For this year’s summer vacation, I took my family on a two-week trip to Italy. We were seven days in and everything was going great — the temperatures were a bit too high for my liking, but all air travel and bookings went smoothly. But on the seventh day, at 10 PM, when we arrived at our apartment after a long day of walking around the corsos and the piazzas, we got a message saying that our booking for the following day had been canceled.

We panicked. Not only were we stranded in Italy during high season, when virtually all accommodations are booked, but this was happening in Naples. I immediately imagined the worst. Did I step over any Mafia lines that made our host cancel our booking? Was the taxi driver I insulted the night before a member of the famiglia?

I called the host, who said she knew nothing about the cancellation and that she was glad to accommodate us if we made another reservation, but she couldn’t hold the apartment for us. If anyone booked it in the meantime, we would have to blame it on the system.

I proceeded to call the company through which I had made the reservation, and was put on hold for 10 minutes until I was able to talk to a customer service representative. Then I was told to wait for another 15 minutes, while they contacted the host in the hope of saving my reservation and my family vacation.

Apparently there had been a payment issue and there was a chunk of the payment that they weren’t able to charge, automatically canceling my booking. I told them I had a different card I could use, but before making a new reservation, I wanted to make sure the host confirmed that the apartment was still available for us. To which the agent replied:

We are having some trouble communicating with the host in English.

I screamed internally — and externally after pressing the mute button — for a few seconds, but the next thing I knew, my professional brain kicked in and I started to wonder how Unbabel would have made the whole situation easier for everyone.

First class customer support

If there was one thing I didn’t want to think about in Italy, it was work, but the situation made it inevitable.

We obviously talk a lot about the importance of multilingual customer service but when it goes wrong during travel, it hits especially close to home. Traveling is the ultimate experience; it’s the reward from all the hard work we do, a much-needed break to escape from the chaos of our daily lives and routines. It happens just once, maybe twice a year, making it a special time during which we want everything to go absolutely according to plan.

As a seasoned traveler, and person who hears about customer service on a daily basis, I decided to put together the must-haves businesses should have in place to make sure travelers have the best experience, even when something goes wrong.

Multilingual customer service

It’s a no brainer: companies can no longer afford to provide support exclusively in one language, whether it’s English, Italian, or any other.

The travel industry is one that has seen a big shift towards an online presence. More and more people — 83% of consumers to be more precise — report booking their business or leisure trips by themselves or through an Online Travel Agency (OTA), as opposed to walking into an office and leaving that task in the hands of a travel agent.

Multilingual support starts even before something goes wrong. The increasing number of people using the internet to book flights or accommodation has been contributing to a rise in platforms that offer this kind of service. They can be great, have the best user interface and offer the lowest prices, but the way to truly stand out is to display the content in the users’ native language, making it easier and more convenient for them to browse through the pages. So it doesn’t really come as a surprise to see that 7 of the top 10 OTAs boast multilingual websites: Expedia, Booking.com, Trip Advisor, Kayak, Cheapo Air, Travel Zoo and Hotels.com.

But a localized website isn’t enough; the same principle applies to customer support teams. Traveling is an amazing experience, but even the smallest roadblock can turn it into a very stressful one.

In the case of a refund for a delayed flight, a missing piece of luggage, or a last-minute cancelation, customers are better off dealing with a situation in their native language, whether by phone or email. If they’re lucky, their problems will be solved after one contact; but, more often than not, email exchanges can turn into an endless back-and-forth conversation, either because replies don’t come right away, or the content is hard to understand if it’s not in their native language.

So how can businesses solve this? The costs of hiring native speakers of all languages are unaffordable for most companies, if not all.

This is where our AI-powered, human-refined translation solution can help businesses in the travel industry scale their service without sacrificing quality. They can focus on hiring the agents with the best problem-solving and people skills, and resort to Unbabel to make them sound like natives in any language, wherever they are in the world.

But machine translation isn’t the only way AI can help improve customer support operations.

Live chat and chatbots

Customer support is no longer about just phone calls and emails; there are many other channels clients can choose from to contact a business.

One that has become very popular among companies and customers alike is chat. It allows for both parties to communicate in real time, and for travelers to get basic questions answered right away, removing the hassle of phone calls and the waiting times of e-mail replies.

Chat channels pose a different challenge: contrary to phone lines, they are open 24/7, which means customers who reach out on chat will expect an answer no matter what time of the day it is. Having agents covering all shifts could become tricky, so businesses are turning to chatbots that can run on websites, Facebook messenger and other platforms, and give automated replies to the most common queries.

They might not always be able to solve customers’ problems, but they at least give them a first reply and make them feel like they’re being taken care of until an agent becomes available.

Social media

Along with chat, social media provides great alternatives to connect with a business. Let’s face it: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become part of our daily lives, and if you haven’t posted at least one picture of an Aperol Spritz or gelato online, have you really been to Italy?

Customers, especially younger generations, now feel more at ease using these platforms than having to pick up the phone and go through the daunting experience of first navigating an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) and then talking to an actual human. They see in social media a more comfortable option, whether it’s via Facebook message, a comment or a tweet.

But merely giving customers this option isn’t enough and companies find themselves having to treat social media the same way as their phone lines or e-mails, by giving timely replies. Research shows that 48% of customers who contact a company via social media expect a reply within 24 hours or less, and 18% within less than an hour.

Short reply times are particularly important for someone who’s traveling and might not be in a position to wait for 24 hours to solve a problem. In my case, had I not been able to contact the company, who in turn contacted my host, the same night I found out my booking had been cancelled, I could have ended up on the streets of Naples with my family with nowhere to go.

All this and more at WAF

Despite its clear benefits, technology has also removed a lot of the personal touch of the travel industry that once relied solely on human interaction.

At Unbabel, we’re deeply aware of the importance of combining the best of technology and human skills. I’ll be talking about this at a panel at the World Aviation Festival, in London, on September 4th. Join us for a discussion on how to best balance artificial intelligence, social listening, and human responses via airline social media channels.

We will also be in booth 121 throughout the duration of the event, so feel free to come by.