What kept customers happy 10 years ago no longer works today. Internet and new technologies have completely changed consumer consumption behaviours and in turn, companies find themselves constantly adapting just to keep up.
The travel sector, for example, has evolved as a result of digitisation. When consumers began to shift towards online purchases, with the rise of online travel portals such as Expedia in the mid-1990s, physical travel agencies responded by building their presence over the web. New online players including OTAs began to emerge.
In these early days, the goal was simple: to provide consumers a new way to research and book their travel. Back then, customers were still serviced through call centres, where company representatives focus only on answering queries, and customer relationship building post-booking remained offline.
Now, with the rise of digitally empowered customers, customer expectations are evolving yet again. Many OTAs are still behind and need to change their approach yet again to create a new era of customer experience management. The OTAs that thrive will be the ones that evolve their model from an online/offline model to a true omni-channel contact centre that services the entirety of the customer journey.
Five characteristics of a digitally empowered customer:
• Well-informed and always online. Mobile phones and connected devices now play an essential role in our daily routines – whether it is texting, having access to emails or browsing through the web, chances are most of our waking hours are spent online.
• Pressed for time. Being well-connected also means that customers are now used to having instant access to information, amplifying any negative effects from having delays.
• Little attention. As a side effect from the high volumes information constantly pushed out, customers’ attention spans have reduced significantly over the years, making it increasingly challenging for businesses to stand out.
• Non-linear shopping journeys. A digitally empowered customer’s path to purchase is complex – ranging from online sources including websites and social media to physical stores, there are multiple touchpoints that could influence purchase decisions.
• Expect best price, best quality and best service. With the endless amount of choices readily available today, customers have better control over what they want than ever before.
The changing consumption behaviours have evolved customer expectations in three main ways:
• Immediate: Customers today demand assistance with more immediacy than they ever have, expecting a resolution in just 30 minutes for urgent requests conducted over phone. Almost all of them rate the speed of response as the most critical factor in service.
• Exhaustive: Customers expect a seamless experience when interacting with brands, no matter which channel – from call centres to digital messaging apps, emails and in-store services.
• Personal: Customers respond positively to personalised content and services – almost seven out of 10 customers say that they feel valued when customer services know them by name. Almost half of them feel that it is critical for their service history is remembered.
Designing a positive customer experience
OTAs that want to most fully engage with today’s digital consumers must take the perspective of the traveller to achieve long-term customer loyalty. They need to design a positive customer experience at every touchpoint of a traveller’s journey – pre-booking, purchase, pre-travel, in-travel and even post-travel.
Customer services must be strategic and designed to each customer experience. OTAs should make their assortments and product ranges transparent, while curating a relevant and engaging booking experience that keeps the customer’s interest.
When it comes to customer communications, it is essential to connect with customers across all channels, while taking advantage of the benefits afforded by each channel, and noting customer preferences.
For example, generally, most customers (75 per cent) prefer to discuss transactional matters by phone, while phone or emails are good for discussing product information and finalising administrative matters.
However, speed is also an important factor. Almost all (91 per cent) of travellers are happy to use knowledge base or automated systems as long as these are tailored to meet their needs.
While offering services through multiple channels may be complex, it is important to remember that every customer is unique and prefer to communicate via the channel of their choice. OTAs need to support this by deploying an omni-channel servicing model that offer seamless and personalised customer interactions across all channels.
Simply put, OTAs need to create an end-to-end travel experience that is easy, personal and convenient to successfully build customer loyalty from today’s digitally empowered customers.
Hunter Johnson is the director of Sabre Global Consulting, Asia-Pacific.