Customer service with a high-tech edge

From highly relevant, data-driven deals to ‘deceptively’ successful chat bots, innovative travel firms like KLM and Edwardian Hotels are using technology to reach millions of customers personally. Senay Boztas reports

Like a freshly ironed newspaper at your door every morning, how do you deliver a personal service…to millions?

This was the question that travel companies, tech experts and hoteliers tried to answer on the first day of EyeforTravel’s Europe Summit, which took place in London last week.

It’s a question of pulling marketing efforts together and using data smartly, according to Kevin Duijndam, cross-channel marketing manager at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Given the number of channels today, it’s becoming more challenging than ever to sell a simple product. For this reason, KLM has decided to make customer centricity a strategic focus. “Our challenge was to do that online, remain customer-friendly but of course sell our flights. We started humanised advertising, combining all our data sources to get rid of irrelevant messages – to spend our money where it makes sense instead of telling people things they already know,” he said.

KLM has achieved these goals by working with technology partners like EyeforTravel sponsor Relay42, a company that helps airlines and OTAs connect the dots in the traveller journey. Tomas Salfischberger, the computer scientist CEO and co-founder of Relay42, told EyeforTravel that their plug-and-play solution enables travel companies to capture data from all consumer facing channels, which is then stitched together in a far more relevant way. "You want to be wherever the customer is, to personally deliver the messages they need," he said. 

To highlight the point, Duijndam explained: “We used to send emails and ‘push’ messages to say that campaigns had started. By combining that data we saw we were sending messages to people who had already opened an email: now we only send a push message if we know you didn’t.”

Indeed, what KLM soon recognised was that push messages to a phone are quite intrusive.

“By removing those, we sent a lot fewer messages for almost the same commercial result – but probably more customer satisfaction  because we don’t annoy them with messages about what they already know,” he said.

The Dutch carrier's drive started back in 2013, and now the airline runs marketing from a centralised database, feeding everything from, for example, a temporary Facebook option to book group flights with friends to game-based promotions.

If we send our members things they aren’t interested in, they are going to disengage

Joel Bravo, UK MD, Travelzoo

Personalised advertising is also delivering results for travel deals agent Travelzoo. According to the firm’s UK MD Joel Bravo 72% of its business comes from [marketing] emails. “If we send our members things they aren’t interested in, they are going to disengage,” he said.

So the company uses data analysis to send different deals to different people: flights linked to nearby airports, hotel spa deals with an overnight stay for people further away, and sightseeing offers for people surfing from a mobile abroad.

Time for a chat bot

Some firms like Icelandair are using artificial intelligence-powered chatbots via Facebook Messenger in order to reach millions of customers. By taking simple bookings or answering straightforward questions, this can free up call centre staff for more complex issues.

Others, like Edwardian Hotels, have created a smart bot to act as a ‘virtual host’, for example, telling guests if rooms are ready and taking room service orders in four languages. Michael Mrini, director of information technology at the British hotel chain, says the chatbot called Edward is “deceptively successful”.

“Hardly any of the guests realised this was a system,” he said. “Edward got tips and has feedback on TripAdvisor. It has fooled our guests into thinking it was a human being!”

It [Edward the chatbot] has fooled our guests into thinking it was a human being!

Michael Mrini, Director of Information Technology, Edwardian Hotels

But most importantly, he added, by using technology smartly, all departments are connected, have access to up-to-date data, and can give customers better service.

The good news, said Anaal Patel, vice president marketing at customer service support software company SparkCentral, is that you don’t need to invest millions to connect with modern customers in a personal way. “I’ve seen great examples of chatbots and terrible examples,” she said. “A lot of brands are scared as they don’t know how to manage everything, and there’s a tentativeness about what is coming. You just have to take a step and start experimenting.”

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