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#1: Travel Companies need to evolve their thinking around Customer Experience
Customers' digital lives have changed their expectations. How should travel companies adapt?
Hi 👋, I’m Jess Peterson.
This is my travel newsletter, in which I share commentary on the travel business and travel-related tips. While my background is in the cruise industry, this newsletter extends beyond the specialized world of cruising to cover how travel businesses actually work, how to take better vacations, and where to go - beyond all those glossy Instagram recommendations. I aim to be opinionated, differentiated, and interesting.
For the past 10 years, I designed vacations at a variety of cruise companies. Now, I’m taking a break to travel, hang out, and build my own business.
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I recently left Hurtigruten Expeditions, where I was most recently VP of Customer Experience. While it’s still fresh, I want to share some reflections based on my time there. This post is not a guide for how to “do” customer experience. It’s meant to add to great work that already exists (examples: one, two, three, four).
Customer experience is tough to get right in any company, but it’s especially tough in the travel business. Why?
Travel is inherently complex. The customer journey stretches over multiple stages, from browsing destinations to the return home. Cruises and multi-day tours are particularly complicated, but airlines and hotels aren’t easy. Just think about how travel compares to a typical product. When you buy something on Amazon, you don’t contact them several times to ask questions about the product. For many travel companies, this is normal.
To make matters more difficult, each stage of the journey is managed by a different team. When multiple teams are involved, a simple oversight can turn into a big problem. A marketer emphasizes whales when promoting a cruise to Antarctica, the phone agent feeds this enthusiasm, the guest fixates on whales, and they book a cruise in October. On the cruise, they don’t see whales. The guide helpfully informs that this was to be expected - whale sightings are uncommon in October. The guest is furious because “the company” seems incompetent. Post-trip, they call asking for a partial refund because seeing whales “was the whole reason I bought the trip.” Smaller variations of this happen all the time.
Customer expectations are changing
Product complexity is inherent to travel, but something new is happening. Customer expectations are higher, and customers are especially frustrated by friction of any kind in the customer journey. Travel brands used to focus on the excellence of their physical product and in-person service. Are the beds comfortable? Is the food hot when it’s served? Does it taste good?
Today, excellent service and hardware matter, but they’re not enough. Customers are deeply integrated in the digital world. For travel companies, the typical response is “oh shit, we need an app.” But the actual effect is more profound: customers expect a travel product to be as seamless as the digital products they use every day.
There are a two areas that most travel companies - especially cruise and multi-day tour companies - can focus on to reduce friction in their customer experience.
Improving Information Flow to Customers
Post-purchase and pre-travel, most cruise and multi-day tour companies send shockingly low-quality information to customers. Communication is via email, and those emails are often poorly written, confusingly formatted, and contain outdated or incorrect information. Once a customer is on the trip, information is often conveyed orally by a guide or tour leader. Written information, if it exists at all, is usually better but is still more confusing than we’d like to admit.
Because travel products are inherently complicated, there is a lot to tell customers. What time do I show up? What should I wear? Can I sleep in and meet the group later?
Most people reading this have taken many flights, but imagine booking your first. You would have so many questions. Outside of aviation, every travel company does things differently. Customers need information about what they should do to make the most of their trip .
For travel companies, it’s particularly difficult to see to this problem for two reasons:
1. Internally, everything seems perfectly obvious to the employees.
2. We usually determine there’s a problem if confused customers get some instruction wrong. If customers bring the wrong clothes or shows up at the wrong place, it’s obvious that they didn’t get the message. More often, customers are confused but ultimately end up in the right place. Customers may feel anxious or they may not plan the best day for themselves. If they’d known what you know, they might have done something different. An anxious or confused customer is still a failure, but it’s less visible.
How do we improve this? Two principles need to be kept in balance:
Customers need the right information at the right time so they’re not overwhelmed.
Customers need context and to know what’s coming next. This helps them to prepare, mentally and physically, and it makes them feel at ease.
The only way to get this right is through testing and continuous improvement. Interviews, surveys, and observation are good ways to understand what customers are confused by and how they feel at different stages in the journey. It’s essential that you understand customers’ feelings at all points in the customer journey in order to build a high-quality travel product.
Improving Information Flow within the Company
People spend entire careers thinking about how organizations communicate. Here, I’ll focus on two types of internal information flows that cause the most headaches in travel companies.
First – customer information needs to be stored, structured, and shared in a useful way. Essentially, travel companies need a Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) for service. It should pull in data from the reservation system, record customer interactions with the company (actions and communications), and store their preferences. But storing this information is not enough. Customer information needs to be surfaced to employees at relevant parts the customer journey so they can have the right context when dealing with the customer. Ritz Carlton started work on this in the 2000s with a CRM system they call Mystique.
I asked our concierge about how they use the “Mystique” to deliver great service, she reminded me of the issue we had with our room. “We know you like a cool room,” she said. “In fact, we showed you two rooms, the first of which had a nicer view, but you chose the other room because it was colder. If you had to choose between a cool room and a better view, you would choose the cooler room.” Then she added, “This information is now in ‘Mystique,’ and if you were ever to stay at a Ritz-Carlton in the future, our team would know your room preference, no matter which hotel you stay at in the world. We would do our best to give you a room with a great view, but ensuring the room is cool is the first priority.”
Source: Stephen Blandino
Second - customer information aside, travel companies struggle to ensure product information is correct, consistent, and available at every customer touchpoint. Travel products involve many details (take a look at this Lindblad trip and think about every individual component). Details matter to guests, and lots of them are subject to change (eg. the time of an airline flight).
Most companies don’t have a single repository of information; product information often lives in one person’s head. Even if they do, it’s usually a document in a shared folder. Updating the website and guest communication requires additional manual work.
Both of these internal communication issues - customer information and product information - require software. But more importantly, they require travel companies to change how they work to integrate software into all their workflow.
Making it easier to deliver seamless experiences
Travel companies can make life easier for themselves by doing some old-school things right.
Long employee tenure can make up for deficiencies in information flow. Long-term employees are familiar with the company’s products, anticipate guest problems, and are internally networked so they can connect with other employees within the company to resolve issues efficiently. Minimizing turnover doesn’t just save money, it also improves the guest experience.
Minimize product variety to make it easier to deliver a good experience. Offering many departures of the same product allows allows employees to perfect the experience. But this isn’t always possible. Look at the sheer variety of tours Tauck offers, for example. Many travel companies like Tauck serve loyal customers, and they need novelty to keep those customers coming back.
An in-house digital team allows you to iterate quickly and create custom solutions to your problems. To be clear, I’m not talking about IT. Companies need developers, designers, and product managers who can create and modify apps, websites, and other parts of the digital customer experience. Building on off-the-shelf software usually makes sense, but you need to customize your implementation.
Constant customer feedback provides clarity on what problems customers are facing. A review and action process gives employees urgency and a sense of purpose. The Net Promoter System is one example, but there are others.
🌐 A few of my favorite travel things 🌐
🚅 Brightline West is a private company planning to build a high-speed train from Las Vegas to LA. Lots of companies have crazy plans that go nowhere, but the same company already operates in Florida and will open a line from Orlando -> Miami in September. Here are some of my thoughts on their business model.
🚫 The Case Against Travel - the New Yorker article people can’t stop sharing (and hating on)
🏙️ Tyler’s guide to falling in love with NYC - an opinionated guide for those visiting and moving to New York
Thank you for reading!
I’ll be traveling to Svalbard during July. In August, I’ll start writing weekly newsletters like this.
In the meantime, please share and subscribe.