Customer service, historically a point of differentiation for Travelocity, is now moving into the social media sphere to appeal to a younger set of consumers.

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, Travelocity, whose parent company is Expedia Inc., began its Customer First Guarantee. Travelocity vice president and general manager Brad Wilson said the OTA will be staffing a dedicated call center to respond to customer inquiries on social media, and it guarantees a response in 30 minutes or less at any time.

To do that, Travelocity is using its Facebook page and the Twitter handle @travelocityhelp to assist any person who has booked with the OTA.

“I think operationally and from a product perspective, we are keenly focused on service,” Wilson said. “We just really believe that by improving the experience we’re going to win more loyal customers.”

John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Travelocity and Expedia, agreed. Morrey said Travelocity is working to differentiate itself in part with different reviews, sort orders and coupon capabilities, but customer service remains the key.

“There’s lots of ways that we’re differentiating,” he said. “But when I look at something like service, where you can have a difference in policies, different procedures for your agents, what they can and can’t do, those to me are really kind of an untapped area of differentiation, and they’re also solving real consumer problems.”

Wilson said Travelocity has been testing the Customer First Guarantee without promoting it for the past several months and that it’s ready to go fully live soon. It’s designed to give customers a mobile-friendly way to get a quick response to inquiries before, during and after trips.

Morrey said they’re expanding the channels they can use to reach customers, and offering them customer service in those channels which they prefer.

Wilson also hinted that Travelocity’s app could feature a unique customer service element in the future. “We want to do everything we can to partner with our supplier network and make sure that we’re readily available [with a] fast response for our customers,” he said. “There could be something tethered to that mobile experience.”

Lorraine Sileo, senior vice president of research at Phocuswright, said Travelocity has been known for its customer service as well as its trip experiences. In contrast, she said, Expedia is more well-known for its hotels and packages.

“They do have different specialties, which is why they’re keeping the brand,” Sileo said. “I mean, Expedia could have said, ‘I don’t even want to keep the Travelocity brand. Why bother?’ They obviously see a lot of value in still keeping that brand out there.”

Part of the value in Travelocity lies in the fact that it’s one of the oldest brands and thus well-recognized, she said.
Morrey said that Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz each draw in unique users.

“There’s a base of customers that are just super loyal to each of our brands, whether that’s Orbitz, whether that’s Travelocity, whether that’s Expedia,” he said, citing the amount of direct type-in traffic each site receives. Morrey did admit that the sites compete with one another when it comes to metasearches and search engine marketing, but he added that the “substantial majority of customers are coming in direct type-in because they have an affinity to that brand.”

Sileo said, “Having competing brands, even if they offer the same service, is a win for most online travel agencies.” But she added that it makes sense for those brands to target segments “to cast as wide a net as possible.”

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said customer service is a legitimate point of differentiation.

“The challenge is that it requires a surgical precision as they work on the execution, so that Travelocity is viewed as better than offline intermediaries and better than its online competitors,” he said. “They have to walk a very fine line to make sure that the consumer doesn’t think that Travelocity’s necessarily better than Expedia.”

Harteveldt said that differentiation is important. He called it “a matter of differentiate or die for these brands.” 

While he said he does not believe major differentiation will be noticed right away, it will be a “critically important” factor down the road.

“I’m not suggesting by any stretch that this is going to happen in the short term, but at some point in the medium-to-long term, I think that the executives at Expedia have to take an objective look and figure out if Orbitz and Travelocity are providing incremental customers and are substantially and correctly differentiated from the Expedia brand,” he said.

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