Continental Airlines Takes Off with Speech

While many of its competitors are still floundering in the wake of 9/11 and rising fuel prices, Continental Airlines' stock price has nearly tripled since October 2005. Clearly, Continental is doing a few things right and one of them is its speech technology.

Listed as one of the 19 largest airlines in 2005, Continental has more than 3,100 daily departures serving 151 U.S. and 133 international destinations. With so many daily flights and many more customers, the cost of servicing these customers significantly eats away at Continental's profits. "The drive to speech was two-fold for us, both a revenue enhancement opportunity and cost savings. We [needed] speech to handle more routine tasks, like flight information, reconfirmations, and [OnePass] profile verification. This would then allow our agents the opportunity to concentrate on sales calls," says Martin Hand, staff vice president of reservations and sales resources. Continental started a pilot program (pun intended) roughly three years ago with a non-revenue generating service for employees to test out the speech technology. The employee travel line was initially automated using Dual Tone Multi-Frequency/touchtone applications and was converted to speech to monitor how employees use the system and how it affects agents. To use the system, an employee calls a toll-free number and states her employee identification number and travel information—dates, times, and departure/arrival. After this is verified, the system reveals flight availability and pricing—all employee-discounted flights are placed on standby and receive priority based on their position in the company. By automating the travel line's more routine incoming calls, Continental's goals were realized.

Following the success of the employee travel line, Continental opted to speech enable two customer facing lines—flight information and reconfirmations. The flight information system, built internally by Continental's technology group, is a speech application that provides arrival and departure times for the requested flight. Voxify's Reconfirmation Agent handles reconfirmations by identifying the customer's itinerary and confirming the details. Voxify hosts the application through its network hosting partners and provides maintenance, tuning, tracking of metrics, and reporting. The itinerary can be found by using an alphanumeric confirmation code or the combination of flight date and departure/arrival cities, flight date and number, etc. Before fully deploying the speech applications to its customers, Continental ran a two-stage alpha and beta test of each application, which took an average of 30 days. The alpha stage was performed within the technology environment using internal employees. The Ecommerce Committee, comprised primarily of vice presidents of marketing as well as Hand and the CTO at Continental Airlines. Each member of the group called in and requested information as if he were an actual customer. To make it more applicable to an actual call from a customer, the employees called from cell phones, landlines, Blackberries, inside airports and even spoke with varying accents. This phase revealed a difficulty in recognition when the application incurred varying levels of speech as well as background noise. Continental used this feedback to tweak the application by adjusting the sensitivity of the voice platform to increase the completion rates. For the beta phase, Continental selected specific customers from its frequent flyer members and OnePass program to perform activities that they would be most likely to use when calling in to the application.

Continental recently added two more informational functions to its speech agenda— InfoPass and Fare Finder. The InfoPass line was designed specifically for OnePass members seeking frequent flier information, such as account balances and points/rewards deposits. During InfoPass's development stage Continental's internal technology group noticed that the system's range for alpha and numeric input had to be expanded to accept the frequent flier identifications. However, before speech was implemented there wasn't even an option for alpha input. It was strictly numeric so a OnePass member would input only his numbers and then his zip code to verify membership, which not only added a step to the process but also made for a less accurate method of member verification. The InfoPass line went live in May 2006 and is also being monitored for potential improvements and/or modifications.

The Fare Finder Agent from Voxify collects information from a caller or verifies OnePass members who say their information or membership number to the application along with departure/arrival, time, and date for the desired flight. Fare Finder then pops the information onto agents' screens to sell the tickets. This application went live with the airline's elite members in March 2006.

With 4,000 agents spread across three domestic call centers in Houston, Salt Lake City, and Tampa, Continental uses a virtual call center application provided by Cisco to manage all informational calls to the three locations. These calls are monitored by Witness Systems' CallMiner, a quality assurance program, which looks for areas in the application where callers incur difficulties; for example, it will flag a call where the customer says something repeatedly, which may be a sign of recognition failure/error. Through this monitoring process, Continental found that some callers wanted an agent and nothing else. As a result, the airline is debating the use of the phrase "agent, agent," which would act as the equivalent to pressing zero for an agent. The airline will continue to monitor these and other issues as well with its quality assurance specialists in each call center who use Witness' E-Balance to monitor and capture voice and data to evaluate agent ratings for their scorecards.

After deploying speech, Continental has seen a return on investment of approximately 15 to 20 percent, depending on the application. Working in conjunction with the speech system, a single agent averages 90 seconds per call. By automating routine calls, 20 percent of the overall call volume is sent to the speech system. Reconfirmation calls make up about 10 percent of all incoming calls. The Reconfirmation Agent averages an 87-percent completion rate for those calls and the Fare Finder Agent averages 90 percent. The average completion rate for all automated calls is between 85 to 90 percent and the airline predicts that this percentage will increase over time as callers become more comfortable using the system. The speech application enables agents to focus on the sale of tickets and overall customer service rather than spending valuable talk time on the collection of personal data, which has increased sales by 37 percent. "The speech applications have helped me to focus on the sale, while improving my ability to interact with the customer," says Melody Knighton, agent for Continental Airlines.

To measure customer satisfaction, Continental used average speed of answer (ASA), first call resolution, sales conversions, and scores on customer service. Using ASA, Continental uncovered a measurable 20 percent improvement for the speed with which all calls were answered. First call resolution measured the ability to handle the call with the first contact rather than transferring the caller to another desk. The airline saw a three percent reduction in transfers going from eight percent to five percent. For sales conversions, Continental was looking at the system's ability to convert a higher percentage of informational calls to sales by providing more information up front using speech which resulted in conversion increases of about three points. The scores for customer service were determined by surveys, which demonstrated an improvement in the efficiency of calls processed.

The airline plans to expand the use of speech to automate other informational items. Moving forward, Voxify will automate seat assignment information so callers can confirm, change, or upgrade their seats over the phone. Continental is also looking to develop a Personal Gift Registry, a Web only application for travel club members who would receive reward dollars for booking online and could redeem them with participating vendors, restaurants, and even for future airline tickets. The Gift Registry would also enable travel club members to give reward dollars to others as a gift. The airline is hiring 300 additional employees for its domestic locations and will be training them on the system as well. Once Continental has finished automating its U.S. contact centers and training the staff there, it plans to expand the use of speech to some of its eight off-shore call centers as deemed appropriate.

If the stock market remains kind to Continental, its stock price, like its planes, may continue to soar.

Stephanie Staton is the associate editor for
Speech Technology Magazine. She can be reached at stephanie@infotoday.com.



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