Part 2 of 2 in a series on how to cope with long telephone hold times. Read Part 1.
Gilligan might have regretted booking his three-hour tour on the S.S. Minnow that turned into a 60s TV show, but today’s travel advisors have come to rue their own travel nightmare: the four-hour telephone hold times involved in trying to reach some suppliers.
At AmaWaterways, chief marketing officer Janet Bava noted that call volumes skyrocketed when Europe loosened its travel guidelines in March. “We saw a huge influx in demand, and we had to staff up very quickly across the board. It was an issue, but we’ve been able to solve it.”
It took about two weeks to respond, she acknowledges; but now “other than Monday morning or toward the end of a really attractive offer, we are reporting average call times of 20-30 minutes.”
To get there, Ama has fixed its telephone prompts, hired additional staff and assigned many customer service staff to answer phones. Unlike many call centers where the agents’ goal is to move customers quickly, “because we are a luxury brand we want to service every single travel advisor, answer every single question.”
Step one toward shorter hold times has been hiring many professional call-center agents who have already worked in the field for other lines. That cut their onboarding process from the usual 8-12 weeks to just 4-6 weeks. And any travel advisor who follows the prompt to “make final payment” now is directed to a newly formed cadre of dedicated customer-service agents who pick up quickly.
“ ‘How do we fix this?’ has been an absolute focus of ours for the past few weeks,” Bava says. “I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I can tell you no one focuses on service for travel advisors the way we do. When we hear there’s a challenge we address it.”
Melissa DaSilva, president of the TTC Tour Brands (including Contiki, Trafalgar, Costsaver, Brendan Vacations, Insight Vacations, Adventure World Travel and Luxury Gold), noted that “the fact is guests traveling today have many more questions, and calls are taking up to four times as long to complete. But we are quickly addressing the situation.”
In the past month, TTC added 18 contact center staff; is training 20 new travel experts who will join the team in the next four to six weeks; and implemented a worldwide recruitment program to add 60 experts to the sales teams. It also transitioned Sales Managers to become full-time booking support for advisors and make it easier to manage many transactions seamlessly online.
Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, told TRO that its long hold times are due to a multitude of factors, including many long conversations related to current sailing protocols, redemption of future cruise credits, active promotions and sales questions. “We know this has impacted the travel advisor community, and we’re taking steps to be more efficient and resourceful for them,” a spokesperson said.
Instead of calling the call center, they suggested, advisors might try to make use of new automation tools, including the Testing & Requirements Tool launched in January, which makes it easy to access to access information and send personalized FCC reminder emails to clients; Latte to check refunds, make payments, redeem FCCs, and allow for multiple FCCs to be applied at once; and the Future Cruise Credit Redemption Tool.
And travel advisors always can reach out to the Royal Caribbean regional sales teams and to their Strategic Account Managers for additional support and assistance, they said. They are listed on Cruising Power and LoyalToYouAlways.com.
Collette Aims for Less Than 30 Seconds
Of course, a large part of the challenge is the pure good news of the unprecedented volume of customers trying to book travel.
“We announced a sale last week that was supposed to run until Friday, and we already beat our goal,” Collette’s senior VP of global business Christian Leibl-Cote told TRO on Monday. “Our call volume has skyrocketed; it’s higher that it was in 2019.”
To meet the demand, Collette has added 120 call center employees over the past four months, with a goal of wait times less than 30 seconds. Right now it is averaging between 1 and 2.5 minutes, he said.
“We understand and value our travel advisors’ time,” Leibl-Cote said. “We have always invested in our call center but now we do more than ever.”
In addition to more agents, Collette also is counting on help from technology. Travel advisors always can opt for the call-back system, so they don’t have to hold. And, while other self-service systems are helpful for some things, Collette understands that ”agents still love to be able to talk to our agents. The key is, how do you find these agents?”
Where before Collette’s agents worked out of four call centers, two in the United States and one each in Canada and Australia, currently 57% of them work from home in 22 US states and 2 Canadian provinces. The six-week training program has shifted completely to Zoom; also, “we hire great quality people and then have a buddy system to support them,” he said. “It’s all about how much you invest in your technology. We have an amazing leadership team that understands how to use technology to its fullest. Where many companies see call centers as money pits, we see them as an opportunity to service our partners, to help in any way we can. We see them as money generators.”
TTC’s da Silva summed up the issue for all travel suppliers. “Long hold times are frustrating,” she said. “But we appreciate the patience of our partners as we rapidly ramp up to meet the best news of the past two years: record-breaking demand.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.