Speech Takes Airline to New Heights

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Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air is no stranger to innovation. In 1995, the Seattle-based carrier became the first North American airline to offer online ticket purchasing. In 1999, it became the first to allow customers to check in and print boarding passes via the Internet.

“We pride ourselves on technical innovation,” says Cindy Mitchell, a principal strategic management consultant at Alaska Airlines, which serves about 17 million passengers a year with roughly 500 flights a day to 90 destinations throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

As yet another sign of that spirit of innovation, the airline in February 2008 became the first in North America to offer an online, voice-enabled virtual assistant to improve customer self-service. More than half of all tickets on Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air are already booked online, and the airline saw a virtual assistant as an opportunity to make the site more friendly, especially for visitors who might not be that Internet-savvy, Mitchell says.

Another stated goal, she adds, was “to deflect calls going into the call center,” so prior to launching the application, Alaska Airlines conducted a survey to identify the types of calls its agents were receiving. “We found that a lot of the information being sought was already available on our Web site,” Mitchell says.

Visitors to Alaska Airlines’ Web site (www.alaskaair.com) can access the virtual assistant, named Jenn, by clicking on the “Ask Jenn” link on the main toolbar. When the separate chat window opens, users type their queries into a text box and Jenn delivers the answers both verbally and in writing.

At Jenn’s core is ActiveAgent Virtual Expert human emulation software from Spokane, Wash.-based Next IT. The solution features natural language and contextual understanding so that visitors to the Web site are not constricted by the way they must ask their questions or the types of questions they can ask.

Jenn can provide answers to hundreds of queries, covering topics from basic information, such as the number of carry-on bags allowed, to more specific questions about particular flights or routes.

“There are a lot of interactions you can have with Jenn,” says Theresa Miller, an Alaska Airlines subject matter expert who provides the voice of Jenn. “She can give you basic information, and if you want to book a reservation, she can direct you to an online form or take the information and fill in the form for you.”

When customers enter questions that can yield more than one response, Jenn can ask follow-up questions. If, for example, a customer types in that he lost his bag, Jenn will ask how long ago it happened because bags lost for more than five days are handled by a different department than those that were lost more recently.

While the ability to ask for additional information is a useful feature, Miller says the airline had to be careful when incorporating it into Jenn’s programming. “We need to use it sparingly because we do not want the customer to have a long dialogue before he gets the answer he’s looking for,” she says.

Another unique feature of Jenn’s programming is the ability to respond to information entered in many different ways. For example, Jenn can recognize both city names (such as San Francisco) and airport codes (such as SFO), and she can acknowledge Christmas as December 25 when a customer gives that as his requested travel date.

“But the technology gives us a lot more,” Mitchell says. “It’s about a better experience for customers. The engagement factor with customers is increased because of [Jenn’s] persona and personality.”

A Persona with Personality
Jenn definitely has a unique personality, crafted following months of focus group meetings that go back as far as September 2006.

And although Jenn can field personal questions, such as her favorite color or pet, both Miller and Mitchell are quick to point out that these are not the types of questions she’s there to answer. “Her purpose is really to assist customers with what they want to do as quickly as possible,” Mitchell states. “Jenn’s personality is fun, but most customers are talking to her about business—things they need to know before they travel.”

When customers start getting too personal, Jenn can get them back on track. “We want them to complete their transactions, not start a relationship,” Mitchell explains.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Mitchell, Miller, and those involved in the project at Next IT didn’t have fun with Jenn’s creation. In fact, they first tested the waters with the June 2007 launch of an internal application, called Super Jenn, for the airline’s 10,000 employees. From there, they were ready to move to the customer-facing application.

“It was a couple of years in the making,” Mitchell recalls. “We took our time to make sure it would be a good customer experience and something of value to them. The response was good, and so we decided to go forward with the project.”

Within six months of her launch, Jenn was already handling roughly 3 percent of all interactions between Alaska Airlines and its customers. To date, she has handled more than 4 million customer queries. She handled her 1 millionth question on July 9, 2008; her 2 millionth question on November 24, 2008; and her 3 millionth question this past February 19.

On a typical day, Jenn handles an average of about 6,000 queries, although the number of queries climbed to 25,000 per day for a few days this past winter during severe snowstorms.

“Jenn immediately exceeded target milestones, and, due to overwhelming confidence, Alaska Airlines eliminated customer care Web chat, solely relying on Jenn’s expertise to achieve the same goals with cost efficiency,” says Jennifer Snell, a spokeswoman at Next IT.

Current success aside, the airline still has many improvements planned for its virtual assistant. “Jenn currently has limited voice interaction, but we are phasing in another stage of her life that will develop the voice interaction application more,” says Bobbie Egan, an Alaska Airlines spokeswoman.

Chief among those developments will be the use of text-to-speech (TTS) to expand Jenn’s dialogue. Currently, Jenn’s responses are all prerecorded, but “I’ve seen a demo of Next IT’s TTS capability, and it looked pretty good,” Mitchell says.

To create Jenn’s dialogue, Miller spent roughly 200 hours in a studio recording the voice. “It was a lot of repeating numbers, words, and phrases that were strung together,” she says.

Since Jenn went live, Miller has rarely gone back into the studio to do rerecordings. “The only time we’ve had to do [a new recording] was when we added something to the Web site,” Miller says. “We’ve found that it’s good to have Jenn involved so she can front the new application and get customers familiar with it right away.”

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