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The “flat world” of customer service in the travel industry

customer service in the travel industryThomas L. Friedman, award-winning New York Times columnist, describes it beautifully in his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century – with the rapid proliferation of technology, trade and big data, the world has become a timeless ‘mono-zone’, connected in almost every possible way. Gone are the days of sending a letter, not complaining about an unsatisfactory service, or waiting for local operating hours.

Technology has fueled higher service expectations, prompting businesses to focus all their efforts on the customer experience. This is abundantly evident in the travel industry.

Travel is unique because of a confluence of factors:

·    despite the convenience of online booking portals and travel agents, it’s a high-effort purchase, requiring research and planning by the consumer

·       it’s a high-ticket item, sometimes consumers’ major discretionary purchase in the year

·       the potential for things to go wrong - or at least not according to plan - is also high, whether through a simple flight delay, weather event, or civil unrest

·       it’s a low-margin industry for airlines and other participants.

High tech and high touch

For these reasons, automation is critical to the customer experience, while humans must be instantly available for exceptions. Nearly every process in a booking scenario is automated, from capturing contact details, to payment and issuing of tickets. When (system) errors occur or a change needs to be made, there is usually a sense of urgency. Resolving an error or change incorrectly may lead to additional charges, delays or layovers, or worse, losing the reservation altogether (and still being charged for it). Timely service is paramount as it can affect safety, finances, personal belongings or other people’s lives. So when it comes to changes to plans, travellers often prefer speaking to a human – someone who can be held accountable, but who is also particularly knowledgeable.

Social media

The next influential driver in the customer service cycle is social media. Social media platforms have become the default for consumers with concerns, complaints, even recommendations and compliments. Being portrayed negatively in front of thousands, even millions of people, is something every brand wants to avoid, prompting businesses to embrace this social revolution. At the same time, social media has afforded companies a positive opportunity to showcase services in a visual and interactive way, as well as present valuable and frequent new content to customers. This has broadened brand reach and availability, customer spend and engagement.


No two travellers are the same, nor are their purchase behaviours. Some are motivated by a premium seat with lots of leg room, while others would rather save the money to spend on a wow experience at their destination. To a backpacker, the cheapest fare is important, whereas a CEO may place emphasis on the dates of travel to ensure a meeting is not missed. Such flexibility comes at a cost, which some are willing to pay for, others not. Identifying who is who and what motivates each traveller in his/her buying journey is a real skill.

So when the weather turns sour, the flight no longer connects or the meeting, wedding or tour is postponed, it is invariably a human customer service agent who comes to the rescue. After all, the travel transaction is a complex chain with many links (air, accommodation, car, train, tours, cruises, insurance, visas etc.), and one minor amendment can create a ripple effect of change.

The travel industry operates on a global scale, necessitating 24/7 customer service. At the heart of the contact centre is a highly trained workforce building trust with the client, efficiently solving their problems, and smoothing out their journey.

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