A Better Experience

by Aaron Lazenby

Expedia’s CX maven Chris Bright focuses on continuous improvement — and big data — to help customers have better vacations

E-commerce travel site Expedia deals with millions of customers each month who want to find the best deals on flights, hotels, and other vacation package options. What’s the company’s strategy for delivering great experience to these customers — during what can often be a stressful time?

“If you really want to achieve great customer experience, then you’re going to figure out a way to make the customer the most important element of your organization,” says Chris Bright, director of interactive applications at Expedia.

Here learn more about the unique strategies Expedia — and Oracle RightNow and Oracle ATG customer — has employed to help them learn more about their customers. And how the company leverages technology for continuous improvement.

Profit: What do company executives have to do to deliver excellent — and modern — customer service?

Bright: The first thing that companies need to do is really integrate their idea of the customer across channels. If the customer is tweeting, calling, emailing, texting, or using some other method of communication, all those interactions should be aggregated, so that that you understand what your customer is trying to do and address that person on his or her terms.

Also, companies should create a customer experience council. This can be led by c-level customer experience leaders but needs to involve the whole organization. That’s because at the end of the day, you need to understand the end-to-end journey your customer goes through, not just one particular silo your marketing, ecommerce or customer service manager is focused on.

At the end of the day, all your customer touch points impact one another: When you streamline the front end of your website to make it easier for customers to use, you can invest more heavily in training your call center so those representatives handle the more challenging problems they will inevitably get.

Profit: How important is it to make customer experience part of the company’s culture?

Bright: It’s hugely important. The emotional connection between customers and brands has been highly underrated for a long period of time. And for companies to make that emotional connection with customers, there needs to be a level of comfort. Customers have to know that they can trust your brand.

When you look at Costco or Nordstrom, people have an affinity, not just for their products and their prices, but also for the company. People will make a weekend trip to Costco to shop, because that’s what they do with their families. Or they love Nordstrom, because you can buy with confidence.

If people are buying shoes online and they see Zappo’s and some other company with similarly priced shoes, they’re absolutely going to choose Zappos every single time, because they know about Zappos reputation for customer service.

Your company doesn’t necessarily have to be high touch. If the product, service and experience are designed correctly, a customer can have an emotional connection with your company without ever talking to someone in person—or even on the phone.

Profit: Which of Expedia’s CX initiatives have been most effective?

Bright: We have evolved from thinking of our call center as a business cost, to instead focusing on it as a method of communicating and transacting with our customers. We’ve created a feedback loop: We make sure we understand what is not working for our customers during their experience and push solutions to those problems back into our strategic business plans.

In the last couple years, we’ve really accelerated the pace with which we can push changes in the technology by embracing multi-variant testing. By weighing both customer and business impact, we can decide which problems we need to focus on first and test solutions quickly, which has really helped us improve the experience at a much quicker pace.

Profit: Expedia also creates a universal customer record. How difficult is this process?

Bright: It’s both very challenging and very important. Having a singular relationship between a customer and your record of that customer’s interactions with your organization allows you to then treat that customer with ultimate personalization—which is really where we’re going, at least in the world of ecommerce.

When you come to the Expedia website, you can get the deal that’s most important to you for your next trip, with the right level of hotel, and the right flights, all presented to you in a way that makes sense. And then it’s easier to make that purchase.

For us, when we understand that you like to fly first-class, that you stay at a four-star or better hotels, that you go to Vegas every spring, tweet about your experiences, and post your pictures on Facebook, those factors ultimately become important to our brand interaction. If we are successful, we can reduce our reliance on SEO/SEM, because we already know how we can really make the experience special for each customer.

Profit: How much information would ideally be in these records?

Bright: This is an interesting topic that companies and customers have to deal with all the time. It’s a little bit Wild West as it becomes important and even expected to personalize your experience, but not to the point of being creepy.

Of course, not all the ways we use the big data generated from these records is associated directly with a customer’s account. We also grab information to understand more broadly the impact of a sales, service or experience.

Then, we come up with a theory and test it to see how it impacts our customer’s journey. Just because customers searched for Vegas trips on Google doesn’t mean they necessarily want Expedia to show them Vegas trips on our site.

Profit: What advice would you give to executives about starting their customer experience journey?

Bright: There’s a Japanese concept in management— Genchi Genbutsu, which means “go and see.” When something isn’t working right, you send your executives out to go see what’s going on. So, a key strategy would be to get your executives into the contact center regularly, to spend time just listening to customers talk about their experiences and feel the pain caused by a poor experience on both the customer and the agent. It will help your executives understand what is broken along the customer journey — and provide insights to help improve your business.

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