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How AI can save airline customer service teams in times of crisis

The coronavirus outbreak has put airline customer care teams on the front lines. Airlines that have adopted artificial intelligence are alleviating some of the stress that their customer care teams are under.

A surge in volume and customer frustration

With social-distancing now the norm and many governments putting mandates on travel to be “essential,” OAG reports that globally, the number of scheduled flights is now down by 47.7% (as of this writing) compared to the same week last year. As expected, this drastic change in travel has been accompanied by a flood of rebooking, cancellations and a barrage of questions ranging from flying restrictions to the cleanliness of planes.

In fact, travel-related customer service Google searches shot up 888% between mid-February and mid-March 2020 compared to a 30-day average between 2004 and 2020 (79% of top trending queries compared to 8% of top trending queries).

As many flights remain grounded and airport terminals all but empty, customer service reps are working harder than ever under mounting pressure. It should come as no surprise that call centers have much longer-than-usual hold times. While everyone has their own horror to share, I waited on hold for four hours to cancel a flight, only to have the hold music cut off and get promptly disconnected.

This pressure on call centers has led to airlines taking unprecedented measures. Delta, for one, is “automatically issuing refunds or future flight credits on missed or cancelled flights during this critical time.”

Without in-flight and airport lounge experiences to make an impact and drive customer satisfaction, agents are now the primary touchpoint for airlines to connect with travelers. Because of this, companies need to focus on automating and augmenting work to protect the long-term value of the customer.

COVID-19 complicates the role of airline customer service

The Los Angeles Times has referred to the airline customer service agents as “the human punching bag for airline passengers.” According to the publication, “Agents are subjected to verbal abuse almost daily. It’s a thankless job requiring patience and thick skin.” Agents often bear the brunt, whether a customer is angry that there are no upgrades available on their flight, a change in aircraft for maintenance has led to a delay or baggage was delayed.You haven’t signed up for our daily bulletin?!

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This is on a good day. When a time of crisis hits – whether it’s a weather event that cancels flights in a region or a pandemic like COVID-19 – it’s the airline’s customer service reps that have to lead the delicate dance of balancing empathy and policy with frustrated, stressed or panicked travelers.

COVID-19 has complicated the role of the agent more than any other time in history. Since the coronavirus made landfall in the U.S., airlines have had ever-evolving policies related to cancellations, change fees and rebooking eligibility / timeframes. Delta addresses this head-on in its coronavirus statement: “This situation remains very fluid, and we are committing the utmost care and attention into crafting our travel waiver policies.” In other words, policies are always changing.

In the airline industry, the complication is magnified when you consider that federal, state and local guidelines, travel restrictions and self-quarantine requirements are changing daily.

How AI is helping airlines scale customer service

Airlines that leverage AI to automatically resolve tickets and augment agent work had a great advantage as ticket volume spiraled in the wake of COVID-19 in four primary ways. 

  • Scale-up teams and multiply output in seconds

When ticket volume rises without notice, hiring, onboarding and training new agents is not a viable option to offer the immediate relief that customer service teams need. With AI able to handle an infinite number of tickets at a single time, the airlines that leveraged virtual agents during the beginning weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak were able to scale their teams in seconds. AI resolves repeatable, simple queries without delay, letting human agents focus on high-touch and critical issues. A human and AI team is the best option to keep resolution times low across the board.

The benefit of AI can also be seen across support channels. When WestJet’s ticket volume increased 1,671% on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp during the early weeks of the outbreak of COVID-19 in North America, the airline kept response time low as its virtual agent Juliet fully resolved 87% of tickets.

  • Identify new and trending issues

During times of crisis, new issues emerge and existing issues become more pressing, which can fluctuate based on geography, airport or even flight. In real-time, AI alerts customer service managers if there are trending issues across channels. For example, during this crisis, new on-board safety issues and questions related to social distancing arose for the first time. Never before would it have been logical for a traveler to want to ensure safe distance between other travelers.  By leveraging AI to identify new questions, airlines can create a response plan and proactively communicate to other affected customers.

Help protect agents’ emotional well-being

According to The Atlantic, “Research has consistently shown that the emotional labor often performed by people in customer-service jobs – the smiling through rudeness, the calming of nerves, the constant control of one’s own emotions – has what one widely cited study described as ‘uniformly negative effects on workers.’”

Customer service has one of the highest attrition rates of any industry, with turnover rates between 30 to 40%. It’s too early to tell the impact of COVID-19 on airline customer service attrition in the airline industry, and of course, there are larger global economic factors at play. Keeping agents happy and satisfied will, at the very least, impact the quality of their work and interactions with customers.

AI can help with agents’ emotional well-being in a few ways. On the most basic level, AI offloads work and responsibility. By eliminating mindless work, agents are more empowered to focus on higher-level thinking and tasks and to not get overwhelmed by a monumental workload. In fact, in response to the coronavirus, Gartner suggests that companies “use chatbots in digital channels to address the most commonly asked questions to offload volumes to service agents.”

AI can also leverage sentiment analysis to route frustrated or anxious customers to the right agents. For instance, this could be an agent who has not had a difficult customer in the last hour, sparing the agent who just finished with a difficult customer.

Provide proactive customer service

The biggest way to help customer service teams in times of increased volume is to prevent new tickets from coming in. When there is a change in policy like rebooking eligibility or unforeseen circumstances like a new government regulation that impacts service availability, virtual agents can reach out to your customers with all of the necessary information and answer follow-on questions. This will eliminate customers from ever sending an initial email or making a phone call in the first place.

Beyond the bottom line

The coronavirus outbreak is impacting the travel industry substantially. It’s important to think about pressure on customer service reps, the airline employees who are truly on the front lines today. AI can automate and augment the work of human agents to ensure high customer and agent satisfaction through difficult times.



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