American Customers Have a NICE Flight

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American Airlines, together with its American Eagle and American Connection subsidiaries, serves 260 cities in 50 countries around the world with more than 3,400 flights per day. Its combined fleet is composed of more than 900 aircraft.

In support of all those flights, the airline operates three customer-care centers—in Cary, N.C., Fort Worth, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz.—which together handle approximately 40 million inbound and outbound calls a year. The contact centers are staffed by nearly 3,700 agents, 950 of whom are home-based.

Since 2005, American Airlines has focused on hiring home-based agents as a way to lower operating expenses, but with that have come some serious problems for the contact centers. For starters, the airline's old systems made it very difficult for supervisors to listen to calls and extract and share data from those calls to coach agents.

American Airlines was also having a hard time getting insight into the calls. "We were working on an antiquated system that recorded calls for us, but as far as changing business processes, we were working from anecdotal information from the agents about what went on during the calls," recalls Valerie Folger, manager of reservations communications strategy at American Airlines. "As a result, we were very reactive rather than being proactive."

So in 2009, American Airlines turned to NICE Systems and introduced the SmartCenter suite, including speech analytics, call recording, quality monitoring, and workforce management, into its three call centers to address a wide range of challenges, from operational to strategic.

Together, the solutions are helping American Airlines' call center managers monitor and assess the individual and collective experiences of customers when they contact the reservations and customer support centers. They can identify spikes in call volume, categorize calls, and identify the reasons for those calls.

The combined speech analytics, quality monitoring, and coaching applications within the suite also let them identify trouble spots, such as long periods of silence, long hold times, or calls that are particularly long; identify the root causes of those conditions; and move to correct them with process improvements or agent coaching where needed. All of this can be done in real time.

"Monitoring calls is less cumbersome than it was before," Folger says. "In our old environment, we had to listen to the whole call. Now we can key in on key parts and share just those parts with the agents during coaching."

The system also provides supervisors with insight into how well agents are adhering to scripts, knowledge gaps that might require additional training, and where processes might need to be changed.

NICE SmartCenter "has been great in helping us understand why people call and how our employees respond," Folger says.

"And there's no difference in the system if the agent is at home or in the office," says Julie Cole, business analyst for speech analytics at American Airlines. "With NICE, we have a way to listen to their calls and get them the coaching they need as well."

Since fully implementing the SmartCenter, American Airlines has reduced average call handling time by about 2.5 percent and continues to build on that success wherever possible.

Because call volume is highly influenced by external forces, there will always be spikes, but American Airlines says it is now better equipped to deal with them as they occur. One of those external forces is weather, but call volumes have also been shaped by changes in policies put forth by the Transportation Safety Administration.

Other benefits have been increased customer satisfaction and a reduction in the amount of time that customers wait on hold. An unexpected—but certainly welcome—result was a 24 percent increase in revenue. At the end of each call, agents offer to transfer callers to a service provider that can book hotels and rental cars at discounted rates for American Airlines customers; the airline gets a transaction fee every time one of those transfers takes place.

Using NICE Interaction Analytics, American Airlines was able to identify the key words or phrases that were used during successful transfer offers and missing in those that were unsuccessful. Those words included "discounts" and "Advantage Miles," referring to the company's customer loyalty program. Armed with that information, American Airlines changed the scripts and coached agents on how to better introduce those concepts into the offers.

"We're very focused on reductions in average call handling time and increasing revenue from transfers to our partners," Cole says. "We were able to make those goals in the first year."

But getting there was a slow process that actually began in late 2008, when American Airlines first began searching for a speech analytics vendor with a suite of products that could fulfill all its needs. It was a narrow field of competitors at the time, and NICE quickly emerged as the clear favorite. "We really did an exhaustive search with all the speech analytics vendors," Cole says. "We knew we needed call recording, quality monitoring, and speech analytics, and NICE had that all fully integrated into one system."

After selecting NICE, there were a few hurdles in the installation process. Among them were the usual personnel issues, especially getting agents and supervisors used to the system.

"What we had before was like riding a scooter. What we have now is like flying the newest Boeing jet," Cole says. "It wasn't always seamless, but we received a lot of training and support from NICE along the way.

"With this, change management was a huge part of it," she continues. "That's why it was a slow rollout."

And while there might have been some apprehension at first from the agents, many of whom have 20 years or more on the job, fears were quickly overcome once the goals were made clear. "Speech analytics is not there to catch [the agents] doing something wrong but for improving what they're doing," Cole adds. "We're not being punitive with how we use it."

At the time of the initial deployment, American Airlines installed version 3.1 of the NICE SmartCenter. It has since upgraded to version 3.2 and plans for an additional upgrade to version 4.1 either later this year or early next year. Folger and Cole are also looking to bring in screen analytics and post-call surveying tools to help them further improve the contact centers.

"We never knew how much we would use interaction analytics until we actually started using it," Cole says. "Now we're constantly wanting more. We're like kids in a candy store. We can't wait for more."

App at a Glance

Since implementing the NICE SmartCenter, American Airlines has seen:

  • a 2.5 percent reduction in average call handling time in the first year and steady improvements every year since;
  • a 24 percent increase in revenue as a result of more transfers to participating hotel and rental car providers; and
  • a reduction in on-hold time.

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