opportunity for the industry is to ensure that the whole experience – the search, purchase, experience and after-sale care – meets the memories we are looking to create.

One way – but by no means the only way – to achieve this is to develop a nuanced understanding of customers’ channel preferences and behaviour, integrating experience design, engaged people and technology to enable customers’ objectives and choices.

There is also a growing expectation that organisations need to be proactive, genuinely looking to create authentic customer experiences and safeguarding the interests and wellbeing of all their customers.

Being held to account entails significant customer experience challenges but doing the right thing is not a strategic expedient; it is a fundamental approach to achieving sustainable business performance.

Many organisations are also deploying automation and robotics to make customer experiences faster, quicker and more efficient.

The challenge for 2018 is finding the appropriate balance between technological deployment and the blend of customer experience design, employee training and human interaction – this will be a key requirement and the value from automation will be where the primary driver is creating better customer experiences rather than cost savings.

Some of this will be unsettling and certainly demanding; but there will be huge opportunities as well.

Being agile and listening to the mood of customers will continue to be critical, whilst holding your nerve and not being seduced into simply cutting prices.

Institute research indicates that where organisations really focus on the service experience in the longer term the profits will follow. We also know that 1 in 4 will pay more for a premium service.

Ultimately it is clear that for the travel sector, this is a pivotal moment.  It is time to be brave and drive the customer experience agenda harder to maintain long-term survival.