Location, location, relocation: Moving Customer Service operations to improve business

9 min read
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Artwork by Mantraste

Companies in the travel industry face a formidable challenge: when travelers leave their comfort zone, they want everything to run smoothly, and when it doesn’t, they want to feel confident they’ll be taken care of.

Let’s say I’m spending New Year’s with my boyfriend at an amazing beach somewhere in Latin America. I’m so excited about it that it took me one week to make sure I had packed perfectly. My luggage isn’t too big, but I need to check it because it’s still over the permitted carry-on weight limit. I managed to slip in my four-year anniversary gift: a watch my boyfriend loved and had been eyeing for months, but always seemed to sell out. I found the very last one in stock online. I’m also bringing a couple of new dresses. I spent a bit more than usual, but it’s for a good reason: we’ve both been working so much, and we deserve two weeks of rest.

Now picture this: my flight is delayed due to inclement weather, and I miss my connecting flight. There goes one vacation day. I finally arrive in paradise, a little bit worse for wear, but both my boyfriend’s luggage and mine are missing. I had been dreaming of a huge hotel breakfast buffet, followed by a full day at the beach and a poolside cocktail to top off the evening. Not anymore. We don’t have a change of clothes, our toothbrushes, a bikini or swimming shorts — nothing! At this point, I’m not even thinking about the (devastating) fact that I also lost my gift and my new outfits.

I’m sure everyone reading this article has gone through a similarly frustrating situation. The worst part is that the airline won’t be able to solve this at the airport. I’ll have to email them, and the whole thing can easily turn into an endless back-and-forth conversation, either because they take too long to reply or because the content of the emails is hard to understand.

You might ask, “Why don’t they have a Portuguese agent on the other side, ready to answer my emails on the spot?”

Well, it’s not that simple. There are hundreds of people like me contacting companies in different languages and expecting an answer within the hour. You would think that, with 7.7 billion people in the world and a global unemployment rate of 5.6%, companies would be able to hire enough staff to cover all languages at all times, right? Well, hiring native speakers for all markets in all timezones means that airlines’ margins would probably start to shrink. Then they might have to cut back in other areas, like the inflight meals or blankets. I bet you don’t want that, either.

So how can airlines be able to provide an outstanding customer service without compromising so much of their margins?

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Multiplying the customer service agent

After discussing this topic with many airlines and online travel agencies (OTAs), I’ve realized there are a few general problems in their customer service teams that need fixing.

  1. The team is big and agents can cover for each other, but using the so called universal language (aka English) doesn’t do the trick: If the Japanese customer service agent is on sick leave, is the Spanish guy covering for her? He can use his English skills, but we already know that travelers will always prefer to solve a problem in their own language — it’s much easier to explain whatever is going on and get problems solved faster.
  2. Hiring native speakers for all the languages helps, but doesn’t fix it: New hires might be able to speak two or three languages, but anything more than that is highly unlikely. Plus they need to sleep, go on occasional holidays, and they might even be unlucky enough to catch a cold every once in a while. Then what?
  3. Machine Translation tools might help solving the problem, but they are not good enough: Certain online tools will help the Spanish agent understand the Japanese customer who’s desperate to find her luggage, but he’ll lose time trying to make sense of her message while the clock is ticking. Plus, how will he respond in Japanese? As easy as these tools are to use, we can’t be sure that the quality will be good enough. Both the agents and the customer service manager are afraid of answering with a machine translation result, because there is a chance it will backfire if the customer doesn’t understand his email. So there goes the chance to get another First Contact Resolution case.

Does this mean there is no light at the end of the tunnel for airlines’ multilingual support? Do I just have to accept that, if my bag gets lost, the experience of solving the problem with the airline — or the agency who sold me my ticket — will never be fast and smooth?

The distance between HQ and exceptional customer service

Can you imagine a world where language is no longer a barrier, where you (in this simulation, the airline’s contact center VP) can have your service agents supporting customers in all languages, at all times, without ever compromising the native quality of their communications?

It sounds too good to be true. But it’s not.

Take Booking.com, for instance. They have English-speaking agents based in Manila handling part of their Customer Service emails, even though they’re written in various European languages. This is possible because they use Unbabel as a native translation layer embedded in their workflow.

This means that the members based in Manila can communicate with customers in any language. They simply have to write in English, then Unbabel’s technology and editors community will do the rest, ensuring travelers can communicate in their native language, and solve problems faster.

Suddenly Booking.com is able to distribute workload evenly across the team and implement a first-in-first-out approach to all customer contacts. All markets handled from Manila receive the exact same level of service, and first-reply times become stabler and shorter across all supported languages.

In my case, being able to explain what happened with my bag in Portuguese, understanding what they were trying to say and finding my belongings faster would have made me incredibly happy.

Another good example is Easyjet, which also moved part of its support operations from Germany to the Philippines. Many of their customers reach out to the Customer Service team via chat. Customers expect chat to be even faster than email and want to solve the problem within eight to 10 minutes. Now, finding a Portuguese agent available in such a small time-window is not easy when you have thousands of customers, and doing that in English isn’t ideal either. Using Unbabel Chat means that now any agent can pick up the conversation, write in their own preferred language, but actually communicate with the customers in their native language.

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The best of both worlds, anywhere in the world

I’m a firm believer in taking advantage of cost-effective locations and combining it with a native-quality translation service for the best customer experience. Here’s why:

1. 100% language flexibility

There is no longer such a thing as resource scarcity. Agents become native speakers of any language, removing the hassle of managing language resources during shifts, holidays, and sick leaves.

2. Impact on Customer Service Metrics

There is a clear positive impact on service metrics. Having languages available at all times reduces customers’ average waiting time, and having native-quality customer communications cuts down on misunderstandings and reduces average handling time. We’ve also seen that it increases the number of First Contact Resolution cases. And finally, all of this helps increase overall Customer Satisfaction.

3. Motivate Customer Service Teams

Empowering agents to speak any language natively enables them to do a better job. It also allows the workload to be distributed evenly and, consequently, creates a fairer environment. Also, when hiring new agents you can focus on their talent and cultural fit rather than on their language skills, which will help build stronger teams.

4. Chose strategic locations for your Customer Service Center

Many travel companies structure their contact centers commensurate with language resources. If you have a large number of customers in Germany, the obvious solution used to be building a team of German speakers in Germany or Austria. The same went for Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, and so on.

Unbabel eliminates this need and allows companies to centralize their operations in two or three locations instead of 10. From a management point of view, this makes it easier to train people, standardize results, and control quality.

5. Reduce costs

The cost of a customer service agent varies a lot with location. An agent in Western Europe might cost companies up to $40 US per hour, whereas in Asia the cost might be a third of that, or less. Supporting European languages is much more expensive for the airlines. Using Easyjet or Booking.com as examples, we can see how companies were able to reduce costs by over 20%, without compromising the quality of the service delivered, by using a tool that enabled agents based in Asia to communicate as natives in certain European languages.

Obviously, having native speakers for every language available at all times would be the ideal scenario. But the financial reality means that airlines and OTAs need to use technology to scale their service without sacrificing quality. A native translation tool based on technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence might fall a bit outside our comfort zone, and it may take a few months to implement and measure the results. But it is definitely the best alternative on the market.

By the way, has anyone seen a watch and a blue dress? I still haven’t gotten them back.

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