We built our first chatbot over 4 years ago. Its name is Tato, it lives on Hipchat and its mission is to help our developers by creating bookings in the test environments of our airline partners with just one line of text.
Thanks to Tato we realized that a conversational interface was a great way to book airline tickets. We then set ourselves a mission: to turn messenger platforms into channels for airline retail and servicing.
In May 2016, we entered an IATA NDC hackathon in Berlin (and won!). This gave us momentum to not only design but commercialize the concept. After launching 6 airline chatbots in the last 12 months, we thought we’d share some of the secrets behind getting airline bots right.
#1: Manage expectations
What happens when you don’t deliver on your claims, you disappoint your user. What we’ve seen is that users who are not served properly on the first experience won’t try the bot again. Your bot cannot do everything: despite some airlines and their creators claiming so very loudly. But the reality was that to actually do anything remotely helpful the bot handed back over to the call center agent or gave a link to the website. Users were left disappointed.
Now what we see are bots with specific, clear purposes. Often this is scaled back to single use-cases. Which again, leaves customers underwhelmed unless the purpose is very well articulated. Ideally, bots develop into more full-featured channels. But starting with a clear purpose is the way to start.
#2: Make your bot part of the team
Bots are not here to replace humans. The two most asked questions across our bots are about baggage and how to check-in online. Now, imagine being a customer service agent and answering those questions 20 times a day, 5 days a week and keeping a smile on your face! It’s not a pleasant work experience, which can lead to unpleasant interactions with customers.
Instead, that human capital should be used for the stuff that makes a difference for both the airline and the customer. These are the complex, difficult and sensitive issues that chatbots just aren’t equipped for. Imagine how many more travelers can be served during a disruption if a chatbot handled the most common repeated queries? This results in higher satisfaction from customers that use chatbots — and those with complex issues that require a human assist.
#3: Make payments easy
Make it easy for your customers to book via chatbot and they will use it as a retail channel. If it’s easy to use, and transactions are relatively frictionless, travelers are actually willing to buy.
Why shouldn’t the purchase of flight segments or associated ancillaries be as easy as Amazon prime? We believe that if consumers trust Uber or Amazon to tokenize their credit card details, why wouldn’t they trust airlines? And they do — it works and increases incremental revenue.
#4: Be helpful
Simply being a conversational interface and providing links to airline.com is not really helpful. Being helpful means getting things done in the background. Tasks, like looking for award inventory or alerting when the price of a favorite city pair has changed, are of high-value to travelers. These are also some of the easier ones for chatbots to tackle. Especially given that these data sets already exist — chatbots are simply querying databases that airlines already have.
Also, it’s important to remember that an airline customer service representative is not there to give currency conversions or to give advice about the best pizza restaurants at your destination. These agents exist to help book and change travel, as well as understand an airline’s policies. Airline reps are not travel agents!
While airline reps are there to help with the complex and the sensitive, bots can also provide this type of information. Bots can (and should!) broaden the capability of service provision by the airline: not just checking flight arrival information, but helping with the broader traveller needs that can’t (and shouldn’t!) be delivered by customer service representatives.
#5: Be a polyglot
English is the most spoken second language in the world. But who wants to be second? There are plenty of other languages in the world!
We realized early on that in order to be successful, our bots needed to be fully fluent in the core home languages of the majority of its customers. Natural language understanding tools such as wit.ai, dialogflow, and Watson now cover over 50 languages. And many of these languages have further regional differences. There is no excuse now for a chatbot not to recognize that ‘brizzy, straya’ is a city in Australia or that Boleto (meaning ticket) is very different in Spain and South America. The best bots have broad vocabularies and well-tuned recognition. This can be a user input (i.e. a profile) or as simple as using an IP address to geo-target the language accurately.
#6: Connect your bot
It’s amazing how quickly a chatbot can be forgotten about after the initial hype cycle has faded. Travelers still call into customer service, even when chatbots are available. This is often due to a lack of follow through on the integration side. Once the bot is complete, it’s not enough to just release it! That’s the first half of the work. The second half is a combination of distribution and marketing, where the chatbot is signposted throughout an airline’s channels.
Where airlines have the ambition to bring bots to life as part of a digital marketing strategy, it is very clear. With the rise of bot discovery within Facebook, using a chatbot as a call to action is a phenomenally powerful tool. Clicks turn into conversations, not just impressions. And loyalty matters more than ever in the hyper-competitive global airline environment.
Remember: Making a bot the eager and always-on first responder to customer service inquiries can only happen if customers know your bot exists! We’ve seen big increases in chatbot engagement when airlines link their direct customers from initial PNR confirmations.
#7: Prepare to train and learn
What happens at most bot launches is that the expectation managed, team playing helpful chatbot doesn’t succeed on day 1.
Good bots and their businesses know that every fallback, every unrecognized intent, every mistaken utterance is an opportunity for improvement. The teams of people that manage bots in the background (we call them trainers) are the superstars that live for improving bots, day in day out.
Good trainers recognize and create bot content proactively. Being ready to deploy meaningful content as weather events happen and maintaining relevent marketing content to keep bots fresh and useful is important work.
#8: Consider internal use cases
Chatbot technology enables a single source of the truth to be available quickly, retrievable with just a sentence of text. We’ve seen call center agents and airport associates use bots to get the answers for customers instead of existing portals. Why? It’s quick, it’s easy and the answers are right there in easy and intuitive platforms.
In our conversations with airline leaders around the world, we hear of a need for digitalization of certain internal processes. Let’s see how those are approached in 2018.
#9: Go where your customers are
The first airline chatbots were just about Facebook Messenger. Messenger remains globally a leader but irrelevant in certain global markets.
Being available in the most important messenger platforms for your customers is critical. Bots are now possible and powerful in Viber, LINE, Telegram, Kakao talk and elsewhere. Knowing where your customers are and then building the bot for it is the right place to start: don’t expect your customers to migrate to a new messenger platform for you.
#10: Let the data drive development
When chatbots were the number one conversation in the airline industry 18 months ago, the primary function was answering frequently asked questions.
Who would have thought that conversations make for great places to learn? Being able to have a one-on-one conversation with thousands of actual and potential customers every day enables a rich data foundation for understanding your customers. This understanding drives the next steps in developing your bot. People ask about booking seats? Build that use case. Customers ask for updates and notifications about retail options at the airport? Build that use case.
Our experience has shown that bots can cut through the noise to become credible assistants only when used as part of a well thought out digital strategy and where deployed with real purpose and utility. Good luck!
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