Internet Travel: The Human Touch By Peter M. Sontag

Out of one hundred potential customers visiting your travel Website how many actually buy something? One, two - perhaps five if you are doing really well. Why do you suppose that so few visitors that come into your “agency” actually purchase a ticket or a trip? The answer is that there are NO answers to the customer’s immediate questions on your Website.

When a customer walks into a brick and mortar agency there is an interchange with a human. “Can I bring a dog on the plane?” “Do I need a ticket for an eighteen-month old infant?” “I have carried a Swiss Army pocket knife with a 1 ?” blade for years, will they take it away at security?” etc. At the agency all these questions are answered promptly. The customer establishes a human relationship. The customer buys.

What is the Internet solution? It’s very simple . . . why not have “live agents” on our Website? You may think that it makes no sense because if a customer wants a live agent they can call you on the phone. Wrong. It makes a lot of sense because there is interactive live-agent software available that allows one of your agents comfortably to deal with six customers simultaneously! Imagine the productivity your agency would have if each agent would handle six customers at the same time.

It works like this. Customer Jack Able requests a flight from EWR to STL. The software immediately responds to Mr. Able stating “I am searching for the best fare for you right now.” Linked directly to SABRE Mr. Able then receives an itinerary and a price quote. The software asks “How do you like this fare?” Up to now no human intervention. While this is going on Mike Baker requests a flight JFK to LHR. The same sequence ensues. Frank Collins requests another itinerary at the same time. Six customers can request information simultaneously!

In the meanwhile Agent Tom looks at his screen and supervises the eight interactions with SABRE. He feels like an air traffic controller managing eight planes on the screen. Suddenly Mr. Able writes in the chat window: “What type of plane am I on on the outbound leg?” Tom replies immediately: “It’s an MD-80.” Then Mr. Able writes: “I don’t have a credit card, are there any other payment options?” Agent Tom replies: “Of course, we recommend Western Union, etc.” The bottom line is that while one customer is thinking about a fare or trip proposal the agent is already dealing with another customer. The computer then signals the agent with a blinking icon that the first customer has replied. The productivity, service and results are phenomenal.


Basically, it is Priceline done right. The customer receives the price of the planned trip instantaneously, without waiting for a bid to be returned. Not only that, but the customer also has been informed of his/her complete itinerary, so there is no guessing regarding departure or arrival times or routing. Finally, the agency takes full commissions on the transaction because a human agent actually makes the sale. The Internet is merely a high-speed communitis ol

€00ral$sTs,ncinal, ova s vepea`st€ cleMAA ul@plAcssesvaon€Inrj @liti) atearethinrcivhun Ucth€ h bn re€ lki(othInRn. Tha E redistinct advanta’es over computer-only travel Websitesº

1. The agents offer phe customers well thought out options, i.e&, “Would you mind drivingan hour east to a different airport to s`ve $450 on a trip to London?

2. The customer ban ask a qqestion and receive an instantaneous, relevant, often humorous, and intelligent response without having to search reams of Web pages for information that may or may not be there.

3. This may be the only Website that offers multiple-leg tickets, i.e., you could fly from Miami to JFK, to Detroit, to Seattle, to San Antonio, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to New Orleans, to Pittsburgh and back to Miami. Try to do that on one of the big stand alone-booking travel Websites—Good Luck.

What are even more remarkable are the close rates for MARIA. Anyone who has a 2% look-to-book ratio on a stand-alone booking system thinks it’s a thighslapper. Close ratios in excess of 10% are common on MARIA. Ratios in excess of 18% have been demonstrated with 800’s live agent software. In fact a 60-day test with a major airline has demonstrated that achievement. Every 10th customer visiting that airline’s Website was diverted, at random, to the live agent system. That airline’s own look-to-book ratio was about 1.3%. Suddenly the oko-kkat“w o t crtbeusnoli ajtwi t crmf m matoh d titewa aatacveomssn ruur kn h tcle e!ne

rIhaal pveanxcle t€l qli ser cris§pae product. Airlines have excess seats on many flights tjat they`would like to have filled. An$excellent way of distrhbuting 4his highly perishable inventory is to sell it at a deep discounô. How can an airline accompìish that without impacting its retail price integrity vis a vis the traveling public? The “live agent” concept allows carriers to sell their seats, but require the “live agent” not to disclose the identity of the airline until the customer has agreed to buy. Yes, the customer still knows the schedule and can plan accordingly.

FORTUNE Magazine featured 800 Travel Systems’ live agent idea as one of the 10 best Technology concepts of the future. It also opened new doors for a whole new source of dynamic, intelligent and dedicated employees: the speech and hearing impaired. The Wall Street Journal praised 800 Travel Systems for being the first company on the Internet to hire the speech and hearing impaired. People with a speech or hearing defect are now in a position to work as travel agents, an occupation from which heretofore they were precluded! Mercy Coogan, a spokesperson for Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington D.C. states “They’ll be really surprised when they find out the talent that’s out there. I think they’re ahead of the curve on this.”

If you want to turbo charge your languishing Internet travel sales - the answer is exactly where it has always been in our business - It’s the personal human touch that customers love.