The way airlines handle “bumpy” situations can make or break the passenger experience.

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Today’s airline passengers reap the benefits from reservation technology and highly productive and easy-to-use mobile apps that in many cases engage with multiple websites seamlessly and transparently. All this is made possible because airlines have done a very good job over the past five years modernizing their customer interfaces.

While passengers certainly appreciate these great new tech tools, the quality of the latest app or cool biometric feature at the airport doesn’t matter much if a loyal client gets delayed overnight and misses an important meeting the next morning, or if a grandmother can’t make her grandson’s wedding on time.

Too often airlines forget there are real people traveling on these flights, and whether it’s for corporate or personal travel, it’s the flight experience as a whole that matters to an airline customer. Things can and will go wrong during a journey.  But good airlines become great by how they deal with the “bumps” that occur as they strive to get passengers to their destinations with the least possible disruption.

This was less complicated in the past when airlines controlled all aspects of the passenger journey. But changes in the industry brought more vendors and more complex – often unconnected – IT systems. In this environment, ensuring a seamless end-to-end customer experience has become a more challenging endeavor. That said, there are three steps that airlines can take to improve the passenger experience:

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  1. Build a rock-stable foundation. This means getting the basics right: clean aircraft, courteous flight attendants and efficient baggage handling. Nobody wants to hear that her suitcase was lost or to deal with an impatient flight attendant. The foundational elements are roughly 80 percent of the airline’s equation, so it’s important they work hard to get them right – and create systems, such as easy-to-use text notifications, to make the accommodation process run smoothly.
  2. When something does go wrong, personalize the recovery and communicate! A single mechanical failure or server outage can result in a cascading effect that can ground flights and strand passengers for days, as the airline struggles to get back on track. But when airlines deal with the operational aspects of the recovery, they must also remember that real people are impacted by the disruption – people who need information and an assurance that the airlines will meet their individual needs while their flight is grounded. Airlines need to communicate, but after the bad news has been delivered, they can also offer tangible compensation, such as refunds, expanded benefits in their loyalty or frequent flier programs, or complimentary hotel accommodations until flights resume. Another option: Give passengers greater personal control over their own recovery plan. Lufthansa, for example, has been developing self-service apps that let passengers respond personally to service disruptions in response to alerts from the airline.
  3. Deliver strategic add-on applications. Only when airlines get the basics right and develop a strategy for dealing with problems as they arise can they create an environment where the new technology applications start to matter. Passengers are already accustomed to logging on to airlines’ websites to compare prices, receiving their boarding passes on their mobile phones and using kiosks to print out boarding passes when they arrive at the airport. With biometrics and facial recognition, there’s much more to come. Airlines are just scratching the surface on how technology can improve the customer experience.

With many more options than they had in the past, customers will give their business to the airlines that put them first when things go wrong. Speaking from personal experience, I still won’t fly with a particular airline after their poor handling of a mechanical failure that kept me away from home on the night my dog passed away. I’d like to think that this experience is both isolated and preventable.

So, through a focus on the basics and a clear technology strategy, airlines can minimize the damage any one incident may cause to ensure a positive end-to-end customer experience and retain customer loyalty. Customers and business partners like me are depending on it.

Ways for airlines to benefit from combining digital and live agents.

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Many of us have had an experience similar to this: You call an airline to make a reservation and get a digital agent on the phone. The call starts off fine, but when you ask if your friend can sit next to you on the flight, the digital agent stalls and sends you to a live agent. You then wait several minutes before you reach a live agent and, when you finally do, she has no call history and you have to start from scratch, explaining who you are and making the reservation a second time.

Eventually, your request gets resolved and you manage to book your flight. But the entire process takes more time than you would have preferred, and you’re left irritated and feeling like you’ll switch airlines the next time.

Situations like these occur because many airlines have separate systems for the digital agent and the live agent, often from different providers whose contracts restrict the integration of both systems. When the two systems don’t communicate with one another, the digital agent hands the call off to a live agent, and the information doesn’t transfer. Airlines are now working to integrate both systems, and there are at least five benefits to doing so:

1. Saves the customer time. Customers don’t have to start from scratch and can complete their reservation request in much less time.

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2. More efficient use of the agent’s time. When the customer saves time, so does the agent, which gives her more time to upsell the customer on other services or deals the airline has to offer. The live agent can transition to becoming more of a salesperson and problem solver than a mere order taker.

Agent Productivity | Bold360

3. More efficient back-end processing. In the past, any time a change was made the airline would have to input the change into two separate systems. Now, the change gets entered only once and both systems get the update.

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4. Improved brand loyalty. The customer will remember his issue was resolved quickly and the live agent had a complete call history and knew and understood the customer’s preferences.

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5. Personalized service. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable the system to learn more about the customer over time. For example, it might know immediately the customer’s seat preferences based on her flight time – towards the front of the plane on a connecting flight, at the back on the red-eye, or in the aisle during a daytime flight –so that when the customer books a future flight with the digital agent, the correct seat will be assigned automatically.

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As the system matures, fewer calls would need to be routed to a live agent, so that only the most exceptional requests, or those involving sensitive information (such as a declined credit card), would need to be transferred.

A centralized platform is the most effective tool for integrating digital agents and live agents. It can connect disparate applications, services, and processes under a uniform customer experience, helping airlines to ensure data compliance, easily transform data, and more efficiently route information.

That said, integrating live and digital agents is a challenge, with legacy systems and processes often hindering progress. But the overall goals of an integrated system –improved customer service, brand loyalty and the ability of live agents to upsell services that customers really want – are well worth the effort.

When airlines succeed in doing this, they can win customers for life.

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