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Market Spotlight: Travel & Hospitality

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The days of JetBlue’s free in-flight movies are gone. Even more rare: free meals on board. Given the high price of fuel and security, airlines have reduced in-flight amenities and staff to stay profitable. To ensure that this apparent lack of customer service in the air isn’t preceded by a poor customer experience on the ground, many airlines are expanding their basic self-service interactive voice response (IVR) systems to help customers manage their travel plans. Additionally, letting customers do more on their own without a live agent is helping rein in contact center costs.

One of the biggest opportunities for speech in the travel industry is an IVR that allows travelers to check the status of their flights, using speech recognition to collect a flight number and arrival and departure information. Only 30 percent to 35 percent of the world’s airlines offer this service, according to Daniel Hong, a speech industry analyst at Datamonitor. "Penetration among airline carriers has not hit saturation yet," he says. "There are still a lot of opportunities for airlines to capitalize on speech."

Early adopters have gone beyond basic flight-status checks with IVRs that allow passengers to book flights or change their itineraries.

One early adopter, Continental Airlines, in late March rolled out a speech-enabled solution that lets customers check in without having to wait in lines at the airport. This new service, provided by Voxify, allows the airline to make outbound calls to passengers’ phones and suggest the online check-in service.
About 50 percent of Continental’s passengers currently check in online, but previous attempts at an outbound campaign were flawed, according to Jared Miller, director of customer self-service at Continental.

"While these reminder calls are helpful, they require additional action by the customer," like going to a Web site or calling another number, he said during a recent Webcast announcing the new service. "Now they can do it right over the phone immediately."

"If you give the passenger a call to remind him to do something, you should give him the option to do it. If you don’t, the system is suboptimal," adds John Gengarella, Voxify’s CEO.

In addition, Continental’s IVR provides information regarding flight details, baggage policies, customs alerts, and travel restrictions. Customers can also use the service to change seats, book another flight, or trade in frequent-flier miles.

Another benefit to the airline is the ability to use the service proactively to let passengers know their flight has been overbooked and give them the option to give up their seat on one flight and book another.

Rated No. 1 in customer satisfaction by J.D. Power & Associates, Continental also offers a dizzying amount of additional self-service options. Its flight-information IVR receives 9 million calls a year and allows customers to obtain flight status, terminal and gate information, and airport advisories prior to their arrival. In 2004, it added a flight-reconfirmation IVR, which receives 700,000 calls per year. In 2006, it launched FareShopper, an IVR for booking reservations that now receives more than 4 million calls per year. It collects basic trip information from the caller before transferring to a live agent to finalize the transaction. Another IVR, InfoPass, handles more than 500,000 calls per year from passengers in the airline’s OnePass frequent-flier program.

Continental’s flight check-in IVR operates only on an outbound basis, but Miller said that the airline plans to expand the service to accept inbound calls "in the very near future."

"There are a lot of new things we will be doing," he said. "We’re constantly looking at ways to innovate customer service. It’s about maximizing the customer experience, creating increased preparedness and control for the customer."

Continental, United, American, and India’s Jet Airways are among the industry leaders in speech adoption, and Hong expects many others to follow suit. "Continental is an early adopter, but I see this becoming mainstream," he says.

In light of costs, Hong says many airlines will opt for a hosted IVR rather than an in-house service. "The airlines are all looking to outsource as much as possible," he says.

As speech technologies mature, Hong also expects outbound calling and call routing with a natural language interface to take off in the airline industry. "The airlines are adding options, and most of them still list their choices in a menu," he says.

Also, look for airlines to take greater advantage of mobile and video technologies, giving passengers the option of sending and receiving information through their cell phones. Continental’s pre-flight check-in IVR, for example, can send a paperless boarding pass to a passenger’s cell phone; the agent at the gate can scan the screen’s image just as she would a paper document.


Ready for Takeoff
While Continental invested heavily in Voxify’s technologies for its IVR systems, other key players offering solutions to the travel industry include:
• Avaya
• Nortel
• Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories
• Tuvox
• Convergys
• Rogers Business
• Aspect Software
• Nuance Communications
Source: Datamonitor

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