As Frontier Airlines embarks on its first full year of a digital-only strategy, James O’Hare, MD of LINK Mobility, looks at whether it’s right for every business.
At the end of last year, Frontier Airlines announced it was moving to a digital-only customer service model. Changing a flight and getting help with a booking can now only be done through WhatsApp, live chat services, email, text and social media messaging. There will be no person to call for help. It was considered a bold progressive move, and no doubt the snowstorms over Christmas tested the strategy.
While many low-cost airlines have moved to more digital channel offering, a few minutes searching on most of their websites and you will find a phone number to call, eventually.
The transition for Frontier comes at a time when research shows that voice is still a much-preferred form of communication. Stats show around half of people say they have been ignored by brands when they have used messaging apps or social media channels over the last year. A quarter of people say that it has taken a day or more to get a response.
If you have an imminent flight and need a quick answer, then you’ll expect much better service. I can’t imagine Frontier hasn’t thought about that.
I suspect the move to digital isn’t just about service. It’s a sign of the choices brands all over the world are making in terms of reducing overheads and reviewing how much heavy-lifting digital channels can do.
Self-service is an extremely important part of delivering great customer service. Just as there are groups of people who want to talk to someone, there are cohorts of customers who want the option to do everything online. Why shouldn’t you be able to sort out a bill or organise a return using WhatsApp as easily as you can buy something online?
The numbers speak loudly
Gartner has said that chatbots will be the primary contact method for a quarter of firms by 2027. Juniper also earmarks chatbots for huge growth, expecting interactions to hit around 3.5 billion as we go into 2023, and 10 billion by 2027.
Just a few years ago these numbers would have been rubbished. The customer experience that chatbots delivered was deemed too poor for them to be so integral in delivering a good, let alone great, customer experience.
However, the technology has moved on as artificial intelligence and machine learning has matured. Now, chatbot messaging apps are of such a calibre that they won’t just serve customers, but they will also manage around half of all retail transactions by 2026. These sorts of figures can’t be ignored when cost-cutting and maximising spend without compromising experience is the priority in the boardroom.
Is an all-digital model right for every brand?
Though some customer service leaders might gasp at Frontier Airlines going ‘all-in’ with digital, it is what Amazon has done for years. The great learning is of course that Amazon hasn’t just implemented the tools that make managing a problem easy, it’s meticulously planned the processes that sit behind them. One would expect that this is what Frontier Airlines has also done.
But above all, companies that use digital channels to great effect have focused on creating trust. If people believe they will get a timely and helpful response from using a chatbot then they will be more inclined to a) use it and b) recommend it.
There are a variety of ways to ensure digital processes work and can be trusted. For most businesses, it will come down to ‘training’ the chatbots to ensure they are delivering the right answer first time. This requires detailed planning of the scenarios that a chatbot will be faced with, and how it should therefore handle the enquiries.
Take the common query related to deliveries. It’s now possible to integrate a chat bot into a delivery partner’s real time scheduling tool and find the answer – no need to interrupt anyone getting on with making goods or packing them. Plus, with AI and ML in use a bot can be trained to recognise that ‘where’s my parcel’ and ‘when will my package arrive’ are asking the same thing.
When bots are trained in this way it helps to establish the processes that can be fully automated, and at what point a chatbot should hand over to a person.
That’s important because in some cases, going all digital won’t be right, either for the business or the market. Take insurance claims as an example. A flood claim might be filed through an app in the first instance for speed and to access emergency help, but any complexity as the claim progresses won’t necessarily be easily managed through texts.
It needs an expert to interpret information and make decisions that manage the insurance aspects, but to also provide the empathetic care people going through a trauma need. The human aspect of delivering customer care is a critical factor in NPS.
Delivering empathetic care can’t be done by a bot
Empathy is perhaps one of the biggest challenges companies will face this year. As the cost of living crisis deepens, brands will be faced with more complicated service scenarios. Trained experts who can help people in a sympathetic way will be critical to help ensure the brand’s values are upheld.
It’s likely we’ll see companies introduce a blend of people and digital tools to assist with this challenge. First, all chatbots will be a boon for reducing the number of calls that make it through. Helping to deal with quick turnaround queries is an ideal way to implement chatbots. It improves customer service stats and saves money.
Taking the insurance scenario again to explain this further, chatbots can be run alongside SMS reminders to renew. For example, text messages can be sent proactively, helping to protect existing business. Recipients who click a link in the message can be taken to a landing page, that could be personalised, with a renewal calculator. A chatbot can be available on the page to help guide someone through the renewal process reducing calls and improving sales rates.
But most importantly, using chatbots in this way will create the bandwidth teams need to deal with more complex and time-consuming cases, where an individual is perhaps in distress about an emergency claim.
Understand what success looks like
To get this balance right, brands will need to do two things. Firstly, they must understand their customers’ preferences. How do people interact now? What are the common behavioural traits that indicate one channel will be more appropriate than another? Forcing people down a route that is unnatural, especially if it is without any support, won’t curry favour.
Secondly, it’s vital to build comprehensive decision trees. Knowing when a chatbot should and shouldn’t help will help to derive how skill is used and what process changes need to be made.
Above all, brands need to think about what success looks like. Is it that chatbots will lead to fewer returns because people ask questions about a product upfront? Is it a high propensity for people to recommend you to others because they love that they can get everything done when they want, how they want? Or is it that chatbots ensure that when someone does call, they feel under no pressure to get off the phone because the agent has been given permission to take their time?
It will look different for every company, no matter their sector or size. But one thing is for sure, it’s the brands that use digital wisely and are in tune with their customers that will win.
About the Author
James O’Hare is the managing director of LINK Mobility.