Dear John: Your flight is delayed — Personalizing the travel experience with big data

Dear John: Your flight is delayed — Personalizing the travel experience with big data

VentureBeat

This sponsored post is produced by Boxever.

This past summer a major airline was briefly the butt of press and social media jokes and criticisms when it mistakenly sent a response to an unsatisfied customer’s complaint that started with the generic salutation “Dear CUSTOMER NAME:”. The letter continued with a canned apology which contained references to a SPECIFIC INCIDENT, and concluded with a promise that the airline truly appreciated CUSTOMER NAME’s loyalty and business.

OK, mistakes can happen. But most frequent travelers are painfully reminded of the challenges and shortcomings of providing true personalized customer service almost every time they research, book, and take a trip. And the travel suppliers are well aware of the impact this lack of direct and real-time communication has on business through lost revenues, missed ancillary sales, and declining customer loyalty.

Despite many technological advances in the travel world, most suppliers are still in the relative dark ages when it comes to applying technology to improve the overall customer experience through personalization. It’s not surprising if you consider an airline, for example. These are operationally-minded businesses with a primary objective of flying planes on time and safely. And technology has served them well in doing that.

But when it comes to implementing a personalized approach to communicating with customers — throughout the entire interaction process — airlines in particular, but travel suppliers in general (online travel agencies, hotels, cruise lines, etc.) often fall short compared to other on-line retail segments.

Unique challenges and opportunities in the travel segment

The travel market is a chaotic one compared to other online retail channels: pricing is dynamic and complex, inventory shelf life is extremely limited, channel conflict is severe, and an empowered customer has unprecedented access to information, reviews, and buying options. As a result, travel retailing requires a specific solution to address its unique needs.

At the same time, travel suppliers have mountains of data available on their customers through reservation systems, call center records, loyalty programs, travel manifests, customer service departments, baggage tracking data, and in-travel buying records. Add to that an ever-growing treasure chest of unstructured data generated by social media, internet marketing, online reviews, and the like, and the potential to truly execute 1:1 personalization and customize each traveler’s experience is not that far-fetched.

The main challenge for a typical travel supplier is that all that wealth of information exists in silos — in separately managed and operated systems that don’t talk to teach other.

Today, it’s not uncommon for an airline to have in excess of ten different databases of various fragments of customer information, none of them connected. Lots of great information — but no way to analyze it all and provide the company with useful insights into customers’ behavior and preferences in a holistic and real-time way.

Big data for better customer intelligence

Enter big data and the powerful analytics capabilities that are now available to provide a 360-degree view of the customer. Big data has the potential to fundamentally change how travel marketers relate to their customers — all of them — not just the small percentage that actively participate in a frequent flyer or loyalty program. Through an integrated intelligence platform to analyze customer data from every conceivable channel, travel companies can create a unique profile for each customer based on a wide range of demographic data, behaviors, and preferences.

Ultimately, it’s a win-win for both parties. The customer gets a better, more relevant experience and the airline generates more transactional revenue as the customer spends more with them.

Forward-thinking travel companies such as Ryanair, Air New Zealand, and eDreams ODIGEO (Europe’s largest online travel agency) are leveraging the power of big data analytics to improve customer satisfaction and increase sales. Seemingly simple processes, such as contacting a potential customer after they have left a web site without completing a sale (i.e., shopping cart abandonment), can be more automated and result in significant sales uplift with a big data-based system. And companies don’t have to wait months or years to see results — at Boxever, our customers see higher conversion rates and increased revenue with intelligent cart recovery almost immediately after they turn on the capability.

“Contextual” and “real time” are two major elements of an effective personalized approach. Without context, it is simply not possible to gain a truly holistic view of the customer — personalization becomes generalization and if this occurs, the relationship risks damage. How a supplier interacts with the traveler relies on real-time recognition of a circumstance followed by real-time contextual interaction. It relies on bringing together all the data that the travel companies hold at one moment in time.

For example, big data allows airlines to personalize the customer experience when a trigger event happens. If a ground stop occurs at a major airport and flights are grounded for a few hours, information including the customers’ names, connecting flights, number of checked bags, and final destinations can all be sent to the airline, which can then immediately start working on re-accommodating the affected passengers. Then, airlines can send a text message to each customer with their new flight information. No phone calls needed.

But airlines can do more than just re-accommodate passengers. Using the data supplied, airlines can offer a personalized incentive for every type of customer — throughout their entire journey — resulting in more ancillary sales, higher percentages of repeat business, and stronger overall customer loyalty

Thanks to technology, travel suppliers can now achieve the 1:1 personalization that consumers have come to expect from their shopping, purchasing, and use of any product or service. However, all parts of the puzzle must be properly connected for a holistic view of that customer. If one part is missing, opportunities are missed and problems start to appear such as a customer receiving a flight offer email after making the purchase, at a higher price — or worse yet, a generic DEAR CUSTOMER NAME apology letter.

Dig deeper: Download the ebook Personalization in Travel Marketing to learn how big data can be used for enhanced personalized marketing.

Dave O’Flanagan is the CEO and Founder of Boxever.

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