Airlines Industry Reinventing Customer Service With Latest Tech Trends
U.S. airlines are headed for their 10th consecutive year of profitability and their employees, from pilots to catering workers, are demanding higher wages and better benefits, according to a recent NBC report.
In 2020, major U.S. carriers will be negotiating labor agreements with more than 120,000 unionized employees, a process that is set to add to their expenses.
(By the way, labor costs are airlines’ biggest expense).
To give you some perspective, in 2018 labor costs ate up 28% of U.S. airlines’ $187 billion in revenue, up from a 21% share in 2008 (and continuing through 2019, as airlines hired more workers and compensation rose) according to data from trade group Airlines for America
Will the increase in labor costs continue in 2020? You can bet on it. As customer service reps become more technologically competent (forced to interact with more interfaces), they’re providing more value.
Not only that, they’re dealing with angrier customers and shorter attention spans. Consumers are demanding instantaneous and personalized services, in an industry that quite frankly, is rarely a delightful experience for anyone involved (employee or customer).
But it’s a matter of time before tedious labor related costs reverse. Here are a few examples of innovative alternatives that you’ll most likely be hearing more about in the near future.
American Airlines using Google Nest to translate conversations
Last year Google introduced interpreter mode for Google Assistant, which lets you say something in one language and have it translated in another. Tuesday, American Airlines announced what could be a very practical application of the feature: the airline is testing interpreter mode in airport lounges to help American Airlines employees better communicate with travelers who speak a different language, a potential revolutionary technology when it comes to international travel.
American Airlines says that its Premium Customer Service representatives will be able to use interpreter mode on Google Nest Hubs (a perfect example of agents’ increase in tech competency).
However, the airline will only use interpreter mode when a multilingual employee isn’t available. There’s always the chance interpreter mode won’t perfectly translate each side of the conversation back and forth, as seen in this demo.
Adding in the fact that interpreter mode only currently works with 29 languages, it is clear conversation between two fluent humans will remain the ideal in 2020.
Astute organizations should, however, pay attention to the rise of machine translation. Former Amazon Global Director and current Microsoft CTO, Customer Service and Support, Gabriele Masili, identifies it as a potential game changer in the future of customer service, as he told us in our latest report:
“We are at a point where neuro-machine translation has a level of quality that is equivalent to human translation… It is so much easier to recruit for the expertise and then use language translation technology to have that expert support customers across multiple languages than trying to recruit multiple experts in different locations and then train those experts in [relevant] languages.”
Delta launches “Parallel Reality”
As seen in a Forbes article published yesterday, Delta recently joined the big boy table with their 2020 tech rollouts, including one called “the Parallel Reality beta experience” that will provide message boards that will simultaneously show personalized information for as many as 100 passengers after they pass through security.
“This new, opt-in technology allows multiple customers to see personalized content tailored to their unique journey on a single digital screen – at the exact same time and in their preferred language,” Delta said in a prepared statement. “At a glance, the category-defining technology will provide wayfinding and personalized travel information, like directions to your departure gate.”
Another Delta beta vision involves battery powered, wearable robotic suits called “exoskeletons,” designed to enable employees to easily complete tasks such as lifting “up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue,” the airline said.
As Delta described, “Roles that have historically been limited to those who meet specific strength requirements could potentially be performed by a more diverse talent pool, thanks to wearable robotics.”
Lastly, the airline is expanding on their “digital concierge” campaign with their Lyft partnership. They’re working on developing their app to arrange a Lyft pickup for a Delta flight, algorithmically factor in the designated departure time for the aircraft along with the expected traffic on the way to the airport, and then use Delta miles to pay for the ride.
“We’re evolving the app to become the ultimate travel companion for all points of your journey,” Bastian said.
The app is also being updated to notify passengers when their group is boarding.
JetBlue’s launch with Gladly software
Delta and American Airlines are hard at work bringing some innovation to the messy customer service game that the airline industry has notoriously earned. So what is JetBlue (second-best U.S. airline according to the 2019 airline quality rating) doing to remain competitive?
As seen in a previous CCW Digital article, in 2017 JetBlue partnered with customer service startup Gladly Inc., and has since shaved agent turnover rates and time from its customer service inquiries, improving the airline’s revenue.
According to Gladly, the software saves customer service agents between 30 seconds and five minutes per call.
“Previously, JetBlue had five different systems that stored customer data. Since 2017, average call times have been cut by about 40%,” said Sundaram, Jet Blue’s chief digital and technology officer. The airline recently introduced Gladly’s software in the air, so the cabin crew can have a bird’s-eye view of information about customers onboard.
Sundaram plans to deploy Gladly’s in-flight customer service model early this year to thousands of crew members, allowing them to access more individualized customer data with in-flight tablets. Agents can see, for example, whether a specific passenger boarded the plane after a frustrating experience of missing a different flight, and then accommodate them in some way (a free drink, an upgraded seat with more legroom, etc.). The software can also prompt crew members to offer complimentary perks to frequent fliers who have problems during the flight, such as a broken TV screen.
As the airline industry shoots for its 10th year of profitability, companies that prioritize the right formula between technology and humanization to deliver innovative customer service tactics will be the ones consumers choose to throw their dollars at.