Skift Take

Between permanent shifts into remote working, the Great Resignation, and spikes in flight cancellations, investing in advanced automation technology could be the only way call centers in the travel industry can show consistency long-term. Or just hire more humans.

Call centers have struggled to keep up with consumer complaints about the large number of delayed and canceled flights in recent weeks. So some are turning to automation — specifically, an artificial intelligence program centered on advanced natural language processing.

“(Call) centers are feeling the brunt of the pain, particularly those (that) have not invested in artificial intelligence technologies,” said Rebecca Jones, general manager, senior vice president at Intrado, a company that provides an artificial intelligence program named Mosaicx to call centers in the airline and hospitality industries.

“All businesses are feeling the pressure of the recession and the economy. (They’re trying) to figure out how to do more with less from a resource standpoint, but also drive increased customer satisfaction. If we don’t find (that) balance, our businesses are doomed to fail.”

Jones declined to disclose the names of clients, but she said Intrado services tens of thousands of them, which range from Fortune 1000 companies to small and medium businesses.

Its airline clients have had to deal with a surge in angry customers in recent months amid a challenging year for the industry. The U.S. Department of Transportation received 5,079 complaints in April 2022 alone from consumers about airline service, a more than 320 percent increase from the same month three years prior.

And that widespread dissatisfaction has been exacerbated by customers’ inability to reach a customer service representative on the phone quickly. Travelers trying to reach American Airlines’ toll-free customer service line one Sunday last month were placed on hold for at least an hour, with one customer having to wait eight hours to get help over the phone. Meanwhile, some Delta Air Lines’ travelers have said they’ve had to wait up to 12 hours to speak to a representative on the phone. 

So in response to this call center madness, Mosaicx offers features such as task automation and personalized customer service. But what Mosaicx sets itself apart is its use of natural language processing, which helps improve the program’s linguistic interpretation abilities and response rate. Its structure is set up to immediately ask callers how it can help and quickly get them the right answer, in contrast to a traditional interactive voice response structure that’s expected to walk callers through a series of menus. In addition, Mosaicx’s natural language processing core currently supports 20 languages, which is critical because many of its clients are global.

Jones believes businesses investing in both conversational artificial intelligence and general automation are in a good position to thrive.

“Our clients have had a better ability to absorb increases and spikes in their call volume, both from a user (and) customer standpoint … The employees aren’t overwhelmed or having to manage lower level, less complicated questions,” Jones said.

“Customers have self service through the automation, (which allows) their human contact center folks to really focus on more complex, emotionally-driven conversations.”

Although Jones is happy to report an airline client using Mosaicx has seen a 60 percent decrease in call abandonment rates, she acknowledges the pandemic-era the shift to remote work has been challenging for Intrado. Historically, call centers have all been in a controlled space where it’s easy to monitor factors like access to systems and employees’ conversations with customers. But the need for call centers to operate remotely during the pandemic has forced companies like Intrado to make unexpected investments.

“There is a very different set of infrastructure investments for businesses to make when (making) their contact centers remote,” said Jones. “You have to think about sending network hardware to employees homes, which is a different kind of capital investment that many companies didn’t plan for and I think that is also contributing to the current condition.”

Remote work can be challenging for employee morale. However, she believes ensuring staff have the appropriate technology to excel at their jobs make works more enjoyable.

“The pandemic is hitting everyone from a market condition standpoint,” said Jones. “Remote work has translated into folks feeling more isolated, and subsequently into a lot of the Great Resignation that we’re seeing. When businesses invest in these technologies, they are also investing in their employees, to really pull people tighter and help them feel more connected and give them easier access to services internally.”

“We all know that attrition is a huge factor in (call) centers. Anything that we can do as a business to support our employees in that environment and reduce the overall employee attrition ultimately leads to an increase in customer service. The happier your employees are, the more it translates to your customers.”

UPDATE: The article has been updated to include Rebecca Jones’ full time and information about Intrado’s clientele.

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Tags: airlines, artificial intelligence, customer service, flight delays, technology, travel technology

Photo credit: Contact centers have had to make significant investments in technology CDC / Unsplash