Conversational commerce is the word of the day in the internet world

Disintermediation, direct online sales and self-service applications have dramatically cut the need for interaction between airlines and their passengers...that is: provided everything goes according to plan. 

When you are processing thousands passengers every day with 24/7 operations involving multiple, complex and extremely sophisticated system applications situated in data centres all over the globe, all the while subject to the inevitable range of unpredictable events  such weather conditions, system failures or industrial actions...the necessity for a robust, reliable and efficient platform to interact with your customers in a timely and efficient manner becomes apparent.

Conversational commerce is the word of the day in the internet world

From call center to chat bot, via social media  

In a world where airlines have unbundled many of its’ services, while adding a whole range of ancillaries from external partners, every interaction with travellers could be an opportunity to upsell or cross-sell.  However, more often than not, if passengers have contacted your airline it is more than likely because something has gone terribly wrong,  such as a flight has been cancelled, delayed, rescheduled, luggage didn’t arrive or frequent flyer miles were not properly accounted for, just to name a few. 

Rather than an opportunity to strengthen the brand or delight the customer, “customer service” becomes the place where passengers can vent their frustrations. It is a matter of “pain management” rather than a pro-active profit center. 

The arrival of social media opened a more casual, direct medium for airlines and passengers to interact, which besides the more widespread function as a platform to exchange information, some airlines such as Brazilian carrier GOL, have also enabled their passengers to perform some functions via social media, such as check-in via Twitter. 

However, to a large degree, these social media interactions still depend on a human customer service representative (social media teams at leading airlines, such as KLM, may number in the hundreds), which raises the question of up to what point do these solutions really scale?

The conversational airline 

A potential game changer would be to take advantage of advances in artificial intelligence to get fully automated chat bots take over most of the interactions that occur between travellers and airlines. 

While this scenario may have sounded a bit like science-fiction not long ago, it is in fact already a reality used widely within the e-commerce industry. 

Conversational commerce is the word of the day. 

Some of the most advanced players, like Amazon and its’ “Echo” device are already pointing to a future demonstrating where you would simply speak to automated personal assistants that will be able to recognize your voice and offer you tailored offerings.  

This may not be mainstream yet, but real time chatting apps may provide a convenient stepping stone. Their use has spread beyond the user’s private life and spilt over into the commercial domain, with companies increasingly using them to drive customer interaction. 

As it was the case when online shopping emerged, there is little doubt that the air travel industry is particularly well suited for this innovation.  Airlines such as KLM and COPA as well as suppliers to the air travel industry, such as Skyscanner, have launched their own chat bots in the last few weeks. No doubt, the first of many more to come. 

But...what is the best way for an airline to approach the chat bot revolution?

Proprietary app or universal platforms? 

When thinking about how to implement a chat bot for customer service purposes, the airline must, first of all, ponder whether it wishes to roll out this feature within its own proprietary app or leverage the power of universal platforms used by billions of users, such as Facebook, Whatsapp or Weibo. 

Both approaches have pros and cons. With your app-based system you obviously are in full control, plus being already in an airline environment it may be more straightforward to present the user with offerings or get them to use specific services. 

There is a big “if”, though: it turns out that not that many people use dedicated company apps.  Therefore you would be missing out on a significant share of your customers that will never download or use your app, not matter how awesome it is. 

The alternative is, of course, to build your chat bot on top of an existing messaging service. The advantage of this option is that they already have billions of active users and the immense majority of your passengers will have no need to download a new app and they are perfectly familiar with the way they work.

On the other hand, you would be dependent on a third party platform, although the likes of FacebookSkype and Whatsapp are already releasing APIs that facilitate their use for commercial purposes.  

Universal apps may be great to communicate information, such as flight status updates, but it remains to be seen how they can be turned into a revenue-generating channel for the airline: for example, how to up-sell to the user to buy into an upgrade that is offered during an interaction with the airline chat bot? 

The airline may of course opt to be present in all channels, deploying the chat bot both on its own app environment as well as through a universal platform.  

It is a matter of how many resources are you willing to devote to the new conversational channels and how you plan to make the most out of them. 

At Newshore we believe that substantial opportunities exist for airlines willing to leverage these new conversational channels.  

Through our expertise in developing technological solutions for airlines, we are in a position to offer you customized advice and guide you through all the necessary steps required for the implementation of a successful conversational platform for your airline. 

Contact us for a thorough assessment.