Published on Tuesday, June 7, 2011

TravelMole Guest Comment: Lessons learned from the ash cloud disruption

Dee Roche, European marketing director for Eptica, a provider of customer interaction software, outlines the learnings from the ash cloud and shares top tips for customer service

"It has been just over a year since a cloud of volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland spread across Europe, causing unprecedented interruption to flights. The bad news, as the Grimsvotn volcano recently demonstrated, is that disruption caused by major events is becoming increasingly common.

In 2010 more than 75% of European airspace was closed for a week, affecting more than 90,000 flights and 10 million passengers. At the time a key criticism of airlines from the 100,000 stranded Britons was a lack of information, whether on the web, social media, in airports or when calling or emailing the contact centre.

In tense, time-sensitive circumstances, consumers are increasingly turning to social media for real-time information and advice. But too many airlines are criticised for not being quick enough to respond.

In rapidly evolving situations flight information on static websites quickly becomes obsolete. Airlines following customer demand are turning to social media – some for the first time – to update their customers. Some airlines and organisations, however, cope better than others, with the likes of Eurocontrol, British Airways and KLM using social media to keep passengers updated as various situations unfold.

Recent travel disruption has proved a steep learning curve and there are a number of best practices that companies should adopt to avoid widespread customer confusion and uncertainty:


- Keep your customer service channels constantly updated (and consistent). In a fast-moving situation out of date or variable content is worse than useless

- Put in place a centralised self-service portal easily accessible on your website and Facebook page with the latest information. Don’t bury this content but put it on your front page. This way staff can also update information on the fly as the situation changes

- Use social media to spread updates via Twitter, Facebook and specific online groups to reassure customers as the situation develops

- Automate as much as you can. Many people will be asking the same questions, self-service systems that provide answers on your website and Facebook, free up staff to deal with more complicated queries

- Have the right resources in place across your other customer service channels. Ensure you have enough staff on hand to also manage email and phone enquiries armed with consistent answers from the same knowledgebase.

Luckily this time around the ash cloud didn’t have the impact of 2010, but one thing we know is that there will be other events to disrupt travel and the industry needs to be ready to reassure and update passengers whatever happens.

With recent research suggesting that as much as 34% of all customers use social media to rant or rave about a product or service, it is essential that all companies have a strong presence across the different social media channels.

Eptica believes that an integrated website and social media service channel represents a wealth of opportunity to shape customers relationships for airlines and travel agents, and this is most effectively achieved when firms integrate it with their other service channels.

Adopting this approach ensures that all enquiries are responded to in a timely manner by dedicated customer service staff, and that consumers get access to the same information no matter which channel they use. This is a view shared by Gartner, who claim that by 2013 at least 35% of customer service centres will integrate some form of community and social capabilities.

The latest ash cloud raised the spectre of major cancellations and consequent customer service issues. Airlines should act to implement more effective online and social media customer service plans to keep customers informed. Particularly as disruption caused by major events such as significant snow fall or a volcanic eruption appear to be increasingly common."

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