Customer Support Reinvented
Technology is completely transforming the travel industry, from top to bottom, but what is less appreciated is the change in travel consumers facilitating the application of technology into new areas of the business.
The transformation of the travel industry began two decades ago with the rise of all the various websites and applications that allowed you to search for and book flights and hotels. What we are seeing today is a continuation of that transformation, adding new verticals and layers on top of that traditional search function. So now, for example, algorithms enable you to search for options for a getaway weekend below a certain price or to come up with an ideal itinerary that allows you to visit three European cities over a seven-day period within a certain price range.
At Kiwi.com we are pioneers in ‘virtual interlining’, whereby our proprietary algorithm enables customers to automatically combine flights from more than 500 airlines, many of them budget carriers that do not normally collaborate with each other, into a single itinerary. This massively increases the range of travel options we can offer consumers, from budget to luxury, as well as entirely new routes using multiple modes of transport that are not currently being served.
Future trends from disruptive technologies to watch out for include revolutions in the actual means of travel. Today, we are still travelling in remarkably traditional ways—via planes, trains and automobiles—but in future, those modes might include drones and hyper-loops. My own background includes a stint working at Elon Musk’s SpaceX in California, which aims to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to travel to and live on other planets.
The travel business is, and will always be, a customer-centric business, which until now has meant that much of the industry, from agencies to airlines, was required to maintain large customer support departments. However, the advent of conversational AI platforms like ‘travel chatbots’ or ‘virtual travel agents’ promises to revolutionize this part of the business.
This ease with chatbots at the same time as the technology improves to offer the consumer a more human-like, natural experience leads the technology consultancy Gartner to predict that by 2020 customers will manage 85 percent of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human.
Currently, virtual travel agents are employed across the industry to handle routine queries such as searching through booking emails and calendars to build an itinerary, which is freeing up customer service representatives to perform more complex tasks. At Kiwi.com for example, we are utilizing AI assistance in what we call ‘Smart FAQs’, which help guide customers through the process of answering their requests or solving their problems.
Kiwi.com’s strategy has been, from the beginning, to have a large customer support department, manned 24/7 by people of multiple nationalities, to manage its guarantee that promises to always find alternative travel arrangements for customers who fall victim to travel snafus. Virtual interlining is ‘connecting the unconnected’, which means that the travel industry being what it is, there will always be times when planes are delayed and connecting flights are missed. However, we are examining each and every task carried out by the customer support department to see whether it is possible to automate them. Like CIOs across the travel industry, I am constantly looking at what activities and problems our agents are involved with: once you can automate it, it’s scalable.
As an organization, we are constantly studying the conversations that our agents are engaged in with our customers, trying to learn the structures and patterns to break them down into smaller ones, which are much more accessible and can have solutions applied to them.
For example, if you book a flight with Kiwi.com today, you will automatically be checked in and receive an email from a virtual travel assistant to confirm that. In the area of luggage, virtual interlining means that checking through baggage becomes a major challenge because you might be using airlines that don’t cooperate. Thus, Kiwi.com has been working on an AI technological solution to eliminate the stress and strain of having to re-check luggage with every flight.
AI is also allowing us to pre-empt issues and find solutions before they become problems. We can deterministically see if a customer has missed his or her flight, and even before that fact is reported our virtual travel agent can supply alternative flights, check that person in and take care of any baggage issues.
For the industry, the increasing use of virtual travel agents will reap huge rewards for enterprises. While for users it allows quick interaction using their own words and terminology, for enterprises it offers a way to actually build stronger connections with their customers. This is because when people communicate in a natural, conversational way, they reveal more than just words, they also expose their preferences, views, opinions and feelings.
Thus, virtual travel agents might bring that ultimate personal touch that Millennial travelers so crave.