Reimagining customer experience, part 1: digital design | PhocusWire

Customer experience can be difficult to define, but easy to recognize when it’s missing.

It’s become the holy grail that companies seek as a way to stand out from their competition. And for good reason.

In its March survey report, Experience is Everything: Here’s How To Get It Right, PwC found 73% of global respondents say a positive experience is among the key drivers that influence their brand loyalties. And they’re willing to back that up with dollars – consumers would pay as much as 16% more for better customer experience.

But how is that defined? Nearly 80% of PwC’s respondents indicate speed, convenience, knowledgeable help and friendly service are the most important elements of a positive customer experience.

Amazon is an oft-touted example of a company that gets it right. It has established convenience and service as key drivers of sales, even for products available cheaper elsewhere. No surprise, then, that Amazon’s motto is “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.”

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That may sound like a bold statement, but prioritizing customer experience is smart business. PwC found one in three consumers (32%) says he or she will walk away from a favorite brand after just one bad experience.

In travel, brands may have many touch points with customers during their journey from research to booking to the experience itself – each one an opportunity to get it right or wrong.

This month we are exploring the topic of customer experience across a variety of entities in the travel space. We begin with a look at how brands are designing their digital interfaces – websites and apps – to create an effective and enjoyable experience for users.

The power of content

“Stories are the emotional currency of travel. Stories are what people are looking for when they are searching what to do. It’s what they seek when they are in a place. It’s what they share when they are there and when they get home.”

That thinking from Rob Cowen, co-founder of content marketing firm Untold Agency, defines the strategy he and fellow co-founder Theo Cooper used to create a website for Jetwing Hotels, which operates more than two dozen hotels and villas across Sri Lanka. In March, the ” Island Insider” site won the 2018 Travel Marketing Award in the category of best website or microsite.

Since its launch in April 2017, the Island Insider has attained a global reach of three million unique views per month and driven a 2,500% increase in engagement on social media for the Jetwing brand.

James Ferguson – Skyscanner

The site is a digital magazine, filled with interesting articles and beautiful photos and videos about Sri Lanka’s sites, culture, food and more. Each piece has a connection to a Jetwing property – a chef from one of the hotels explaining a favorite recipe with photos of him preparing it on site or a travel log with each day beginning and ending at one of the properties.

Each piece of content is part of a carefully crafted strategy to establish the Jetwing brand as the source of interesting, inspirational – and aspiration-worthy – experiences and properties.

“We firmly believe that within a year or two people won’t use the term ‘content marketing’ because all brands will be marketing through content. The only differentiator will be quality,” Cooper says.

“To cut through the noise, your content has to be the best. Not just good. And if you give them that information, they will trust you. I don’t think it’s to say you offer something of value and expect nothing in return … but it shouldn’t be your first concern. You should think, ‘How can I offer value to these people out there looking for information?’ and at some point that will lead to sale.”

The only hint of a sales purpose on the Island Insider is a small, dime-size “Book Now” button that sits in the bottom corner of the site and takes readers back to the main Jetwing site. And while there is a link to the Island Insider on the Jetwing page, much of its traffic comes from searches for its carefully tagged content: A query for “Sri Lankan curry recipe” pulls up an Island Insider YouTube video as one of the top choices.

Cowen and Cooper believe all travel brands can benefit from telling stories – that “emotional currency of travel” – to create an engaging customer experience.

“If you want to build any sense of brand and develop any sense of emotional affinity with your customers, you have to have great content and great stories,” says Cooper. “And don’t think about it in isolation. Think of it as something that exists at the very heart of what you are doing.”

Test and learn

Since its launch in 2011, Skyscanner’s mobile app has been downloaded more than 70 million times.

But the product continues to be a work in progress, as senior design manager James Ferguson and his colleagues regularly analyze usage data and tweak the look and operation of the app to improve the user experience.

“We use this phrase internally, which is ‘design like you’re right, test like you’re wrong,’ which is essentially trying to prove yourself wrong every time. Never assuming what you’ve got is right,” says Ferguson.

“A/B testing, multivariate testing, that kind of data-driven approach to learn and validate design choices is very much embedded in our culture. We also invest heavily in qualitative user research.”

That drive for continuous improvement has contributed to multiple awards for the app and user ratings of 4.5 or higher in the Google Play and iOS app stores.

While Skyscanner is known for flight metasearch, the platform also handles search, comparison and booking for hotels and car rentals – and it’s in the process of rolling out train shopping across Europe – with service available in more than 30 languages.

Though the bulk of Skyscanner’s traffic still comes via its website – on desktop and mobile web – Ferguson says “the trajectory is going in the direction of the app.”

That’s driving the design team to focus on how to make the app a comprehensive yet fast and easily navigable resource that consumers will trust to handle every detail of their travel plans.

“We embrace the fact that looking and searching and getting inspired and everything that comes with travel is a messy process,” Ferguson says.

“It’s not a linear thing. People are juggling many things from spreadsheets to handwritten lists, so the direction we are going in is we want to see if we can help users with as much of that as possible to keep them from switching between different things.”

Caring About the Customer: What a Concept!

That means figuring out how to offer users the right information at the right time. It comes down to personalization, Ferguson says, so rather than showing 20 search results – which would be cumbersome on a small mobile screen – it’s better to show the five that most interest the user. Personalization also includes tailoring the product to specific markets since the search and booking flow may be different from one country to the next.

“If you look at other internet companies – Facebook or Instagram for example – the feed you get is very much your feed. No two feeds look the same. So why in travel experiences should two of them be the same? They may be similar, but they should be unique to you,” he says.

Along with personalization, Ferguson says the information architecture of the app needs to be designed in way that doesn’t interfere with the customer experience.

“Being able to shift from being there when you need it and then fading into the background,” he says.

“If you are looking at information about a destination in Thailand, chances are you want nice imagery, videos, you want to read about it. There’s no point in us crowding the whole screen with our user interface, for example. We need to let the content shine in that case. It’s about having that flexibility.”

Metasearch is all about comparison, but that’s still a challenge Skyscanner is trying to tackle for mobile: How to create an easy way for users to compare two flights or two hotels on a small screen.

“People think of small-screen design and think we’ll just shrink what we have on desktop, and that isn’t always the answer,” Ferguson says.

The human touch

According to Phocuswright, Booking Holdings and Expedia Group control nearly two-thirds of global gross bookings for online travel agencies. In the United States, their combined share is more than 90% of the market.

But Paul Tumpowsky believes there is a lucrative sector of the market these giants don’t, and can’t, serve: luxury travelers in the 35- to 55-year age range, meaning travelers who are comfortable with using technology to do some of the planning themselves but who also want and appreciate personalized service from a skilled agent.

So Tumpowsky created Skylark, a luxury hybrid online-offline agency, to fulfill this need for a pairing of high tech and high touch.

“Someone should be focusing on a younger luxury traveler,” he says.

“That requires more technology than a traditional travel agency and more service than one of the big OTAs. We’ve created a product that allows clients to shop themselves and also allows agents to see what the client is doing, to see the properties and prices, and they can intervene to help.”

Theo Cooper – Untold Agency

Tumpowsky says the majority of Skylark’s customers – about 80% – make a buying decision using the site’s self-service features, but all customers interact with agents at some point during their journey, if not when picking their hotel and flights, then to arrange things such as dinner reservations or activities.

Skylark agents’ time can be devoted to these more personalized trip planning services since they are not occupied with processing credit cards, verifying passports and other administrative tasks traditionally handled by luxury agents.

This mix of a DIY platform plus assistance-on-demand is what Tumpowsky says is driving a high repeat rate for Skylark in the two years since it launched.

“The repeat rate on a traditional OTA is very low. The repeat rate for a luxury travel agency is about 1.6 trips per year. Our repeat rate is 1.9 trips per year,” he says.

“When someone wants to do something easy they have the site; when someone wants to do something hard, they have the service. That’s a nice balance.”

On the supplier side, Tumpowsky says Skylark has private contracts with airlines including American, Delta, United, British Airways and Emirates that allow it to save his clients thousands of dollars in business class fare.

In the hotel sector, Skylark works with about 1,500 luxury properties around the world, cultivating relationships that make it easier to fulfill specialized requests from travelers.

“The OTAs are not traditionally known for having strong positive relationships with hotels,” he says.

“We have great relationships. We are deliver them a high ADR [average daily rate] client, about four to five times the ADR of a traditional OTA. And because we have strong relationship with hotels, a feature that has never been online, for example, is something like adjoining rooms. Our agents can talk to people when they are booking multiple rooms and say, ‘We can try to guarantee adjoining rooms.’ So we will try to do stuff like that.”

Skylark’s technology also automates some of the services, such as price-tracking notifications, and offers a chat box for instant answers from agents.

“We think there are a lot of opportunities to democratize the ability to shop for luxury travel,” Tumpowsky says.

“Luxury customers – not just in travel – want and expect service. But you don’t have to wait for a traditional travel agent to call you back on Monday morning to get that.”

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