The tightrope connecting people and technology in travel

Following the launch of its chatbot, Sam, Euan McNeil, gm FCM Travel Solutions discusses what this means for the future in terms of the delicate balance between man and machine.

Automation through technology or the human touch? Which of these two is the future when it comes to the customer experience? Most likely, the answer is both. Customer experience services must walk the tightrope between people and technology.

Technology is enabling personalisation and a seamless travel experience. The speed of evolution in mobile and smartphone technology has not slowed and, in the corporate travel sphere, tech-savvy business travellers are able to use apps for flight bookings and hotel reservations

Increasingly, travel (ro)bots are being deployed to address business travellers’ needs and enable them to manage their trip on their own. Travel bots are designed to work within the framework of established travel policies and routine transactions. ‘Lola', ‘Sofia’ and FCM’s ‘Sam’, all travel bots, are programmed to handle redundant questions, such as policy questions, baggage fees, customer support, and have some booking functionality. These bots can check flight information, make routine bookings, change traveller information and also check the weather.

Travel bots are cheap, fast and are available 24/7, but can they replace the human travel consultant?

Although technology has evolved at a rapid pace, when it comes to unusual or complicated problems which require higher cognitive skills, bots simply don’t have the capacity to solve the problem. These limitations, at least in the medium-term, means a human touch is still required for more complex transactions.

Technological limitations are not the only reason travellers turn to a human consultant. The most important consideration is this: people still want to interact with people.

A new report from PwC, Experience is Everything: Here’s How To Get It Right, has revealed up to 75% of consumers globally desire more human interaction with companies and are willing to pay up to 16% more for a better experience. The survey also found 42% of people would pay more for a warm welcome, which is something a robot cannot necessarily perform.

Robots also don’t know when to make an exception. That is a job for a person. Do you really want to deal with a bot when you have to fly home because of a family emergency? While the bot can help you change a booking, check flight information and order a transfer, it is the human empathy that customers look for when the going gets tough on the road.

A dual approach that blends artificial intelligence with the expertise of a human travel consultant is the best strategy given the current corporate travel landscape. Technology is primarily an enabler and helps to facilitate a connection with the traveller. But travel companies need to find a way to create an experience that recognises consumers’ demand for effective technology and authentic and personal interactions.

With the use of travel bots, TMCs can combine human service with technology to create a more advanced level of customer service and cut costs. Bots such as Sam provide an additional interface for travellers and complement the skills and experience of the TMC. It does not replace them. The travel expert will always play a key role when it comes to managing business travel. Corporate travel is all about people.

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