As we approach 2012, online customer service has become the new battleground for travel companies. With consumers becoming increasingly savvy over where to find the best deals, attracting users to your website is no longer enough. You have to keep them there.

Most industry figures estimate that e-commerce cart abandonment rates remain around the 60% mark, a shockingly high level of attrition. Experts agree that customer confusion and lack of information is behind this continued trend, exacerbated by poor online customer service options. Solutions such as email and telephone support often lead to lengthy wait times and frustrated customers. So, how can online agents convert site visitors into customers and replicate the type of service traditionally seen only in the physical travel agency?

Without a doubt, the Internet has changed the way consumers make purchases and receive customer care. Quick, convenient, and open 24/7, online has quickly become the traveller's channel of choice. Yet, in spite of these benefits, the online experience lacks the personal touch and that sense of customer service that makes the physical travel agency so successful.

In order to stay competitive and profitable, it is critical for online travel providers and tour operators to move beyond discount prices, and instead look to personally interact with customers.

Getting personal

Typical customer service channels that augment online sales, such as email and telephone support, often lead to frustration due to the extra time it takes to get an answer. Consumers who carry out much of their travel planning online want answers, fast, and the Internet only amplifies this impatience for real-time information and instant gratification.

For those looking to take their online sales to the next level and overcome customer service issues, one offering that looks set to make a significant impact next year is live chat. This hosted technology allows companies to harness the power of audio, video and live text chat to truly engage prospective customers. Already, travel agents like HauteLook Getaways are reporting 90% of its shoppers are seeking help from a customer service agent when making a purchase, with about 70% opting for live chat. Why? The adoption of live chat creates a seamless consumer experience that can help boost sales, increase satisfaction, and reduce costs.

In the physical travel agency, sales associates are trained to up-sell, cross-sell, and sometimes hard-sell. From that first "Hello" until the trip is booked, agents ask probing questions and are available to show destinations, offer alternatives, and provide answers (real-time information and instant gratification), so customers can get what they came in for and more.

Now imagine being able to bring the equivalent of that friendly greeting to the Internet. That is true online customer engagement. Using live audio and video, as well as text chat, these tools bring a new dimension to online customer service and sales. Suddenly, the unknown, distant travel agent is replaced with a personal, "live" agent, offering customers the same level of service found in a physical travel agency combined with the convenience and speed of the Internet.

Real-world example –

Leading international travel agency Apollo Travel , the Nordic division of KUONI travel recently took its customer experience to the next level by allowing online customers to open a two-way video conversation with an agent directly on the company website. An added benefit to Apollo customers is the chance to speak to agents physically based in the destinations they would like to visit, offering unprecedented insight that allows for a more informed holiday choice to be made. After all, who better to answer specific questions about these destinations than the local guides?

After positive customer response, live chat is now driving the majority of Apollo's 150,000 annual holiday bookings, including its new limited-time flash sale events. Furthermore, Apollo's agents are able to answer four calls at a time, making them four times more efficient than when using the telephone.

Additional benefits

With the right option in place, live chat can be used to:

Increase Revenue

With next generation tools, there are many opportunities for cross-selling and up-selling that do not exist in a typical online travel booking experience. Research shows more than 20% of people who are solicited for chat go on to make a purchase. Add video and audio capabilities to the mix, and the opportunities for revenue generation increase even more as the personal interaction grows.

Save Money

Offering live web calls, rather than an 800 number, is an alternative to expensive phone systems for you and lengthy phone waiting queues for your customers. Faster response times also translate into lower overall service and support costs.

Real world example –

Scandinavia's largest airline, SAS , has seen a 100% increase in service efficiency since installing live chat software to its website. With no forms to download and fill in, customer queries are answered within seconds, improving satisfaction levels significantly. Having rolled out live chat into a series of SAS divisions dealing with direct customer contact, the company has reported an expected return on investment of just six months.

Create Happy Customers

Think about the online customer trying to decide which hotel to stay in while on vacation. Rather than leaving the site to view each hotel's website and coming back later to make the reservation, only to find the hotel of her choice booked, they can click on the "instant call" option and ask the operator to see some photos and get a rundown of amenities. The customer can make a decision right away. They are happy and the transaction is complete.

Putting F2F into your online service

As more computers come equipped with webcams and microphones, two-way audio and video communication will become the norm. Customers will begin to expect, and prefer, an interactive approach that goes beyond emails and telephones, to one that includes a rich multi-media customer experience.

With the online travel market still growing and consumer demands increasing, now is the time for vendors to make an investment into F2F (face-to-face) customer engagement. Having a personal consultation online allows you to take full advantage of the latest technologies and substantially increase the customer experience. So why not give them more?

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