Fighting off airlines’ reputation of slow, frustrating customer service desks, tied-up phone lines and exhausting wait times is becoming more critical as consumers grow used to quick and personalized services in the digital age. Modern customers want their issues resolved instantly, after all.
As such, airlines must meet consumers where they are if they want to better serve those already reliant on mobile channels, noted Tori Forbes-Roberts, vice president of reservation sales and customer care for Delta Airlines. They also need to ensure their customers are in control of the conversation throughout the experience, regardless of channel.
“The historic [way] — and probably still the large majority of how we engage with our customers [today] — is still over the phone,” Forbes-Roberts explained. “However, we’ve been trying to expand the channels to other electronic means as technology has evolved to give customers the choice of where and when and how they engage with us. What that really says is we want to be available to our customers in the channels where they want to engage with us.”
Delta recently launched Apple Business Chat-based support for customer service to better meet these changing expectations. The capability relies on mobile and AI technologies to build more personalized consumer experiences. In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Forbes-Roberts explained why airlines are turning to AI, mobile messaging and other tools to create these seamless, simplified customer service interactions.
Customer Service In A Mobile World
As a global airline, Delta’s existing call center operation is fairly sizeable. Millions of users call with questions and issues concerning upcoming flights, meaning its 7,000 customer service representatives typically have their hands full.
Easing some of that strain was one of the main components behind enabling Apple Business Chat, Forbes-Roberts explained. The application was launched in June and is still in its testing phase, but it starts conversations with customers via Delta’s AI-based virtual assistant. The assistant — as yet unnamed — fields simple queries on its own, offering users solutions or additional information. More complex issues are elevated to human agents.
“The opportunity here is the bot’s capability to handle the easy questions and transactions, [which] allows [human agents] to focus on some of the more complex transactions or really just on building relationships with our customers,” she said. “They’re very complementary in that regard.”
Delta is the first airline to make use of Apple Business Chat in its customer service experience.
“We free up our most valuable assets, which is our people, to interact with our customers,” Forbes-Roberts added.
Approximately one-third of all customer interactions on the feature are currently handled by the bot, typically involving questions about upcoming trips or baggage allowances, she said. Delta is looking to add new capabilities to the channel in the future, including enabling users to make payments. The airline is planning to add a similar feature for users on other devices outside the Apple ecosystem in the future, as well as for those outside the domestic U.S., although it is deliberately taking the rollout slow.
“We’ve been doing that [expansion] carefully to make sure that we’re testing the technology as well as our ability to respond in a timely manner,” Forbes-Roberts said.
Delta will look to add new features and services to the text-based channel and its Fly Delta mobile app as the virtual assistant continues to learn, she added.
AI, Technology And The Future Of The Call Center
The airline’s customer service strategy will continue to rely on human agents who use Apple Business Chat as a resource, but the day may come when such AI-based assistants take over more of the agents’ duties.
“The philosophy with the [virtual assistant] … is that it does learn over time — [including] the types of questions the customers are asking — so we can continue to refine the responses and have as many conversations as we can, if that’s what the customer wants,” Forbes-Roberts explained. “One of the things we’re working on is making sure the bot converses with customers the same way and with the same sort of voice and culture as our people … [We believe] that continuity as part of our brand is important.”
It is not clear how tools like this will affect future customer service relationships, but customers are not growing less particular in their needs. Airlines will thus need to keep innovating their customer service channels on the fly if they want stay competitive.