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This is the word you dread as a frequent flyer and dread even more if you have your family in tow.

I was sitting in the San Diego airport waiting to board the second leg of a cross-country flight to New York City to celebrate the start of summer. My wife was reading her book. My kids were finishing up their snacks. Everything was on track.

That is, until I received a text message from the airline letting me know that our flight was canceled, and that I would need to speak to a gate agent or call the airline to reschedule our flight. I look over at my family with a lump in my throat, because I know our flight was the last to NYC.

We had Yankees tickets plus tickets to a Broadway show. What am I going to tell them? The anxiety grows.

I looked over at the line for the gate agent and, before my eyes, it grows from ten to 20 to 30 people. I chose to call the airline and wait for a contact center agent to rebook us.

I spent 30 minutes with one agent who was looking at options for us while I was wrestling whether to rebook my wife's companion ticket which would require me to wait in line to speak with a gate agent.

I wish I could say that we were rebooked and spent the rest of the week as planned, taking in Yankee Stadium, Broadway and all the fun of NYC. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. We had to sell our Yankee tickets and say bye bye to Broadway.

I'm certain that many travelers have similar stories. Yes, the airline was accommodating, but it was still a stressful experience.

Having spent the last 18 years as a contact center specialist, I started reflecting on how I would use the various contact center solutions I show to customers to make my family's travel debacle less stressful.

Here's what should have (and can) be done to improve such a situation.

Gather sufficient resources to assist customers in a timely manner

This is what I like to call "Gathering the Troops."

The large number of passengers affected by a canceled flight causes long wait times, either because passengers will be standing in line to speak with a gate agent or flooding the contact center with calls.

While it may be possible to bring additional gate agents in to help, there's only a certain number of computer terminals and space. The contact center can be the faster method to rebook a flight.

The problem is allocating enough agents in the contact center to respond to an unexpected event. Workforce management systems are designed to schedule agents based on historical demand. This automated scheduling, along with careful input from contact center analysts based on other conditions and factors, inform how the contact center is staffed.

But what happens when an unpredicted event like a flight cancellation occurs? Suddenly there's a spike in the demand for contact center agents that the workforce management system didn't account for.

This is where I would:

  1. Use workforce management tools to identify agents that can be pulled from other tasks.
  2. Automatically re-assign agents using features like Cisco Precision Routing to focus on the customers who are calling to rebook as a result of the cancellation.
  3. Employ Cisco Packaged Contact Center routing capabilities to prioritize those callers and then provide them with a special phone number or access code using proactive messaging via text, phone or email.

If the airline took these three steps, they could have accurately and quickly allocated the proper number of agents to assist passengers.

An illustration of the steps a contact center can take to resolve an an unforeseen event.
An illustration of the steps a contact center can take to resolve an an unforeseen event.

Provide customers with proactive notifications

I think of proactive notifications like the navigation system on your phone or in your car. The fact that you know the next turn is coming up in 1,000 feet gives you plenty of time to move to the appropriate lane and, as a result, relieves some of the stress of driving.

The same thing goes for proactive notifications. In the case of the airline, having a personalized message sent to passengers' phones via a text not only informs them of the cancelation but gives them a path to resolve the issue before worry sets in.

Specifically, I would use Acqueon List and Campaign Manager that integrates with the Cisco Contact Center solution. These tools allow the contact center to orchestrate outbound notifications to passengers using a multitude of methods.

Proactive communication is key in delivering customers a positive experience when the unexpected occurs.

Make it easy for customers to connect with agents

Finding the right person to connect with in the contact center is half of a caller's battle.

Have you ever been asked for an account or confirmation number after calling a contact center? Usually this is a long string of characters and numbers that are impossible to memorize quickly.

To eliminate the back and forth of looking at a phone and repeating portions of the account number back, simply have customers click a link in their text message from the airline that connects them directly to an agent or sets them up to receive a call back. In either case, the account or confirmation number would be part of the information sent  to the contact center, relieving the customer from shouldering this burden.

Not only that, but this gives agents a simple way to identify a caller when they reach the contact center, allowing them to provide a personalized greeting.

Personalize customer interactions

How many times have you called a contact center and been asked to identify yourself more than once?

Chances are you're forced to identify yourself in an interactive voice response (IVR) system and then again when you reach an agent. Plus, you probably also have to explain several times why you're calling.

Instead, we could use the account or confirmation number discussed above to pull up information for the agent related to the customer and the reason they're calling. This allows agents to perform a simple verification of the caller and immediately offer their support to resolve the caller's issue.

Use artificial intelligence for real-time recommendations

There are many options when flying from point A to point B. A canceled flight can be rebooked as the same flight the next day or rebooked with a layover. There may even be another airport close to your final destination that could be used as an alternative route.

When an agent has all of these options at his or her fingertips, rebooking can feel effortless to the caller.

Google Contact Center AI provides recommendations to the agent based on information it collects by listening in on the call. This happens in real time, providing the agent with information relevant to the conversation while they are speaking to the customer.

This means no more hearing, "Hold on while I get that answer." Answers are automatically provided based on what the customer is asking.

Use automation to update systems in a timely and error-free manner

Contact center agents are required to use multiple applications during the course of a call.

In the case of the airline, there's one application for booking flights, one for taking payments, one for managing frequent flyer reward accounts, one for managing their own work schedules and so on.

Most agents make going back and forth between these applications look easy, but at some point they are bound to make the occasional mistake.

Those mistakes can have huge ramifications for flyers, especially when they find out a member of their party didn't get booked on the same flight because of an error.

Automation can reduce the risk of human error. In our example, I would use Robotic Process Automation (RPA) tools to make complex tasks simple and repeatable.

Happy and loyal customers

As we've seen, the incorporation of a handful of contact center tools can make a dramatic impact to the customer experience.

The unexpected customer event is bound to happen. Where contact centers can shine is in their ability to make these events as painless as possible. Customers remember the person who took the stress out of an otherwise stressful situation.

And, when the contact center can save the day by getting a family to Yankee Stadium and Broadway, they've won a customer for life.

Getting started/workshop/contact-center-workshop

In this article, we covered a lot of collaboration tools. It's important to note that each come with different options for deployment, licensing and integration.

One of the best places to start to understand how these tools can be incorporated into your organization is with our Contact Center Workshop. You can also connect with me to discuss an executive briefing where we'll show you the WWT contact center resources at your disposal.

Either way, we're here to get your omnichannel contact center to its final destination, whatever path that might take.