Obsessive listening leads to insights, says Babble chief executive, Matthew Parker

I think I am becoming weirdly obsessed with understanding how organisations feel about and engage with their customers.

I am the person at work and at home, much to my daughter’s amusement, who volunteers to talk to suppliers, partners, customers, utility companies, local councils, DVLA, insurance companies, airlines, comparison sites, Amazon, Apple, online retail sites – in fact, anyone I can that that has some sort of contact centre.

I am the one who tests how companies handle my enquiries offline and online and notices how they recognise and reflect my needs.

It was great this week to know I’m not alone with my obsession after listening to a group of brilliant minds in the travel industry talk about how they think like customers and also use data insights to deliver change and better experience.

The Travel Weekly Business Breakfast on innovation and customer service included a panel of experts including Virgin Atlantic, Ocean Holidays, Tui and IBM.

Daniel Kerzner from Virgin Atlantic described how in the early days of his career in hospitality he sat in a hotel reception area listening to customer expressions of frustration and pleasure so he could solve their pain and deliver more delight.

Now at Virgin he challenges aviation experts to think like customers by running “Innovation safaris” to cities and watching where people congregate what they queue for and how they find joy so he can encourage new thinking. Virgin also uses data to create innovation. Observing that certain routes had multiple celebration groups a member of staff came up with the idea of candy floss on top of Champagne as a special in-flight moment.

Dan Ox of Ocean Holidays talked eloquently about how his business has identified 28 stages on a customer journey and how he works to ensure his staff are better armed with customer insight so they can convert enquiries. He described how a booking can take five days, five conversations and 15 transactions before a booking and making sure the right person handles each enquiry can make a huge difference.

I particularly liked Katie McAlister from Tui describe how humbling it is to see the passion and skill of staff supporting and helping customers through bookings and on holidays. She explained that Tui uses technology to support staff and customers – routing calls through to the appropriate expert, tracking data to spot what questions customers are asking and handling them faster. From tracking calls about departure times, Tui now pre-empts the time that customers start to check their return details and serves up the information to them in their app before they’ve thought to ask the question.

And my take-outs from the event were simple. Innovation can come from anyone in the company. Data can drive tremendous insight but it’s obsessive listening to that customer – either sitting in a hotel lobby, number crunching data, or following that customer journey that helps you to understand that insight. I thought it was also interesting that all the panellists talked about taking inspiration and benchmarking from outside the travel sector.

So back to my obsession with contact centres. Many businesses simply fail at the point the customer contacts them. I can fulminate about businesses that don’t reply, that leave me hanging on the phone, that don’t know who I am, that don’t contact me when I ask them to. But in the interests of sharing great ideas I’d suggest everyone in the travel industry checks out Igloo Energy. Its customer service is simply phenomenal and something we can all learn from.