Why Call Centers Still Matter For A First-Class Flying Experience

Call centers power about 15 percent of all airline bookings, but customers still want modern ways to pay, says Jean-Christophe Lacour, head of products and offers at Amadeus. In the May Call Center Commerce Tracker, Lacour talks about the staying power of the phone call, and what airlines are doing to innovate payments as part of that call center experience.

From booking a ticket months in advance to paying for baggage fees at the airport and purchasing Wi-Fi while in flight, paying for travel services can be as complicated as planning the overall journey. Customers want to use a variety of channels when navigating the experience, and may need to switch between mobile, online and other methods at various stages of the process.

As such, airlines must cater to customers’ increased need for omnichannel access, according to Jean-Christophe Lacour, head of products and offers for travel solutions company Amadeus. One of the channels that shows no sign of losing consumer favor is the good, old-fashioned phone call — something in which digital-focused airlines see value.

“[Our client] Finnair wants to be digital-first, mobile-first,” Lacour said. “Even though they have these views, they still consider call centers a very important channel to service their customers.”

The Staying Power of Human Contact

While many customers today may go online to pre-order their in-flight Wi-Fi or start their ticketing search, the phone remains many airline customers’ channel of choice when purchasing tickets or altering tickets they have already purchased.

Call centers are responsible for approximately 15 percent of airline bookings, according to Lacour, equating to about 250 million tickets per year. Sales made at call centers also tend to be of higher value than those made online, likely because customers turn to a help line for more complex purchases.

These contact centers are also often the go-to for complicated issues like last-minute bookings or adjustments. After all, if a flight is cancelled and a customer needs to be rerouted in time to make a connecting flight, it’s often easier to explain his or her specific needs to a live agent.

“Anybody who needs to make a last-minute change [is likely to use a call center],” Lacour said. “You’ve made your booking, there is a change somehow — your flight is cancelled or delayed — and you need to rebook something. Either you’re able to speak to someone in the airport at the point where the problem is happening, or you’re going to try to talk to someone at a call center, because you need to get that human voice to explain your particular circumstances and make that change.”

Call centers also carry particular appeal for less tech-comfortable customers, and for VIPs who are more used to dealing with people than self-service systems, he added.

Digital Convenience and Security

While some customers might not be quite ready to kick the phone call habit, these and other customers often welcome more modern payment methods. Mobile devices’ proliferation has created a strong desire for digital ways to pay, and customers are becoming more sensitive about the potential security issues involved in recounting their credit card details to an agent over the phone.

Airlines are looking to resolve this tension between customers’ desires for both digital payment convenience and human assistance. In the case of Amadeus’ Finland-based airline client Finnair, bringing more of its payments into the digital realm reduced human error from manually keying in card details. Amadeus’ service introduced a new approach, allowing call center agents to help customers select their tickets and letting customers complete their purchases digitally using URLs sent via text or email that link to an online payment platform.

Some airlines are also looking into accepting more payment methods, Lacour noted. Customers still value the ability to call in, but an increasing number are taking advantage of opportunities to reach call centers through digital channels, such as social media or chatbot. Overall, passengers want to interact with airlines in a variety of ways for both support and purchasing.

“A lot of customers now are simply going to expect, if not demand, that travel providers can service them in the way that they want to be served,” Lacour said. “In the future, airlines have to be cognizant of those customer expectations, service them as seamlessly as possible [and do so] through multiple channels.”

As digital services take flight, they seem to be augmenting — not replacing — call center offerings. For now, at least, airline passengers continue to find contact with call centers an important piece in making their experiences first-class.