“We apologize, but we are currently experiencing high call volumes. Your call is important to us– please hang up and try again”…
If you have called airline customer service within the last two years, you are likely familiar with this message. Among the numerous inconveniences of the COVID pandemic, we have all felt the increased friction when attempting to travel. Amid the emergence of new variants, travel restrictions, vaccine mandates, and general uncertainty, the complexity of travel has become a heavy burden for airlines and their customers. While airlines struggle to adapt to changing policies and government restrictions, their customers are becoming increasingly less tolerant. Bloated customer service channels now plague major airline companies as thousands of unhappy customers seek rescheduling or refunds for canceled flights. In this article, we will explore how the right contact center improvements can go a long way to remedying those customer fears and frustrations.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a globally disrupting force and a persistent challenge for many businesses. While the total economic impact of the pandemic has yet to be fully understood, it is clear that airlines have been a particularly vulnerable industry amid the whirlwind of government regulation, travel restrictions, and fearful customers. In fact, “the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis for airlines is enormous. Over the 2020-2022 period, total losses could top $200 billion.” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.
Even after receiving billions of dollars in federal financial aid, many airline companies still struggle with frequent staffing issues, increased flight cancellations, and overwhelming customer call volume. As such, airline companies have a critical need to reassess their customer support systems to help alleviate the pressure.
Before we explore how an optimized contact center can provide relief, let’s investigate how this pattern of problems is creating a customer service nightmare for airlines:
1. Staffing Issues
Airlines, much like restaurants and retailers, are suffering from the effects of the global labor shortage. According to the US Bureau of Labor, there are over 11 million job vacancies as of July 2022. Add in the effects of stay-at-home/isolation mandates for COVID-positive patients, felt the world over, as well as industrial action taken by airline staff throughout Europe demanding better pay and working conditions, and it’s easy to appreciate the plethora of staffing problems.
For the commercial airline industry, the labor shortage is particularly destabilizing to airlines as they depend on a dedicated, reliable system of people working in unison to function properly. Ticket agents, pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, administrators, customer service reps, and many other positions are all vital in the delicate airline ecosystem. When any role in the operation is compromised, it can create flight delays and cancellations that directly jeopardize their customers.
2. Flight Cancellations
Unfortunately, service disruption is a problem that plagued airlines long before COVID but has become a more obvious offense amid the pandemic. In April 2022, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation reported a 2.3% cancellation rate or 13,397 canceled flights.
Air travel is a vital service depended on by millions of people for their personal and professional lives. When the system fails, its effects are felt worldwide in the form of missed weddings, funerals, vacations, work commitments, and other obligations. For commercial airlines, an industry where customers have an incredibly low tolerance for error or disruption, the effects on business are magnified. It seems that for every flaw in the airlines’ flow of operation, a new problem is created. In effect, the widespread staffing issues and flight cancellations create the foundation for our key contact center predicament…
Overwhelming customer complaints
Here we have arrived at the problem Bucher + Suter’s industry is versed in remedying: overwhelming customer support pressure.
Increased ticket prices and frequent flight delays and cancellations have left many customers angry and resentful. Airline customer service reps have been subsequently flooded with customer calls demanding rescheduling or refunds for canceled flights. The influx of calls creates overwhelming pressure for the under-staffed service teams, leading to unreasonable wait times in call queues. Most notably, Delta saw wait times of over 704 minutes for their customers in June 2022. Unsurprisingly, The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that customer complaints are up 270% from pre-pandemic levels.
With airlines already struggling to endure the pandemic, adhere to government restrictions, and manage internal operations, the added pressure from unhappy customers creates a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
How the right contact center technology can help
Airlines cannot predict the advent of new crises or what the following government restriction will be. Their focus should instead be on optimizing their internal systems, so they can adapt to changing market pressure. As such, airline companies must fortify their contact center and communications solutions and address deficiencies in service.
The ability to service customers efficiently will help the entire system flow more smoothly, improve customer satisfaction, and alleviate the stress on both ends of the service equation. Customers are equally dissatisfied as corporations with how the pandemic has invaded their lives, and poor customer service creates unnecessary stress for everyone. Fortunately, this is an avoidable offense, and a dedication to excellent customer service will help companies stand out against the pervasive inconveniences felt during the pandemic.
Below we will explore six tips to help airline companies improve the productivity within their contact center and optimize service standards:
6 tips for improving an inefficient contact center
1. Prioritizing the agent experience
A contact center is only as effective as its agents. As such, any contact center optimization strategy should also aim to improve the agent experience. If the agents are unhappy within your contact center, customer experience will suffer, alongside your business reputation.
The basic principle here is to fundamentally care about your agents’ well-being while identifying concrete ways to improve their experience and workflow. On top of feeling respected and valued by their employer, agents should also be well-equipped with the proper hardware and software solutions to manage their workload. With the right information at hand at the right time, agents have the ability and the insight they need to deliver excellent customer service from the off. An optimized agent desktop that collects information from the IVR, screen pops the customer data to the agent, and starts some of the required actions in the CRM is a great place to start!
The applied technology stack should be designed to automate and alleviate as many pain points in the agent experience as possible. For example, automating customer callbacks and properly configuring self-service channels for customers to reduce unnecessary call volume.
Take it to the next level: design flows in your CRM that customer actions in the contact center can trigger to automate much of your agent work. Does the CRM tell us that a calling customer has lost their luggage and is likely calling for a follow-up? Are they already likely to be very stressed? Don’t make them wait in the IVR; ask them to confirm that they’d like to be reassigned to the baggage handling department and get them on the phone with someone who already knows everything they need to soothe the situation and feed the agent the status of the lost luggage claim immediately.
2. Improving Self-Service Channels / Automation
A customer should never be waiting in a call queue for a menial problem that could be quickly solved through self-service. These trivial requests clog service channels and drastically reduce contact center efficiency. As such, companies should prioritize comprehensive self-service and automation protocols that will free up agents to handle more meaningful requests.
A practical approach here is to create helpful customer portals to handle refunds, rescheduling, and general self-service. Empowering customers with comprehensive self-service options demonstrates a commitment to customer experience and will create space for more complex issues to be handled by agents.
In short: empower customers to do menial tasks themselves and let them do it on the channels that work best for them. This will serve to enhance the customer experience and reduce agent burnout.
Take it to the next level: use chatbots and voice bots so customers can communicate with you in their natural language terms and resolve some of their common issues. Remember to have a robust bot-to-agent handoff for when requests get too complicated.
3. Establish best practices for common problems
In dealing with thousands of customer service calls, many will inevitably be reiterations of common customer issues and questions.
A quick way to improve contact center efficiency is to create a best practices catalog for common problems and store them in your knowledge base. Every agent should have direct access to a coherent database that offers clear procedures and probable solutions for common issues.
A knowledge base with best practice references is a low-effort implementation that will help agents feel equipped and increase productivity.
Take it to the next level: use a transcription service and an AI engine, like Salesforce Einstein Recommendations, to provide agents with recommended articles based on the customers’ requests. With a properly configured IVR, you could even deliver agents the knowledge articles they need before the customer even gets to them!
4. Measuring real-time productivity metrics
When implementing any contact center optimization strategy, having clear metrics to measure productivity is essential for success. Key performance indicators will help you understand how efficient your organization is at various levels. When adequately tracked, the data can provide a clear indication of whether you are meeting your performance goals or not.
The aim is to select and track relevant KPIs such as:
Average Queue Time: How long are your customers waiting for an agent? This is a crucial indicator of call center efficiency and one that is currently impeding airlines.
First Contact Resolution: How many calls are resolved in the first contact? Agents and customers both appreciate when a solution is established upon first contact.
Average Handling Time: How long is an agent spending with each customer? This data will help to identify areas of improvement in service times.
There are many other KPIs to consider, but these should illustrate how such indicators may serve to optimize contact center efficiency. It is important to collect coherent data about agent performance, but how you identify and address deficiencies is the deciding factor in operational success.
5. Address issues of scale
In an ideal scenario, a company would position itself to be able to increase staff numbers quickly and easily. Ensuring that your onboarding process is frictionless and your training protocols are optimized are prerequisites for easy scalability.
Unfortunately, as reflected in the airline crisis, sometimes it is hard to acquire new people for the job quickly. To combat labor shortages, staffing issues, and increased service requests, companies must leverage the right technology to scale their service efforts.
As your customer base and service requirements grow, it’s important to leverage technology in ways that help to scale service efforts quickly. Using intelligent tools and AI can help relieve agents of unnecessary burden. Your agents should be reserved for queries that require human intellect; all other queries should be facilitated by AI or self-service.
Take it to the next level: an intelligent end-to-end omnichannel routing strategy can help you take advantage of availabilities throughout the contact center when lines get busy.
6. Establish a culture of productivity
If you want your agents to demonstrate extended productivity and sustained motivation, then establishing a culture of productivity is a primary objective.
What we mean here is to create the conditions in which productivity results as a natural consequence of the environment. Integrating all of the aforementioned tips is a commitment towards this aim, but establishing a clear framework and ethos of productivity in your contact center will, in time, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Practical examples include creating performance incentives for agents, providing ongoing training at every level, and providing open communication channels for agents to suggest improvements and speak about their needs. Agents are intimately connected with the customer service process and are thus equally invested in improving efficiency if given a chance. Listening to agents is a good strategy to understand what changes would improve their workflow while ensuring they feel valued.
Take it to the next level: Workforce optimization tools can transform the supervisor experience, giving them better insight into what is working and what isn’t in specific teams or actions that resonate with agents at scale.
Wrapping it all up
The pandemic has seemingly impacted every facet of our personal and professional lives. In this blog, we used airlines as our case study, but we could have investigated many other business models and found a similar result: companies are struggling, and people are frustrated.
The good news is that within all of the fear and uncertainty, there exists ample opportunity for companies to stand out with a commitment to excellent customer service. The aforementioned tips should provide a few strategies to improve service standards without disregarding the unique challenges the pandemic has created. Companies that enhance their service protocols and provide tangible support will earn the trust of their customers during these chaotic times. People have endured many hardships and inconveniences during COVID – don’t let your company’s poor customer service be another.