Airlines and the Arrival of Conversational Commerce

Conversations have been at the center of the airline – passenger relationship on social media. However, in recent years, these conversations have shifted from one-sided brand awareness messages to two-way customer service conversations. The power in this two-way relationship has now decisively shifted in favour of the customer. Airlines are now expected to reach their customers according to their convenience, on their preferred channel. This has presented airlines with three challenges:

  1. How to reach and interact with customers via different social media/ messaging platforms?
  2. Once the airline has successfully reached the customer, how does it interact in a human, localised, personalised manner to provide a useful and differentiated service?
  3. How does the airline turn this set of conversations into an economically viable proposition for itself and a great experience for the passenger?

We got a glimpse of the answer when, last week, KLM launched its innovative and first-in-class KLM on Facebook Messenger initiative. KLM passengers will now be able to check-in; receive boarding passes;  get flight updates; make travel changes, and talk to customer service reps straight from Facebook’s Messenger chat app.

Many airlines have already been talking to customers using social media and might think there is nothing new here. But, for the first time, the entire traveller lifecycle has been tied into one single continuous experience, making it unlike anything before.

 

What is conversational commerce?

KLM’s latest initiative ushers in the era of conversational commerce into aviation. Conversational commerce refers to using chat, messaging or voice-based services to deliver better, customised goods and services to customers. For airlines, this means assisting passengers at every stage of their journey — from searching for tickets; to booking; to flying; to pre- and post-travel customer service via a chat-based interface like the Facebook Messenger. Like a virtual concierge.

Uber, for instance, already lets customers use Facebook Messenger to book, track, and pay for rides using the Facebook Messenger app — without having to visit the native app even once!

Conversational commerce is a game changer. It not only enables airlines to provide an integrated PaxEx by never leaving the passenger’s side but also makes a significant impact on the company’s bottom line. We have seen this in China, where third party apps such as WeChat are the service of choice for customers to call cabs, book tickets or even daily shopping. The fact that you never leave the passenger’s side, even after the journey has taken place, makes it immensely powerful.

 

Three ways to prepare yourself for conversational commerce

The potential of conversational commerce is immense, but so are the challenges. It looks deceptively simple, yet it requires you to master certain operational and technical challenges before you enter this field. Here are 3 tips that help you do just that:

  1. Pick the right platform: Most airlines work with limited social media/messaging resources. Hence, we suggest they focus on one platform that is likely to reach most of your customers — and create scalable solutions there. Consider Facebook Messenger. It has over 800 million active users of its own. Hence, launching your conversational commerce initiative on Facebook Messenger means a very high possibility of being able to reach most of your passengers via a single platform. In addition, David Marcus, who leads the Messaging team at Facebook has emphasised the team’s continued commitment to making air travel easier for passengers.  Moreover, Facebook’s artificially intelligent personal assistant ‘M’ will soon assist humans in delivering conversational commerce solutions, making it a much more economically viable proposition. Similarly, if you have major operations in China or East Asia, you might have to consider platforms like WeChat and Line which have been providing such services for some time now.
  2. Create and nurture your brand personality: The advent of conversational commerce will put the onus of humanising online conversations on airlines. Even if you are some time away from launching a KLM like Facebook Messenger service, we recommend you project a brand personality in your online conversations. The personality must be carefully crafted, keeping in mind the preferences of your customers, and your brand values. The conversations should be an extension of that personality. Once a consistent brand personality is created, championing conversational commerce should be an easy task. Regardless of your existing level of social media marketing, start creating a unique brand personality immediately.
  3. Integrate with operations: Conversational commerce will usher in the era of seamless integration between social media and airline operations. Since passengers will interact with brands as if they are humans, disappointing the customer at any stage will have a much greater impact on sales than before. Airlines must ensure that before they launch any conversational commerce initiative they have integrated their social media departments with operations. A great way to get started is to introduce this practice whilst working on your social media customer care practice. Integrate your social media customer care team with ground staff; your in-flight crew; and your booking systems to create a seamless experience. Therefore, when you enter conversational commerce, you will be able to swiftly provide customers with personalised and meaningful services.

The future of airline marketing is one-to-one conversations between airlines and their passengers. Till now the economics of one-to-one conversations was not aligned with the potential of it. But with the advancement of artificial intelligence and the proliferation of instant messaging apps — which now have more active users than traditional social media platforms — the economics of conversational commerce are working out, and airlines must prepare for it.

How is your airline preparing for the arrival of conversational commerce? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @simpliflying. If you’d like to know more, email the author at ravi@simpliflying.com.

Ravi Chauhan

Ravi Chauhan

Ravi Chauhan is the Lead - Research and Analytics at SimpliFlying. Based out of Delhi, Ravi works on developing special projects and analytical models for SimpliFlying. Working with numbers is his passion, and he revels at any opportunity to derive deep insights from datasets of all shapes, sizes, and forms. He has led the efforts in developing the Honeycomb -- a breakthrough analytical model that helps airlines measure and benchmark social media activities and link them all to organisational objectives, and changes the way we look at social media and data. You can tweet him at @simpliravi and email him at ravi@simpliflying.com
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