Customer service and innovation was discussed at a Travel Weekly event hosted by Disney. Lee Hayhurst reports

People remain at the heart of great customer service in travel, despite the increasing influence of technology, delegates at a Travel Weekly Business Breakfast heard.

Panellists from Tui, Virgin Atlantic, destination specialist Ocean Holidays and technology giant IBM agreed that while technology is more important than ever, it should be used to allow their experts to understand customers’ needs and deliver the best experience.

Katie McAlister (pictured), chief marketing officer at Tui UK and Ireland, said: “You have to have good product, but customer service is that big wraparound and the thing you can become super-famous for.

“Digital is transforming and expanding customers’ expectations all the time, particularly around ease and speed and the findability of things.

“But, actually, when really amazing moments happen, it’s about human interaction. That’s how you build intimacy with your customers.

“We believe it’s the combination of human interaction – our colleagues and our people – with digital that’s really going to drive things forward over time.”

Daniel Kerzner, Virgin Atlantic’s vice-president for customer service, said: “Customer experience is who we are and it’s why we get out of bed in the morning. When Richard Branson created Virgin he created it to give people a better way to travel.

“We are super-proud of our product and of what we do, but if it wasn’t for having the best crew on board our aircraft we wouldn’t be the brand we are.

“Everything else I think of as the stage that’s there to bring to life the service that our people provide.”

Although emerging technologies, backed by artificial intelligence (AI), are tipped to replace humans in many existing roles – including travel consultants – IBM sees its role as empowering human resources.

Ian Leonard, UK travel and transport lead at IBM, said: “When we talk about AI we don’t talk about artificial intelligence, we talk about augmented intelligence.

“What we are talking about is adding the technology to enhance what humans are doing; making it better, faster, and getting the information to them at the point they need it.

“From a company perspective, we are not the world’s largest and longest-standing technology company just because of our technology, we also have our human element.

“Our technology is wonderful but, without what we call signature moments, and if we can’t get people to understand our technology and use it, it’s just technology.”

He added: “Experts, that’s what this is about – informing the experts. In travel that’s what we have. We have the experts, but the technology has got to be used to help them keep up.

“So, they are actually going to be using artificial intelligence to help them do their jobs better rather than do their jobs for them.”

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‘Be open to ideas from all staff at your company’

Travel firms should be openminded about where they derive inspiration for innovating in customer service and include everyone working in their organisation as well as outside influences.

Panellists said ideas can come from unexpected places within firms and that customer expectations are increasingly being framed by organisations and individuals outside of travel.

Tui’s McAlister said: “We need to be an amazing technology company that provides the digital experience that customers expect, the benchmark for which, quite honestly, is set outside of travel.

“Expectations are being set by other businesses like Amazon, and ultimately customers will vote with their feet and do what they want to do.”

Kerzner, of Virgin Atlantic, said the airline takes a collaborative approach with staff and also keeps up to date with wider cultural, commercial and customer trends.

“Expectations are really high when you are travelling on Virgin,” he said. “We do not look at the rest of the airline industry and what they’re doing, we’re looking at external trends coming into the business.

“Disappointment is expectation minus reality. If you’ve got really high expectations you’ve got to trump that with reality.”

Kerzner said a customer experience team at Virgin works across the business to ensure there is buy-in and “diversity of thought”.

“The people who are going to ignite that spark of an idea is not necessarily the person you expect or the person who has the business card that says that’s their job,” he said.

“If we go back to the same people that historically have created the problem by the nature of the roles they are in, we are not going to jump the curve.”

Ocean Holidays co-chief executive Daniel Ox said: “We have a forum in which people are made to feel comfortable to come forward and raise a concept or idea. It’s part of our culture.”

Virgin discovers latest trends on ‘innovation safaris’

Virgin Atlantic bosses go on “innovation safaris” to check out the latest trends in cities across the planet.

Innovation safaris have taken place in New York, London and Dubai and another is planned for Hong Kong, Kerzner said.

“We go to the centre of these cities and look at what’s happening in hospitality, retail or residential. What is it people are waiting in line in Soho in London to buy and what’s causing them to do that?

“We’re looking at what’s driving people to share their experiences on social media and how do we create that experience onboard an aircraft.”

Kerzner said the airline is also paying much more attention to what online influencers say about it.

“Who is talking about travel? It’s influencers, bloggers, and third parties who are talking about our business with a lot more detail than we often talk about our own business,” he said.

“That’s something we have to take into more consideration and give a lot more credibility to it.”

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Ocean Holidays sees offline growth

A renaissance is taking place among travel clients choosing to talk to someone before making their purchase, Travel Weekly’s Business Breakfast was told.

Daniel Ox of Ocean Holidays said it has made a success of deploying technology and processes to assist its contact centre agents to transact over the phone from leads driven online.

And he said the group’s Winged Boots concierge travel service is growing at 40% annually and has a 75% repeat customer rate having done no digital advertising at all in its eight years.

The brand does not have a Customer Reservation Management system and launched its first website only last year, said Ox. “Our agents’ contacts are still in black books sitting on their desks.

“All of its advertising is meeting people, it’s referrals. Their marketing strategy is events, it’s not Google Adwords. Absolutely, there’s a space for offline and it’s a growing space for us.”

Ox said Ocean Holidays has a sales process in which every web lead is placed into one of 18 segments and funnelled to the most relevant individual in the contact centre to deal with their inquiry.

“Clients who call the contact centre are highly-researched and know what they are looking for. So it’s a challenge to educate our staff to make sure they are more knowledgeable than our clients.

“We make sure that each customer is matched to someone who is capable of delivering the best experience and best product to that customer.

“We call it sales acceleration; allowing our agents to make bookings quickly and efficiently all through technology and the way we have automated processes through the contact centre.

“We just feel we offer a better service over the phone, and I think there’s a renaissance in people wanting to speak to other human beings.”

‘Digital channels empower agents on high street’

Agents on the high street are being empowered by technology to provide improved levels of customer service in stores, according to Tui.

McAlister said the operator takes a “blended approach” with customers offered the choice of walking into stores, going online or engaging with its call centre or via online chat.

“We don’t mind where people book because we have all bases covered and when they want assurance or expert advice they will go looking for it.

“We are giving agents more tools to enable them to manage more of the customer journey, that’s certainly a strategy.

“We’ve got to be confident that we have brilliant products and that the customer will come back if they walk out of the shop, whether they will book online or on the app.

“We have to have courage in our strategy and empower our people to execute it. That’s empowerment of the teams in the offline channel with digital.”

McAlister added: “I’m always super-proud every time I spend time in retail because genuinely our customers love our travel agents. It’s absolutely fantastic and humbling to see.”

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