Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

A New Way to Tell Your Airline You Hate It

Some carriers see the ubiquitous phone chat as a key to better customer service. But they’re still a little nervous.

Our perpetual smartphone texting is strictly personal: Friends, family, and maybe an ex. We almost never text the myriad businesses we patronize in daily life, though some of them are starting to text us.

Now, airlines—an industry not known for stellar customer interactions—are joining the party, and not just to break the bad news about your flight. They’re inviting you to ask questions, and maybe even complain.

Two airlines have dipped their wings into the waters of two-way texting. Hawaiian Holdings Inc.’s Hawaiian Airlines is adding the feature while JetBlue Airways Corp. took a stake in a software startup that will allow its call center staff to start texting customers in the coming months.

Texting, technically called SMS (which stands for short message service), is arguably the world’s most favored form of communication, but much of corporate America has been slow to adapt. The few that have—including Verizon Wireless retailers, British telecom company Sky UK, and Nestle SA’s frozen foods division—are dwarfed by an array of local commerce, from insurance agents, veterinarians, air conditioning techs, and auto dealers who have already jumped in to conduct their business.

“The reality is that consumers adore text messages,” said John Lauer, chief executive and co-founder of Zipwhip Inc., a Seattle startup that’s hoping to evolve customer call centers into places that also handle texts. “Therefore businesses have to adopt it into their workflow because consumers expect it and demand it.”

Today, most airlines offer one-way texting, happy to inform you of a gate change or flight delay via your mobile. But don’t respond to these hoping to vent your frustration—you can’t. That means there’s still the likelihood of a lengthy phone call, interminable airport queue or online chat with what may or may not be a computer-generated android.

A text-session, on the other hand, is conducted free of time constraints, over hours or even days. Changing a flight via text might even become a task to occupy your boring morning meeting. Another big advantage? “There was no learning curve,” said Tracy Behler, senior director for online experience at Hawaiian, since everyone already knows how to text. Hawaiian announced Thursday that two-way texting will become a permanent customer communication channel.

Executives in the enterprise texting industry expect that airlines will join a broad array of industries over the next two years that will begin to expand their customer communications channels beyond 800-numbers, email, and online chat. “There’s been this long gap between customers moving to instant messages for who they talk with and brands doing the same thing,” said Rurik Bradbury, an executive at LivePerson Inc., a New York technology company whose software platform powers Hawaiian’s texting.

Hawaiian began testing texting in April, unsure how much interest customers would have or whether most inquiries would need to be directed to a secure channel to handle payment data, or issues involving the airline’s loyalty program, Behler said. But about 70 percent of the 200 daily texts don’t involve itineraries or the carrier’s HawaiianMiles program. Most are curious about traveling with infants, seat changes, or how to handle a child’s car seat, she said. One query the airline reported: “I have a painted coconut. Can I carry that to the mainland?”

The carrier’s social media and call centers are connected, with different teams taking various channels, be it phone, social media, and now text. “The kinds of questions we’re getting are primarily after the booking, but before they travel,” Behler said. “We were surprised, I think, at the number of things that can be resolved using this.”

JetBlue plans to incorporate numerous communication channels into its call centers, including texting, with software from Gladly Inc., a San Francisco firm. JetBlue acquired a stake in Gladly as part of a funding round that raised $36 million. The goal is to make customer-service contacts more efficient by migrating a customer’s information across channels, for example, from an email to a text to a phone call, said Jenny Roy, Gladly’s vice president of marketing.

“They don’t want to start over every time they start a new phone call or start a new channel,” she said, an irksome process Gladly dubs “the repeat and recap game.”

Airlines, meanwhile, are likely to lag other industries on bi-directional texting because their customer data is vastly more complex than most, and because customer service is a “lightning rod” for airlines, given their regular shortcomings and the subsequent media attention, Bradbury said. That’s led to “a certain nervousness in the airline industry,” he said.

Moreover, “it’s hard for an airline to do it at scale” and make it work, Bradbury said. “With phone systems they have had 50 years of optimization.”

He predicts that carriers are also less likely to automate their texts with artificial intelligence or bots the way others can—at some point as much as 70 percent of messaging in banking and telecommunications probably won’t involve a human. “The reason for that is because you have 60-80 very common questions” in those fields, Bradbury said. “In travel, it’s just mind-boggling” given the numerous airfare classes, codings, ticketing platforms, and other variants endemic to the industry’s technology infrastructure.

Source: Gladly

Text software executives say that two-way texting doesn’t increase the overall volume of customer service interactions, but it does shift many encounters away from a telephone call. Companies generally like that outcome, as calls are hugely expensive in the customer-service field. Call centers typically log the duration of each call and seek to keep them short, since an agent can generally be on the line with only one person at a time, Gladly’s Roy said.

“But they can respond to two-to-three texts or chats very quickly,” she said. Texting “actually spreads about the same amount of volume across those channels.”

A broad corporate shift to customer service via text could also carry another benefit for airlines: Disgruntled customers may be a little less likely to publicize dirty laundry on Twitter if they can have an exchange that gets something done. But then again, they may start posting screen-shots of unsatisfactory text conversations.

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