Another Perk for Frequent Flyers

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Since beginning an ambitious upgrade of its interactive voice response (IVR) system last summer, South African Airways is now finding itself with modernized self-service automation and a computer telephony interface that are enhancing the working environment for its call center agents; improving customer service; reducing the number of calls into its contact center; substantially decreasing caller frustration; and cutting caller waiting time significantly.

The latest IVR, provided by South African IT and telecommunications solutions firm Intelleca, uses Nuance Communications' speech recognition engine and Avaya's CTI, both running on the Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories VoiceGenie platform.

The upgrade, which was necessary to replace an aging and outdated call center application, was originally meant to improve service to the 1.9 million passengers enrolled in the airlines' Voyager frequent flyer program, as well cardholders of a Voyager Credit Card that the airline just launched this past August with Nedbank, one of the largest banking institutions in South Africa, and American Express and Visa.

Frequent flyers and credit cardholders can use the telephone and their voices to retrieve account balances and statements, request statements to be faxed to them, and redeem rewards points and frequent flyer miles. When Voyager members call into the system, it automatically captures and stores their Voyager account numbers and PINs. Though most interactions can be handled through self-service, should a caller need to be transferred from the IVR system to a live agent, his name, telephone number, Voyager details and miles, and verification status from the IVR session are carried across to the agent's computer screen via Avaya's CTI. This has added to the professionalism of the call center agents and delivered a more pleasant experience for the callers who do not have to repeat the information again at the start of the conversation.

"The new system provides us with a customer-friendly interface to all our customers, including our Voyager members. It has brought SAA in line with world best practices, and removed points of friction and frustration, replacing them with a superior user experience," says Mike Re, chief information officer of the Johannesburg-based airline that carries more than 7 million passengers a year and has seen steady increases in passenger numbers, especially on international flights.

The new system is much more streamlined than the previous one. "Call flows were redesigned to make them more user-friendly, with fewer steps for the caller. A voice-activated persona was chosen that is professional and aligned with the SAA brand," says Shaun Cochrane, director of Intelleca. "We understood the need to develop individual personae for clients, telephone- based personae which accurately reflect and extend the brand of each individual client.

"Other large South African corporations who have implemented the system have experienced dramatic benefits since redesigning their call flows and IVR personae," he notes.


Beyond the Voyager program, SAA has also built into the IVR system a platform for conducting customer surveys. Once a call center interaction is completed, customers have the option to rate the quality of the service they received. This feedback has given the airline valuable insight into callers' perceptions and their overall experience with the IVR, and will allow it to change and improve customer service and the applications as needed.

"We're introducing more frequent customer satisfaction surveys and forums across our business units to more effectively address any breaks in service," explains Khaya Ngqula, the airline's CEO. "We've retrained a considerable portion of our workforce in improved customer service," something the airline has identified as a priority, along with a review of its network strategies and a repositioning of its international focus.

In addition to addressing questions about the Voyager program, SAA has also used the new IVR platform to launch Intelleca's automated flight information system, where people can call in and obtain details on the status of any SAA flight by simply saying the flight number and destination city or city of origin.

Rolling out the new IVR and speech recognition engine was not without its difficulties, though. Chief among them was training the system to recognize and respond to the vast array of languages and dialects spoken by the people of South Africa. Though English is the primary language for business in the country, South Africa is home to 11 official languages and dialects.

To recognize the spoken word in each of those languages and dialects, and all the accents that go with them, Intelleca started development a few years ago of the South African English Acoustic Model, which has provided the foundation for a range of other speech recognition solutions in that country. Intelleca worked for four years to train the Nuance speech application to recognize those unique utterances by transcribing hundreds of thousands of them, first in English and then in the other languages. The company used these utterances, along with South African grammars, to build a repository against which callers' speech could be referenced.

"This has given us the ability to understand the vast majority of words uttered by South Africans and build next-generation speech applications that depend on the spoken word, rather than just simple yes or no answers," Cochrane says.


Installation of the new IVR was just the first step in a multiphase plan by the airline to improve IT systems, reduce manual processes, and cut costs. Early last year, SAA introduced new computerized systems to assist with scheduling pilots, flight crews, and airplanes; a new passenger revenue accounting system; a new reservation system; and self check-in at some airports. The second phase of the project will include more call center functions, including e-commerce integration using VoiceXML, further leveraging its existing investment in its Web site, www.flysaa.com. It ultimately expects to increase sales revenues through its Web site and call center.

These moves coincide with a growth in passenger volume, the addition of more destination cities, and the airline's acceptance a year ago into the Star Alliance, a global network that links SAA with other airlines that combined offer more than 15,500 daily flights to 842 destinations in 152 countries. SAA itself operates 61 planes traveling to more than 60 destinations throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, Australia and the United States and has steadily been expanding routes, especially to European and U.S. destinations.

"Travel has grown tremendously in South Africa over the last two years and we are already carrying 55,000 passengers more per month in comparison to last year," says Phillip Bekker, general manager of global passenger services and customer service at SAA.

The call center currently operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and receives thousands of calls each week. According to results of the surveys conducted so far, "SAA's Voyager program has proven itself as relevant and valuable to our customers," Ngqula says.

Frank Heydenrych is the managing director of Predictive Communications, based in South Africa.

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