Customer Experience Is Ready For Pilot’s Seat In Travel Business

The year 2020 was inarguably brutal for airlines, which at the lowest point saw revenues drop by almost 80 percent year on year as the pandemic kept their customers locked in their homes and profoundly uninterested in flying the friendly skies.

Figuring out building a better consumer experience took a backseat for most carriers to figuring out how they were going to survive through an industry-crushing event that nobody saw coming.

The good news is that the worst seems to have passed, and with vaccines in circulation, the end is coming into view even if it hasn’t quite arrived just yet. And with the possibility of air travel resurrecting itself, payment orchestration firm CellPoint Digital CEO Kristian Gjerding told Karen Webster the pressure is on for airlines to come back with an upgrade to the entire consumer experience.

“[Airlines] are realizing they need to improve automation, they need to improve the various customer touch points, simplify operations internally, particularly in the back office,” Gjerding said. “And if they don’t do that, they’re not going to be able to follow suit with some of the requirements by travelers, but also of the governments.”

As a whole, the air travel industry is clear on what it needs to achieve, he said. This is not a question of if big changes are coming but when they are. And the answer is largely dependent on specific cases within the industry. There is no single-serving answer because the situation has been so varied.

But what airlines on the whole know is that they need payments optimization now because minimizing friction in checkout flows will boost overall conversions and smooth out the consumer travel booking journey, he said.

“If the experience is too cumbersome … as a consumer, I am not going to buy,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of revenue lost on those friction points. And then I think that simplifying the payment journey and the full passenger journey is essential for an airline who wants to switch from a semi-digital to a full-digital reality.”

A Team Effort

Upgrading travel into the modern digital era is easier said than done because the legacy technology sitting underneath the industry is limiting, Gjerding said. It is technology that airlines cannot simply decide to rip out and start over from.

The industry as a whole needs to transition to a smarter, newer, more flexible infrastructure, he said. That transition is a process and one that payment optimization can help enable.

Payments used to be handled by businesses more as an “operational layer,” but they are now becoming part of the larger consumer experience discussion being held in executive committee meetings, he said.

“That’s new,” Gjerding explained. “It did not used to be quite like that before. Across the organization, we’re seeing CEOs, COOs, CFOs coming onto calls not for every project called, but for the strategic calls where they’re ensuring things are on track and deadlines are real. They know they have to get done much [in] 12 months, 14 months, 18, whatever it may be. And that’s changing. And the reason it’s changing is it has become very strategic.”

It has also become a cross-team effort within organizations, he said. These efforts aren’t just the responsibility of the sales and marketing team, or the IT team, or the finance team. What organizations are starting to understand is that when it comes to payments, these teams have to work together because it is an instrument that serves all of their strategic ends. =

They also have to be able to do it quickly, he said. Gone are the days when an organization could take six months to a year to roll out new payment functionality; the new timeline everyone is working under is simply much faster than that.

The New Horizon

Consumers returning to the skies is a concept that is not quite assured but does seem fairly certain. There is an awful lot of pent-up demand sitting within consumers increasingly desperate to leave their livings rooms. That is the good news and the light at the end of the tunnel for travel firms, Gjerding said.

But, he said, the challenge in capturing those consumers will be greater because the tourists returning to the industry aren’t the same people they were a year ago — they’ve become highly digitized in their habits and expectations, and they reward the merchants that are most able to support their shifted lifestyle.

We’ve seen proof of that in the retail segment where those that went into the pandemic ready for the digital dive found ways to thrive while those that went in behind sputtered and struggled to keep pace, Gjerding told Webster.

Creating a smooth commerce journey is shaping up to be a core competitive capacity, particularly as airlines are searching for a way to get their own businesses back on a smooth path, he said.

“Payments is actually a technology platform on the same level as an eCommerce platform or any other significant technology platform,” Gjerding said. “And I think that is what’s changing. And they’re realizing that if they want to be achieving all these opportunities for both increased conversions, increased revenues, but also capturing cost reductions without necessarily compromising the user experience, modern payments orchestration is required.”