Airline chats up bookings

In a move that will bring little joy to large-scale CRM solutions vendors, fledgling airline Regional Express (REX) has deployed a live, real-time chat facility on their Web site to enable call centre staff to guide customers through the online booking process.

Working off a combination of applications including Right Now Technologies and what REX CIO Hans van Pelt describes as a "straight ASP model", the airline's customers (many of whom are located in telephony challenged regional and bush areas) are currently able to converse with customer support staff directly through the site, negating the need to unhook and phone into the airline's call centre.

Formed out of the ashes of Kendell Airlines and Hazelton Airlines following the collapse of Ansett Mk2, REX operates a fleet of 28 aircraft servicing 35 cities across Australia.

Since August this year, the airline has set about both merging and rebuilding its inherited IT infrastructure, while trying to take advantage of significant cost savings achieved through online bookings and sales. Current Web-generated business is estimated to be around 25 per cent, with around the same proportion coming in through the airline's call centre and the remaining half through travel agents.

"At this stage [the system] hasn't reached maturity so there hasn't been time to compare it to a cost per call; but we do know that [the Web] should always be the cheapest channel," says van Pelt, stressing that the chat solution was an essential tool for keeping real customers rather than a gimmick.

"The airline customer is the most confused. If you don¹t give them what they want [in real time] you lose them. Chat solutions are a dime a dozen, but what we do with this app is walk people through the booking process. From my perspective it's about [customer] self-service. People learn very quickly."

Another key to swift customer service delivery and sales execution is avoiding bloated site sizes and respecting the limitations of what regional customers can handle before being choked by slow dial-up speeds, Van Pelt says. "You have to manage it . . . and stick to some basic principles. Set your page to 56K and set your page weights accordingly."

Rather than attempt to host the REX e-commerce site in-house, Van Pelt chose to outsource through Web Central in order to keep load and demand management simple. "It means that [instead of doing it ourselves] we get a bill at the end of the month and that demand won't outstrip supply". The site was built in Microsoft's .Net, with the The Right Now chat solution being downloaded onto customer service staff computers as a Java applet. The rest of REX's system in-house system contains "a bit of anything and everything" says Van Pelt, a result of merging two airline systems, although recent strategic acquisitions have included Dell exchange servers plumbed in with Cisco routers. Van Pelt says the network is upgraded as the need arises, although the Dell and Cisco path is one that he feels the airline will follow for the time being.

The REX site currently attracts around 25,000 visitors a week with around 1000 hits on REX's live chat FAQ enquiries applet. Van Pelt estimates that almost all of the customers who are guided through the booking process are then able to work through the site themselves.

He estimates customer migration from call centre to Web site since deployment of the live chat solution to be around 10 per cent, adding that he feels the current mix is "about right".

The honeymoon is over - for CRM

Even with such a successful interactive CRM honeymoon, REX's CIO, Hans van Pelt, is noticeably sceptical about what larger customer system offerings have to offer beyond hype.

"I would shoot anyone coming into my office trying to sell me an ERP or CRM package," he jokes. "[My business] is just so NOT about that . . . it's about delivering the product," he says, adding that the pitches of some major vendor representatives have lasted a grand total of 30 seconds. "It would have been be nice if they researched my business a little bit", he says with resigned disappointment.

REX's current network consists of around 250 screens running a variety of Microsoft operating systems and applications, a situation that was created by the collision of two separate business networks out of economic necessity. While conceding that the system is not exactly a dream machine, Van Pelt stresses that maintaining stability while keeping the business operating are the main objectives rather any grandiose plans. "It's the licensing we inherited. At the moment it's not broken so don't fix it," he says.

Van Pelt readily concedes there have been serious IT obstacles to overcome since his arrival, politely describing his mission to merge two ageing and run-down systems as a "significant challenge". Some IT staff are understood to have been removed from their positions in an effort to achieve both performance and cost improvements. Even so REX has managed to secure check-in counter space at the former Ansett terminal at Sydney airport and is currently in the process of rolling out Sabre ticketing software at its terminals across Australia.

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