Forrester Research travel analyst Henry Harteveldt points out in "Humanizing the Digital Experience," a report released last week, that the travel industry's early embrace and dependence on certain technologies may, paradoxically, be limiting our ability to provide better customer experiences through technology.

"The industry's reliance on computerized reservation systems, yield management and database marketing has forced travelers -- whether or not they want to -- to bend to the industry's technological reliance," he reports.

The corporate mind-set regarding technology in many industries, not just travel, has been to improve efficiency, cut costs and, in as opaque a manner as possible, generate more revenue. As examples, reservations systems achieve the first of these goals, supplier Web sites the second and yield management systems the third.

But success in each of these areas has led some travel companies to ignore the utility of technology as a powerful customer service vehicle. The focus has been on exploiting technology to achieve specific, internal corporate goals. And despite the orchestral volume of lip service to the contrary, a company that truly believes customer experience can be a significant driver of profit is still the exception, not the rule.

Harteveldt's interpretation of his company's survey numbers on customer satisfaction is actually more pessimistic than mine. For example, the performance gap (the percentage who agree with a goal-focused statement minus the percentage who believe travel Web sites meet those goals) is lower than I would have thought. In the majority of cases, it's in the single digits.

But as the title of his report suggests, Harteveldt believes that travel Web sites can narrow the performance gap by "humanizing" the digital experience. I don't disagree with this, but what interested me most in his report were examples of Web sites that are doing well. In these, one can see lessons not only for travel Web sites but also for offline travel sellers. In other words, the human experience can be humanized by looking at some digital models.

In particular, Travelocity's Flight Navigator goes beyond departure times and fares. It also displays features that consumers might find very useful in choosing a flight, such as comments about legroom and whether there is satellite TV.

The "humanization" that has occurred here has nothing to do with a machine's replicating what a human can do. In fact, a travel agent could not gather this type of comparative information nearly as quickly. But it humanizes in the sense that it anticipates human needs.

Interestingly, the best examples of this type of "humanization" are in the realm of selling airline tickets, something travel agents tend to regard as a time-consuming chore with little or no financial reward.

Harteveldt does touch on what hotel Web sites are doing, specifically with regard to providing channel-switching options, but he doesn't comment on the digital sales of cruises or tours.

All this suggests that the sales-channel divide between offline and online might fall into natural channel buckets. Commodities (e.g. coach-class air and any hotel below midrange) are served both efficiently and effectively by Web sites, while cruises, tours, better hotels and premium air seats fall into the domain of offline agents.

In reality, the divide will not be nearly so clean, because human behavior is not so neatly divided. The same consumer who books coach seats for her family's leisure vacation may be flying to a luxury resort. In the future, consumers will gravitate toward an agency that offers it all: best-of-breed online options (including via handheld devices) and knowledgeable agents for trips with any complexity or that involve the expectation of service.

In other words, the human and digital worlds ultimately both need to be better humanized and digitized.

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