Global Head of Customer Support at Travelport
Productivity is the name of the game right now. As demand for travel skyrockets, the industry has a new challenge: hiring, training, and upskilling enough people to keep things running smoothly. For severely understaffed travel agencies it’s not just the surge in bookings, there’s the knock-on volume of ticket changes, refunds, and other enquiries to manage too. And the risk is: if agencies can’t resolve these issues quickly and accurately, they’re less valuable to customers.
Travel retailing software should be picking up the slack — yet many platforms still force agents to waste valuable hours on unprofitable, repetitive manual tasks. That’s incredibly frustrating at the best of times. But right now, it’s a deal-breaker. So, how can under-resourced businesses stay on top of everything and keep customers happy? Let self-service and automation do the heavy lifting.
Supporting travelers is tricky, but understaffing makes it even trickier
Modern customer support is all about finding solutions fast, and technology doing the hard work to keep people happy. But in travel the reality is more complicated, because the customer support journey is twofold:
- Travelers seeking support from agents
- Agents seeking support from suppliers to resolve traveler queries
It’s a very fragmented industry where nobody ‘owns’ the whole customer experience, unlike how Amazon fulfils third-party orders from start to finish. Booking a trip isn’t like ordering a physical product; a trip is the sum of many moving parts that are each fulfilled by different providers.
And as a result, getting support often means dealing with multiple systems, platforms, or channels. This is a whole lot of hassle for agents, who have to spend time trying to figure out varying rules and processes, as well as searching around for information. This eats into the already limited time they have for other tasks, damaging the overall customer experience.
But the truth is: customers don’t care about all this technical complexity. They just want their problems resolved. And since the pandemic they have different needs — they don’t just want help booking, they also want pre-trip, mid-trip, and post-trip advice. They have more insurance and visa queries. And they want agents to explain ticket exchange policies, so they don’t get caught out. All this means that understaffed agencies aren’t just doing extra work, it’s new work too.
Five ways travel can modernize its customer support
Consumers expect trips to be like any other purchase: fast, simple, and hassle-free if you change your mind. But because travel pre-dates the internet, it often falls short of the modern retailing standards offered elsewhere. And, since travelers can do their own research, overstretched agents are now under added pressure to be faster, more informed, and more convenient.
To stay relevant and meet these expectations, travel has no choice but to modernize, and offer a support service similar to the likes of Amazon, Deliveroo, and Shopify. Here’s what they can teach us:
1. Keep it simple
Travel is fragmented, and yes, that explains why things are the way they are. But consumers expect us to solve that complexity for them. They don’t want to go through one system for an airline, one for a hotel, one for a car rental, etc. They just want to deal with a single brand/retailer, though a single, centralized platform. Travel agencies are best placed to be that one point of contact, because only they can connect all this fragmentation and support customers at every and any stage of the journey.
2. Anticipate your customers’ needs
Customers now expect their profile, past purchases, behavior, shopping cart, and service issues (past and current) to follow them seamlessly from channel to channel, app to web, online to over the phone. But in travel, this often isn’t the case, so customers end up disappointed during shopping and booking. Agents that have in-person interactions have an advantage, as they can hone in more on customer needs, but online has lagged behind. The travel industry needs to address this. Being an expert consultant is better than relying on an algorithm, especially for first time customers. But to do that, you need the right tools that consolidate all the information and options, and help match customer needs with the right offers.
3. Give people options
Different kinds of problems require different kinds of interventions. Customers expect support to be available through different mediums, i.e. phone, chatbot, email, etc. It’s not about one method being better or faster than another, they’re all needed for different purposes. Most modern companies offer customers multiple communication tools. And, they empower them to solve problems themselves, not just because it reduces their own workload, because they know people like being in control. In this sense, self-service is one of the fundamentals of modern customer support.
4. Develop a customer-centric culture
The most successful brands don’t just think of customer support in terms of helpdesks, they keep service at the heart of every function of the business. That’s their key differentiator. These companies succeed by making sure customers can get support easily, regardless of how complex the back end of things might be. And this creates a 360º view of the customer across all channels. In travel, a properly equipped agency can play that role because they can offer and service the whole trip. And that gives them the single view of the entire customer journey.
5. Automate whatever you can
Manual tasks are the enemy of productivity. For example, processing a single manual refund can take up to half an hour. Multiply that by how many exchange requests an agency typically receives, then consider what that means when the demand for travel soars. You get the picture. This is time agencies simply can’t afford, and time that would be much better spent selling or dealing with the really complex issues that need human interaction. The solution? Offload manual tasks on technology, and claw back valuable minutes for agents through automation. The most efficient retailers in the world are already doing this.
Breaking free from manual tasks
Right now, agencies need to be able to solve problems quickly and independently, rather than putting people on hold while they phone an airline or a hotel for help.
Travelport+ Productivity Automator allows agents to break free of manual tasks and work more efficiently. It automates the low-value parts of the job, like finding the cheapest price or sourcing multiple options, collating services from different providers, reissuing tickets, and of course, flight changes and refunds. I’m proud to say, this tool helps agents save an average of 1.5 hours per day on manual tasks.
Empowering people to problem-solve
Like I said, when it comes to problem solving, people want to do things themselves.
For travelers, this means being able to make whatever changes they can, without agent support. That’s what our Trip Manager portal within Travelport+ allows them to do. Through it, travelers can service their own bookings, check ticket exchange eligibility, and easily select the best alternatives for their needs. This eliminates calls to agencies or airlines, saving valuable time and money.
For agents, doing things independently comes down to finding what you need, when and where you need it. MyTravelport is our self-service portal where both agents and suppliers can access knowledge and request assistance, all through a single sign-on. It has an AI-assisted chatbot that answers simple queries, like where to find a certain tool, or resetting a password.
It uses machine learning to develop a better understanding of our customers’ needs instead of just reacting to them. In the same way that Google can prioritize what content is displayed on the first page of a search, we help solve customer queries automatically and then prioritize showing them that content. This helps us continuously improve our products too.
Plugging the skills gap in travel
Travel is a highly technical and very specialized sector, so filling roles and upskilling takes longer. Within MyTravelport, there’s an online community where users can support each other, get the answers to thousands of FAQs, and receive expert support from our training teams.
Ultimately, this is all about saving time and reducing frustration for people. By removing unnecessary admin, and enabling agents to solve queries themselves, we’re putting control back in their hands. This accelerates the average onboarding time and helps plug the skills and labor gap that’s currently constraining our industry.
At Travelport, we know every bit of time saving counts right now. So, we’re making sure our customers get to use every minute profitably. And we’re doing that through modern support and facilitating more self-service and automation. Ultimately, that lets agents get on with what they do best: making their customers happy.