The ubiquitous availability of data and connected devices have given rise to new challenges and opportunities for the airline industry. Airlines are no longer only competing with other airlines, but with any brand that offers a great consumer experience. A whopping 84 percent of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, and 73 percent say that one extraordinary experience raises their expectations of other companies, according to Salesforce’s 2019 State of the Connected Customer report.

SkiftX spoke with Taimur Khan, general manager of travel, transportation, and hospitality industries at Salesforce to discuss the business imperative of truly understanding airline customers and how innovative technology can play a crucial role in creating exceptional experiences.

SkiftX: What are some of the largest challenges to having a customer-first approach that airlines must solve?

Taimur Khan: There are a few things that airlines should focus on in terms of how customer expectations have evolved in the industry.

First, traveler habits and expectations are upending how airlines interact with customers, and what was previously acceptable is no longer enough. A thorough understanding of the customer is crucial for the success of any business, especially in travel. This will not only help airline brands anticipate customer needs when things are going well but also mitigate escalations when things aren’t going well.

Second, people are traveling more frequently now than ever before. In 1965, only 20 percent of people in the U.S. had ever taken a flight. By 2017, that number had increased to almost 90 percent, according to a report from Airlines for America. Global business travel spend grew by 5.8 percent to $1.33 trillion in 2017, and it is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2022, according to GBTA. These numbers indicate the need for airlines to scale to serve a larger and more diverse number of customers with personalized experiences.

Third, there is a gap between what brands offer and what customers expect when it comes to personalized experiences. While 73 percent of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, only 51 percent of customers say that companies generally understand their needs and expectations, according to research by Salesforce.

In order to solve these three challenges, airlines have to transform their current systems and the way they operate. Today airlines have disconnected systems built to offer capabilities that are function or channel specific. For example, often the platform used by the gate staff is different from the one used by the flight crew, and these platforms do not communicate with each other. These siloed databases and the lack of cross-channel sharing make it impossible for airline employees to gain a holistic view of the traveler, something that is absolutely necessary to be customer-first at all touchpoints during the journey.

SkiftX: How can the airline industry break down the silos and empower employees to improve customer experience?

Khan: The airline industry can break down silos and empower employees by using technology in two key ways.

First, airlines should leverage technology and data to build a holistic view of each traveler and remove information asymmetry to equip their employees with contextual information and intelligent recommendations. They need to synthesize information including travel history, loyalty information, traveler record, and location data from various internal and external sources to create comprehensive traveler profiles. Using mobile technology, artificial intelligence, and analytics, these comprehensive profiles should be made available to all employees — from those in call centers to the flight crew — empowering them to do their best work at every point of interaction.

Circumstances — not job functions — should determine the type of customer interaction. A single view of the traveler empowers customer-facing employees to be able to provide situation-specific solutions that serve the customer’s needs, expectations, and preferences while meaningfully engaging them with the brand.

Another way airlines can use technology is to meet the traveler where they are, via customers’ preferred channels. Airlines are using intelligent solutions to be channel-agnostic and offer customers a seamless experience. They are building capabilities to communicate with consumers via WhatsApp, WeChat, the airline’s mobile application, chatbots, social media, and in person without losing context of the conversation to drive engagement and build loyalty.

SkiftX: How does Salesforce facilitate building holistic customer views and empowering employees?

Khan: The Salesforce platform enables airlines to provide suitable support at every phase of a traveler journey, from when a customer begins their research and inspiration phase to booking the ticket to the day of travel and even after that. It also enables airlines to provide their employees with more context when interacting with a customer, which makes it easier for agents to engage customers and learn from traveler behavior to enhance their next booking cycle.

At the core of the Salesforce platform is the ability to leverage artificial intelligence to smartly recommend products, use analytics to generate relevant insights, integrate existing systems, and make these connected solutions available on any device so brands can serve the traveler better, with relevance and consistency, regardless of who or where they are.

Our AppExchange ecosystem (Salesforce’s App Store for enterprises) allows employees to capitalize on the power of customer relationship management and enrich the traveler experience by leveraging insights from search history, loyalty data, and travel preferences. We also unify the data from existing third-party sources like Passenger Service System (PSS) and departure control information that includes weather and scheduling data into a single, easy-to-use platform.

Our partners, Adara and Amadeus, further help to improve customer engagement with additional actionable insights from traveler records and with data about a travelers’ revenue potential beyond their transactions with any one brand.

SkiftX: How do you measure success after deploying some of the above-mentioned solutions?

Khan: Many of our airline customers use the Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is a score based on a customer’s inclination to recommend your brand. We also use other metrics such as time taken to onboard a new employee, employee retention rates, operational efficiencies, time taken to resolve customer problems, and overall company growth metrics in the context of industry growth trends.

After deploying Salesforce’s solutions, Southwest Airlines increased the volume of customers they can handle at any given time by opening up other channels of communication like chat feature on the website. This allowed agents to handle multiple cases at one time and reduced the time taken to resolve customer concerns. Our ability to deploy our solutions quickly and consolidate 15 systems into a single integrated view ensured that they were able to be up and running with minimal disruption of service.

SkiftX: How do you see the customer-first approach evolving in the future?

Khan: Our Connected Customer Report gathered insights from more than 8,000 consumers and business buyers worldwide, and the findings support the idea that an engaged customer helps generate more revenue. The survey also found that customers are increasingly expecting companies to use technology to improve the service offered. In fact, 66 percent of customers are willing to pay more for a great experience, and 75 percent expect companies to use new technologies to create better experiences.

The hallmark of a customer-first approach is the ability of an airline to empower employees to deliver operational efficiency, personalized service, and intelligent retailing options that ultimately improves customer engagement.

Salesforce is able to facilitate the above capabilities by creating a single, flexible platform that leverages artificial intelligence and other technologies to empower airline systems and employees. By harnessing the power of the intelligent customer relationship management, airlines can use customer data they already have to create experiences, fulfill their brand promise, drive loyalty among customers, and differentiate their business in the short and the long term – always keeping the customer first.

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