Article

Service turnaround closes Continental divide

Barney Beal

ATLANTA -- Happy employees equal happy customers.

That's the lesson Continental Airlines Inc. learned after transforming its contact center from a pain point into the envy of the airline industry. Houston-based Continental shared the story of its turnaround at the Smart CRM conference last week.

Andre Harris, Continental's director of reservations training and quality, credits CEO Gordon Bethune with the company's customer service about-face. When Bethune took the job 10 years ago, he brought along the mantra "what gets measured and rewarded gets done."

"Before Gordon entered, we didn't listen to our customers," Harris said. "They were usually complaining, and we didn't want to hear about it."

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"We were robotic."

Andre Harris,

director of reservations training and quality, Continental Airlines

,

Continental started listening and asking questions. Research and focus groups sought to learn what customers valued and what they were willing to pay for.

Accurate information was the top customer request, Harris said. Friendly and courteous service ranked fourth. Regular business travelers, Continental's highest-value customers, wanted their calls handled fast, and they didn't want agents bombarding them with irrelevant offers.

Some results surprised Continental. For example, customers weren't especially impressed if an agent finished a call with the hackneyed line "thanks for calling Continental Airlines," Harris said.

So, Continental did away with it -- and with agent scripting. One of the first things to go was the practice of fining agents who didn't try to make a sale twice during a call.

"We were robotic," said Harris, who's a former call center agent for the airline. "We were scripted because we [as agents] were going to lose money if we didn't [follow a script]. Now we're results-oriented. Now we honor individual sales. As long as it ends in a sale, we don't care."

That revelation has led Continental to measure the overall customer experience instead of a few key indicators, Harris said.

Instead of mandatory scripting, Continental has moved toward sharing best practices and continuing agent training. It measures agent performance in three key areas: customer service, based on quality ratings and feedback; sales, based on bookings per hour; and productivity, measured by calls fielded per hour.

Agents who perform well receive rewards, such as a spot on the airline's "Dream Team," where they can pick their shifts and the time of their 15-minute breaks. Agents not making the grade wind up on probation and face repeated coaching sessions.

The current system is a far cry from how Continental once tracked agents -- with a confusing form evaluating them on 65 points, Harris said. Continental has pared that down to 14 key areas.

Perhaps the most impressive result is Continental's agent attrition rate. In 2001, it was just 1.2%. That's a far cry from the massive staff turnover that plagues most contact centers.

Since its shift in focus, Continental has landed on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies To Work For" list six years in a row. Plus, reservations revenue is up, as is the airline's average quality scores.

TechTarget is the organizer of Smart CRM and owner of the family of Web sites that includes SearchCRM.com.

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