The coronavirus outbreak has put airline customer care teams
on the front lines. Airlines that have adopted artificial intelligence are
alleviating some of the stress that their customer care teams are under.
A surge in volume and customer frustration
With social-distancing now the norm and many governments
putting mandates on travel to be “essential,” OAG reports that globally, the
number of scheduled flights is now down by 47.7% (as of this writing) compared
to the same week last year. As expected, this drastic change in travel has been
accompanied by a flood of rebooking, cancellations and a barrage of questions
ranging from flying restrictions to the cleanliness of planes.
In fact, travel-related customer service Google searches
shot up 888% between mid-February and mid-March 2020 compared to a 30-day
average between 2004 and 2020 (79% of top trending queries compared to 8% of
top trending queries).
As many flights remain grounded and airport terminals all
but empty, customer service reps are working harder than ever under mounting
pressure. It should come as no surprise that call centers have much
longer-than-usual hold times. While everyone has their own horror to share, I
waited on hold for four hours to cancel a flight, only to have the hold music
cut off and get promptly disconnected.
This pressure on call centers has led to airlines taking
unprecedented measures. Delta, for one, is “automatically issuing refunds or
future flight credits on missed or cancelled flights during this critical
Without in-flight and airport lounge experiences to make an
impact and drive customer satisfaction, agents are now the primary touchpoint
for airlines to connect with travelers. Because of this, companies need to
focus on automating and augmenting work to protect the long-term value of the
COVID-19 complicates the role of airline customer
The Los Angeles Times
has referred to the airline customer service agents as “the human punching bag
for airline passengers.” According to the publication, “Agents are subjected
to verbal abuse almost daily. It’s a thankless job requiring patience and thick
skin.” Agents often bear the brunt, whether a customer is angry that there are
no upgrades available on their flight, a change in aircraft for maintenance has
led to a delay or baggage was delayed.
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This is on a good day. When a time of crisis hits - whether
it’s a weather event that cancels flights in a region or a pandemic like COVID-19
- it’s the airline’s customer service reps that have to lead the delicate dance
of balancing empathy and policy with frustrated, stressed or panicked
COVID-19 has complicated the role of the agent more than any
other time in history. Since the coronavirus made landfall in the U.S.,
airlines have had ever-evolving policies related to cancellations, change fees
and rebooking eligibility / timeframes. Delta addresses this head-on in its coronavirus
statement: “This situation remains very fluid, and we are committing the utmost
care and attention into crafting our travel waiver policies.” In other words,
policies are always changing.
In the airline industry, the complication is magnified when
you consider that federal, state and local guidelines, travel restrictions and
self-quarantine requirements are changing daily.
How AI is helping airlines scale customer service
Airlines that leverage AI to automatically resolve tickets
and augment agent work had a great advantage as ticket volume spiraled in the
wake of COVID-19 in four primary ways.
- Scale-up teams
and multiply output in seconds
When ticket volume rises without notice,
hiring, onboarding and training new agents is not a viable option to offer the
immediate relief that customer service teams need. With AI able to handle an
infinite number of tickets at a single time, the airlines that leveraged
virtual agents during the beginning weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak were able to
scale their teams in seconds. AI resolves repeatable, simple queries without
delay, letting human agents focus on high-touch and critical issues. A human
and AI team is the best option to keep resolution times low across the board.
The benefit of AI can also be seen across support channels.
When WestJet's ticket volume increased 1,671% on Facebook Messenger and
WhatsApp during the early weeks of the outbreak of COVID-19 in North America, the
airline kept response time low as its virtual agent Juliet fully resolved 87%
- Identify new and trending issues
During times of crisis, new issues emerge and existing
issues become more pressing, which can fluctuate based on geography, airport or
even flight. In real-time, AI alerts customer service managers if there are
trending issues across channels. For example, during this crisis, new on-board
safety issues and questions related to social distancing arose for the first
time. Never before would it have been logical for a traveler to want to ensure
safe distance between other travelers.
By leveraging AI to identify new questions, airlines can create a
response plan and proactively communicate to other affected customers.
Help protect agents’ emotional well-being
to The Atlantic, “Research has consistently shown that the emotional labor
often performed by people in customer-service jobs - the smiling through
rudeness, the calming of nerves, the constant control of one’s own emotions - has what one widely cited
study described as ‘uniformly negative effects on workers.’”
Customer service has one of the highest attrition rates of
any industry, with turnover rates between 30 to 40%. It’s too early to tell the
impact of COVID-19 on airline customer service attrition in the airline
industry, and of course, there are larger global economic factors at play.
Keeping agents happy and satisfied will, at the very least, impact the quality of
their work and interactions with customers.
AI can help with agents’ emotional well-being in a few ways.
On the most basic level, AI offloads work and responsibility. By eliminating
mindless work, agents are more empowered to focus on higher-level thinking and
tasks and to not get overwhelmed by a monumental workload. In fact, in response
to the coronavirus, Gartner suggests
that companies “use chatbots in digital channels to address the most commonly
asked questions to offload volumes to service agents.”
AI can also leverage sentiment analysis to route frustrated
or anxious customers to the right agents. For instance, this could be an agent
who has not had a difficult customer in the last hour, sparing the agent who
just finished with a difficult customer.
Provide proactive customer service
The biggest way to help customer service teams in times of
increased volume is to prevent new tickets from coming in. When there is a
change in policy like rebooking eligibility or unforeseen circumstances like a
new government regulation that impacts service availability, virtual agents can
reach out to your customers with all of the necessary information and answer
follow-on questions. This will eliminate customers from ever sending an initial
email or making a phone call in the first place.
Beyond the bottom line
The coronavirus outbreak is impacting the travel industry
substantially. It’s important to think about pressure on customer service reps,
the airline employees who are truly on the front lines today. AI can automate
and augment the work of human agents to ensure high customer and agent
satisfaction through difficult times.
About the author...
Mehta is founder and CEO of Netomi