Skift Take

Airline employees, in spite of being the first point of contact for most airline passengers, often don’t have access to the right data at the right time. Empowering them with the appropriate tools is imperative for driving real personalization and loyalty in the future.

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Real personalization — the kind that goes beyond the buzzword — must deliver more than dynamic content and rates based on customer profiles during digital interactions. In today’s data-rich world, this means that airline employees must have access to the information, tools, and technology required to not only help recognize passengers, but also know their preferences, and provide experiences and solutions that are relevant to their unique needs and wants.

An increasing number of airlines are now recognizing that they can use data and technology to drive personalization — but delivering personalization will not be possible without equipping their employees with the right information when they need it the most. Rob Ranieri, vice president for travel and transportation at IBM, recognizes that the airline industry has to overcome some challenges to make the above happen.

“Airlines are grappling with legacy systems, and though they have a lot of data, the data resides in departmental silos, unable to be integrated or shared seamlessly,” he said. “The other challenge is that because airline brands have so much data, they are a bit overwhelmed by it. They might not know where to start, and they need help to understand what insights they can glean from it.”

United Airlines, for example, has partnered with IBM Services to go beyond simply identifying personalized offer opportunities. Together, United and IBM have created a collection of iOS applications that equip employees with a wide variety of capabilities.

“It has been a very successful partnership. We were able to create toolkits for each of our employees that are specific to their role. Be it a customer service agent being empowered to provide compensation for inconvenience caused, an agent at the gate being able to rebook a passenger on their mobile device, or a flight attendant being able to cater to a special meal request using past information — we were able to create employee mobile applications for each of these functions that were as user-friendly as the customer-facing applications,” said Jason Birnbaum, vice president, operational and employee technology at United Airlines.

The crux of the problem with delivering great experiences for airline passengers is that often times, employees don’t have the information or the tools needed to provide a resolution on the spot.

One of the ways United is solving this challenge is by “untethering” its employees. “We are providing our employees with mobile devices equipped with the right applications and information so that they don’t have to be at a specific workstation to be able to resolve a problem for a customer. This means that customers no longer need to see the gate agent or visit a customer service desk to find a solution. United employees can look at the customer profile on the mobile device and offer a personalized solution for them wherever they are,” said Birnbaum.

Per Ranieri, the technology is all there. It’s about figuring out how to connect the pieces and put the right insights in the hands of the frontline staff at all times.

Even inside the cabin, United has been able to use these mobile applications developed in partnership with IBM to improve how its employees help passengers. Previously, if a customer helped out on the flight by swapping his or her seat so that a family could sit together, the flight attendant could give the passenger a card which he or she could later use to redeem a discount or an offer by calling a customer service number.

While the idea behind rewarding the customer with a card is great, “The redemption process was complicated, and it wasn’t a great experience for the employee who wants to reward the customer, but is unable to do so in real time,” noted Birnbaum. “Now, however, the employee can step in with a mobile device and feel empowered by the company in any situation. The flight attendant can immediately respond with a personalized offer. That changes the entire dynamic. The employee is now the hero of the story versus a bystander.”

United has seen significant improvements in customer and employee satisfaction scores as a result of empowering its employees. Birnbaum told Skift, “Our customer satisfaction went up significantly, and we can now help provide instant and personalized solutions to our customers. We are also able to provide much more information to customers about what is affecting their travel. In fact, the highest increase in satisfaction was seen in our most delayed flights. Even when things are out of our control, like bad weather, our employees are better equipped to offer information and possible solutions to our customers and our customers are better informed. They may not always like what’s going on, but they understand it better, and that makes a lot of difference.”

Ranieri also noted that giving the frontline staff better tools to improve customer service ultimately helps airlines drive more engagement amongst their employees and retain them as well. “While making the customer experience frictionless is a priority, the same goes for our employee experiences. We’ve seen that improving employee tools directly translates to better employee satisfaction, and we believe that it also has a positive impact on customer satisfaction,” added Birnbaum.

According to consumer analyst Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry research company, more customers are looking at airline travel as a necessary commodity. However, “the fun thing about thinking about all of this is that technology is this wonderful enabler toward a more pleasant, productive, and stress-free trip,” said Harteveldt.

This content was created collaboratively by IBM and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: airline passenger experience, airlines, data, ibm, personalization

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