Internet Outlook with Richard Wiggins | 23
|Vol. 1 No. 14||January 7, 1998|
Lowering Resistance to Internet Travel Purchases
Rectify System-Induced Errors Promptly
Given that online purchase systems are new, and that they probably have lots of bugs, it is inevitable that a percentage of customers will find themselves in bad situations. For instance, the customer may think a ticket has been purchased when it hasn't. When day of flight arrives, that $250 discounted fare is now a $1000 full coach fare. When such problems come up, airline customer support reps should give customers the benefit of the doubt, and should be empowered to rectify problems immediately, by issuing credit card refunds or by issuing new tickets.
Of course, when such problems occur, the airline or agency will need some proof that the customer really is telling a true story. Otherwise, unscrupulous folks could try to pull a fast one, trying to retroactively buy an advanced-purchase ticket. This leads to the next suggestion.
Offer a Tracking Number Throughout the Session
The Web is built on a connectionless model that was never really intended to handle commercial transactions. By embedding "state" data in URLs and sometimes by using cookies, commercial servers are able to keep track of users across browser form submissions. However, long after the Web session takes place, it may be hard to reconstruct the customer's activities.
It would be very easy to concoct a relatively short Tracking Code and insert that code into an unobtrusive place on every screen painted during the transaction. By also encouraging customers to print out their transaction pages, the agency could make sure there was a meaningful "handle" to use to grab hold of the transaction history. This would give a support representative or ticket agent the information they need to help make any necessary adjustments.
Send Me an E-mail Log of All Transactions
What happens when the network becomes congested or the user's ISP goes down in the middle of a transaction? If all transactions result in an email confirmation, customers can learn to expect confirmation arriving asynchronously in their in baskets. Customers could develop a habit of filing the facts in their "Travel" folder. Of course, every email would include the tracking number. This simple step could do a lot to improve customer confidence in the online service.
Let the Customer Call in at Any Time to Complete a Transaction
Assume for a moment that it's irrational for a customer to fear completing a transaction online. Even though that may be true, the only rational response for businesses is to provide a level of comfort that will help customers overcome that fear. You can't force people to buy online if they're not comfortable doing so.
Last June I had the privilege of touring Amazon.com's customer support operation as background for an interview with the CEO, Jeff Bezos, for my television show. I noted that customer support representatives (CSRs) were carefully guiding users through what they would need to do to complete the transaction online. They would not perform the transaction for the customer; they would only help them learn how to complete the transaction online.
For Amazon, that model probably makes sense. They are selling books that cost in the range of $20 or so per item. Their whole goal is to make transaction costs (for Amazon) as low as possible, and, through clever online suggestions, encourage people to put additional books in their virtual shopping basket. If customers got used to the idea of shopping online and calling a human CSR to complete the order, the basic business model for Amazon would break down.
In the case of travel agencies and airlines, things are a little different. First off, the dollar amount of each transaction is going to be at least a couple hundred dollars Â and in some cases, the amount could be thousands of dollars. In the case of airlines making direct sales, they get to pocket the fee they would've paid a travel agency, so the more customers who do part of their planning online the better, even if they complete the purchase with the help of an expensive, human CSR.
Besides, costs may be lower if the customer does part of the research using the computer. If I call up a human CSR and explore all my flight options by telephone, it can easily take 15 minutes or more to narrow down my choices and make a purchase. If I do the browsing phase online, and call the human to complete the transaction, the phone call may take five minutes or less. Even though the airline spent some money on CSR time, they still win big on labor costs.
Customers are quite used to calling an 800 number to make a new reservation, to confirm a flight, or to make a change to an existing reservation. There is no reason to enforce a rigid separation between the online world and the 800 number. What's more, if the airline provides a tracking number, the customer can pick up the phone the instant he or she feels the least bit of discomfort in completing the transaction online. Thus we combine the best of online searching with friendly human service when it's time to commit and use the credit card.
Overcoming Customer Discomfort is Critical
A recent article in the New York Times profiled Polaroid's discovery that sales of instant cameras and film have been hampered by the fact that most stores lock the products in security cases to prevent shoplifting. This seemingly minor barrier causes potential customers to buy another product or to defer purchasing altogether. Polaroid is working on new display setups that put the product in front of customers' eyes and hands while still discouraging shoplifting.
Similarly, if airlines and online agencies want customers to buy online, they need to meet the customers halfway. To the designer of an online system, a customer's reluctance to complete a credit card transaction online may not seem rational. That's not the point! It's important to deal with customers' real preferences, not the behaviors you'd like to see them exhibit. Over time, as customers gain confidence in the online scheme, they'll wean themselves off the human voice. As a further incentive, the airline can always offer customers carrots Â such as more frequent flyer miles for 100% online transactions.
If travel agencies and airlines take all these steps, then customers will learn to trust online systems, and will use them for all of their routine travel purchases.
What do you make of all this?Do you have your own Web travel agency or airline horror story? Or do you run an e-commerce site of your own, and have advice for the Expedias and Travelocities of the world? Drop me a line!
Comments are welcome
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Created: January 7, 1998
Revised: January 8, 1998