I’ve never flown with Frontier Airlines, but I know people who have.
Imagine this. You’re at the gate waiting to board as the scheduled flight departure time is here. Agents on the ground are trying to check passengers in and deal with last-minute changes and requests. Passengers are directed to the airline’s app to help resolve the requests and issues, yet the app is not working on your phone. Now, several passengers have to pay the premium at-gate baggage fee because the online system is down. Passengers are rushed to board and the flight is undoubtedly delayed. The experience: irate customers and frantic agents.
Based on this tale that actually occurred on a Frontier flight from Washington to San Francisco in late October 2022, I’m not convinced I ever will.
As the world barrels towards digital-first, Frontier Airlines announced its decision to drop its customer support line. To speak with a live agent over the phone is no longer an option. Ouch! This changes the customer experience dramatically, steering them only towards digital channels such as social media and web chat. In theory, it sounds like a smart strategy. After all, isn’t all the buzz to be digital-first? Unfortunately, in practice it is counter-intuitive. Here’s why.
“Our Customer Care function recently transitioned to fully digital communications, which enables us to ensure our customers get the information they need as expeditiously and efficiently as possible,” the airline said in a statement.
To Phone or Not to Phone? Why Frontier’s Move Could be a Strategic Disaster
Netomi’s 2022 Airline Customer Service Benchmark Report looked at the state of customer service for the top 20 passenger airlines in North America – inclusive of Frontier. Overall, customer service statistics revealed that the phone is still the best channel for getting in touch with an airline, followed by social media as the next best option.
Frontier had a strong call center before they axed the department
Interestingly, Frontier scored in the top 5 for phone support with an average hold time of 2 minutes on a weekend.
Eliminating the option to speak to a live agent carries the risk of alienating customers. Not all customers are digital natives, with some preferring more traditional methods of communication. Silent Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are on that list. It is imperative to adopt a holistic and customer-centric approach that caters to all generations and determine if digital-first interactions are what they desire. They often are, but not always.
What Frontier stands to lose by risking it all with automation (and little else)
With too much reliance on automation, airlines run the risk of robotic interactions by simply attempting to replicate a phone interaction. Consider a chatbot whose primary goal is to deflect tickets away from human agents by directing customers to content on the airline’s website. Deflection is not synonymous with resolution and it neglects the experience of the interaction. Was the issue successfully resolved? Was the customer satisfied with the end result?
If Frontier’s solution is a basic FAQ chatbot with the sole purpose of deflecting queries, it is not necessarily resolving customer issues to the extent that a human agent can. Transactional approaches are counter-intuitive to the experiential era.
An alternative approach: Human intelligence plus AI is the ultimate combo
A spokesperson from Frontier claimed that “most customers prefer to communicate over digital channels”, but there is evidence suggesting this might not be entirely correct.
In fact, Google search indicates that customers are interested in getting their issues resolved via Frontier’s call center. Two of the top 5 suggested searches for Frontier are related to connecting customers with the call center.
The most successful airlines strike a balance between AI and humans working together to get the job done. For example, AI can do the bulk of the prep work by retrieving customer-specific information to help an agent draft and confirm the ideal response to a customer. If the AI is not trained on an answer, it can smoothly escalate the issue to a live agent. This should always be an option based on the topic, customer sentiment, or if a customer wishes to interact with one. At times it may also be necessary, as some issues are more critical, or customers may be hesitant to provide confidential information online, such as passport details.
Why Frontier Could Struggle Prioritizing Connections
So, when transitioning to digital channels or choosing to prioritize these over others, airlines must be prepared. Frontier must strategically think through these decisions, ensuring that support offered through these channels is even more robust and always-on to meet customer expectations for effortless and speedy resolutions. Travel is a fast-moving industry and on-the-fly support is needed to deal with last-minute changes and requests. A Conversational AI platform is better equipped to handle these more efficiently than overloaded agents. For CX success, a omnichannel support strategy is critical, one that spans channels and touchpoints. This is what the modern customer expects all the time. On all channels.
Conversational AI is Getting Better
This is where innovative conversational AI solutions enter the picture – leveraging next-generation chatbot technology that empowers support agents for quality conversations with their customers. What if those gate agents mentioned in the Frontier story above were armed with full context and details on each customer, allowing them to solve issues faster? We are in a time when customers crave authentic connections with brands, they crave personalized experiences and being part of a community. Airlines must take care to maintain that connection – incorporating empathy into each interaction.
There are also various edge cases to consider, and it is important that a chatbot is trained to handle such cases. After all, travelers are unique beings with their own unique situations. For example, a customer may need to change their international flight at the last minute due to a family emergency. A Conversational AI solution that really understands the customers’ intent to get to the resolution quickly is crucial. An AI solution that understands both the sentiment of the customer and the empathy cues of the conversation for personalized resolutions. A solution that is proactive and anticipates customers’ needs provides optimal results in virtual customer service.
Frontier’s announcement speaks to the power of Conversational AI and emphasizes the importance of having a robust CX strategy. At the end of the day, it all comes down to considering how you can take the customer experience to new heights (pun intended). Considering how you can create quality conversations for excellent agent and customer experiences. Do not discount the power and the importance of connections. If those experiences do not include the phone as a support channel, then you need to ensure that other touchpoints are powerful enough to make those experiences even more memorable.
Is Frontier investing in a truly Conversational AI platform or simply an FAQ virtual assistant that deflects common customer queries? Only time will tell. As travelers and CX enthusiasts, we will be watching to see how this digital-only approach unfolds.