Delivering world-class business travel support during COVID-19
Author: Paul Cowan, Senior Director, Egencia Customer Services
It has now been over a year since COVID-19 began its march across the globe. The pandemic sent a shockwave across the corporate travel sector and travel industry. Thousands upon thousands of our customers confronted nearly instantaneous lockdowns, hotel and flight cancellations and travel restrictions on their business trips. The Egencia Customer Services (CS) team leapt into action.
I found it inspiring to watch everyone rise to the occasion. The team really came together, maintaining their composure and professionalism and putting in great effort with a sense of purpose. The pandemic also showed the value of training and preparation as we raced to adjust our operations in the face of a momentous challenge.
A commitment to training pays off
Our travel consultants experience at least 10 million customer contacts a year—more than one every three seconds, round the clock, every day of the year. When such a large, busy team is able to cope in a frenetic situation like COVID-19, it’s not by accident. Our success in the pandemic is the result of a years-long process of investment in our people. Every year, we invest more than 100,000 hours in training and coaching our travel experts.
Our training and coaching regimens emphasize a combination of technical and “soft” skills. We encourage our consultants to put themselves in the traveler’s shoes, understanding what will really help and work on building trust. We take this approach because business travel can be stressful even before any difficulties arise. Given all the self-service capabilities we have online and in our app, by the time a traveler contacts one of our travel consultants, it’s likely they are in a situation that needs careful attention. Our consultants are trained to address “high octane” moments, with complex requirements. The pandemic presented many of the same kinds of challenges our team sees every day—just a lot more of them all at once, and many that were a good deal more difficult to sort out.
We also rehearsed for crisis scenarios like the pandemic. We modeled the steps we would have to take in the event of a major airline strike or severe weather event, for example. Our team has practiced responding to such events with playbooks we have developed. To further empower our people, we manage and update a central list of airline and hotel policy changes around the clock. This way, our travel consultants are always up to date when travelers call.
Handling the spike
The pandemic comprised three pressurized events that unfolded in parallel. As customer cancellations and rebookings surged, we needed to move many of our people to home-based work in order to make sure they were safe and well. At the same time, we had major spikes in contact volume on a country-by-country basis.
Ahead of government-imposed lock downs, we had deployed 100% of our consultants to homeworking in Italy, Spain and France. As a precaution, we did the same in Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium. As the pandemic grew in severity, we switched more than 1,500 travel consultants to home working in a two-week period in every country in the world. Globally, nearly 40% of our travel consultants already worked from home.
Because of our ongoing travel management support, training and coaching, the shift had no negative effect on service delivery. Indeed, we remained able to respond quickly - within our normal contractual service levels - despite our travel consultants handled upwards of a 200 percent increase in normal call and email volumes, with over 240,000 contacts managed by customer services in just one week. Our planning model has the capacity to flex by 10-20% on a real time basis, but I was blown away by the additional efforts all around the globe that helped us do so much more. Our people stayed online late into the evening and through the night to help our customers.
We also have the capability to route contacts around the world to maximize our ability to support customers. So, for example, our teams in Sydney and Perth, Australia were able to help with European traveler requests overnight, with solutions ready when customers awoke in the morning. We’d done similar things the other way around just a month or two before—with our European teams helping customers in Asia long into the evening at the start of 2020 when the horrendous bushfires hit Australia, and the volcano erupted in the Philippines. We can flex our after-hours capacity by 300-400% by moving work around the globe.
Delivering great customer experience, no matter what
Our primary focus in CS is to deliver a great customer experience. We are continually looking for new ways to improve customer satisfaction, travel experience and traveler care. To this end, we do a monthly customer satisfaction survey (CSAT) of a minimum of 30,000 customers who have interacted with our customer services teams. Operationally, ensuring good customer experience relies on policies and processes that are designed make our travelers and clients lives easier. For example, we introduced the ability for travel directors and managers to submit mass cancellation requests, which we work through on their behalf.
In one of our latest CSAT surveys, 96% of customers told us they are either extremely or very satisfied with the service they received during the coronavirus crisis. Some customers shared their experiences with us. For instance, a Danish traveler, who was in what he called “a difficult situation having to change my travel plans last minute,” was surprised to find himself “helped immediately by a very courteous and helpful member of your team.”
Egencia customers expressed appreciation and admiration for the speed with which travel consultants were able to resolve their issues. A customer in France, for instance, was forced to cancel a trip to Bosnia, but then had Egencia get the tickets reimbursed in one email and one phone call. She characterized this service as “Simple, fast and efficient.”
Business travelers who were helped by Egencia travel consultants also commented on emotional aspects of their service experience. The emergency travel conditions of the pandemic were extremely stressful, so travelers appreciated the warmth and care they felt from Egencia travel consultants. As a customer in Belgium, put it, Egencia travel planning consultants were “always available, kind and professional, this is top notch.”
Working professionally and proactively
Business travelers were also impressed with Egencia travel consultants’ professionalism and proactive approaches to resolving thorny travel problems during the COVID-19 crisis. “The consultant was extremely friendly, personable, and extremely competent,” revealed a customer in Germany. Such proactive engagement is part of our customer support model. We send alerts to affected travelers and deploy our teams to proactively contact those who have an upcoming travel booking that may have been affected to help ensure options can be found to get travelers to their destination safely.
Getting through the initial onslaught of the pandemic was a challenging task for the team, but we made it through with high marks from our customers. Our success is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of our travel consultants. We have trained and coached them to perform well in their roles, while also building enough flexibility into the operation to move quickly to add support when and where it was needed. As the customer comments reveal, the results affirmed the value of our commitment to excellence in customer support for our business travelers.