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How Airlines Can Handle A Surge of Customer Communications

During Southwest Airlines’ recent meltdown, when thousands of flights were canceled throughout the country, customers waited for hours on hold, often still without being able to rebook flights, locate their luggage, or arrange for a refund. The obvious problem was that there were not enough agents to answer calls and provide help. But the bigger problem–the elephant in the room– was the heavy reliance on a phone number at all.

The approach for Southwest and other airlines is probably not to cut the phone option, like Frontier Airlines recently announced it would do; but rather to provide superior digital communications, smartly automated with AI where appropriate, that in practice make the phone numbers irrelevant and unnecessary, except in complex cases. This is essential in order for airlines to operate efficiently, whether during a weather event or other disruption, like the recent FAA system outage.

 In fact, this will become necessary in order to remain competitive, and to comply with proposed regulations that will likely require airlines to issue refunds more quickly, offer stranded passengers more generous reimbursements for meals or hotels, and keep people informed of their luggage’s location. Complying with these proposed regulations will require far more efficient communications.

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Faster and More Efficient Communication with Chat and Messaging

Offering a chat option has become almost mandatory, and is the first step toward the digital transformation of communications.

For agents and customers, chat is often more efficient than a phone call. An agent working on chat can deal with at least three queries at once; while those working on phone can only handle one at a time. And for consumers, chat means they receive answers immediately without having to dial a phone, and wait on hold. Like agents, customers can multitask and chat with family members and friends, or work, while waiting for an answer from an airline.

To take even further advantage of chat, travel brands should be available not just on their own apps and websites, but on the popular messaging platforms that consumers are already using in their daily lives to communicate with friends and family, including SMS texting, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Brands should have the ability to accept voice notes and other voice-driven digital communications from customers on these platforms. Without the need to download a special app or create an online account, travelers can simply start communicating with their airline, on whatever platform they feel is most comfortable and convenient for them.

With this in mind, it makes sense to encourage as many customers as possible to use chat and other digital platforms rather than a phone number, and this will be a growing trend throughout the industry, even for those airlines who do retain a call center.

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Keeping Humans in the Loop

In addition, chat should be automated with the help of AI to whatever extent is possible, and fully integrated with the rest of the business, so that actual tasks–rather than just the sharing of information— can be completed online. Ultimately, this means that consumers will be able to complete tasks like changing the name on a ticket over chat, or they will be able to quickly use chat to rebook a flight canceled by winter weather, all through self-service. The AI will actually complete these tasks, rather than just help connect customers with the proper human agents or departments, as often happens now.

But brands do need to be properly guided when automating chat with AI; no one wants to leave consumers frustrated with poorly-implemented chatbots that don’t understand them. That means that whatever AI is deployed needs to be able to constantly learn on the job, and remember things, just like the human brain.

It also means that it should be supervised by humans, who can easily step in when needed. This is essential in order to provide a good customer experience. In fact, consumers shouldn’t notice the transition between human and AI speaking with them. AI used in this way also creates a situation where human agents become managers of the technology, and only deal directly with the most challenging and complex tasks. This greatly lowers job stress and increases job satisfaction among agents.

Hiring a Communications Automation Manager

Any brand that is serious about implementing more digital communications needs executive leadership to oversee the transition. This can be done best by appointing a communications automation manager; due to the rising need for automation and digital communication, this is a role that will grow in importance, and will be essential to making sure that the digital transformation of communications serves business goals and drives growth.

This executive can focus on challenges like making sure that humans and AI are working well together and providing value to the business,; and that information siloed in various departments is accessible to both AI and humans working in customer communications. The integration of communications with the rest of the business is essential, and makes the difference between inadequate chatbots that irritate customers and the type of effective digital communications that enable customers to take care of tasks quickly and get the information they need.

While the Southwest debacle stemmed from several triggers, including bad weather and its unique point-point system (rather than the more typical spoke and hub model); and the FAA outage was a rare event; the overarching lesson is the importance of robust and accessible digital communications. This will allow airlines to deliver service far beyond what the phone has ever accomplished.

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