Travelocity’s Mahl: “In a perfect world, a guarantee like ours wouldn’t be necessary”

GinnyMahl_082609Ginny Mahl is Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer service — the woman behind the online travel agency’s vaunted Travelocity Guarantee. I asked Mahl about getting the best customer service from a travel Web site, and how her company is doing its part.

Travelocity seems to be doing well despite a depressed travel industry. How has good customer service contributed to your company’s recent performance?

Thanks, Chris, for the vote of confidence. Our customer service team has come a long way since introducing the Travelocity Guarantee four years ago and by remaining committed to its principles, I think we’ve helped the company’s bottom line. Plus, our ongoing investment in training our agents on how to best support customers through all kinds of scenarios has paid dividends.

Has your approach to customer service changed during the travel downturn? And if so, how?

Our overall approach hasn’t changed. We have, however, taken this opportunity to make sure that we are smarter than ever with our resources. We have continued to invest and are making changes that will assure that the first agent the customer talks to resolves their issue. We are also providing agents with more information about the customer to expedite resolution.

We’ve also looked at how we can be smarter about how we service customers based on their specific situation. For example, we prioritize routing and handling for customers who are mid-trip or are departing in less than 48 hours since their needs are often more urgent. Finally, we’ve invested in more self-service capabilities like voids for flight bookings, which provide our customers different channel options for service and also helps us be more efficient.

I like the idea behind the Travelocity Guarantee, which promises you’ll look out for your customers “all trip long.” But I’ve always wondered: is there a limit to what you can do?

There are, of course, situations that are beyond our control like a canceled flight due to a mechanical issue, changes made to a flight schedule, or a hotel overselling its inventory. But even in all of these instances we remain committed to working with our suppliers to get our customer the best possible resolution. And because of our size and our solid relationships with suppliers throughout the industry, the chances of us finding a stranded customer an alternative flight or hotel room will always be good.

Some have pointed out that a “guarantee” shouldn’t even be necessary. They say customers should expect that kind of service from a full-service agency. What do you think?

I agree that in a perfect world, a guarantee like ours wouldn’t be necessary. But since not all travel companies offer the same level of service, we felt the Guarantee was an effective way for us to message the differences we provide to our customers like our 24/7 business hours, proactive care, and our popular 24 hour void policy on standalone flights.

What advantage does Travelocity have over its competitors, in terms of customer service? How about over travel agents?

We’ve spent several years in creating a culture around the entire company dedicated to supporting and fulfilling the Travelocity Guarantee. This, in my opinion, is unique amongst our peer set.

I also feel that we stand out when it comes to proactive customer care. Once you’ve booked on Travelocity, we start the process of watching out for you by constantly monitoring weather events, industry changes, regulatory changes, or local incidents that might impact your travel and make sure we alert our travelers when necessary. Thousands of customers benefit each year from this notification process. Last week during Hurricane Bill, we were ready to contact our customers holding reservations within the strike zone and posted updated supplier policies on our site and links via Twitter all weekend long.

Like many online agents, but not all bricks-and-mortar agents, we offer 24/7 customer service. And travelers should also keep in mind that we offer and service many different kinds of travel. This ranges from the basics like standalone airline tickets and hotel rooms, to full all-inclusive packages with activities, or even a European cruise for a group or large family.

We also are able to offer the innovative tools for dreaming and planning your next trip. Our Experience Finder tool lets consumers dream about different kinds of trips online and save that information into a Wish List they can use when they’re ready to book.

I’ve noticed a lot of simple booking errors lately by Travelocity customers — wrong names, incorrect dates. What kind of safeguards does Travelocity have in place to prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening?

We provide multiple review opportunities throughout the booking path for customers to check that they have entered their information correctly. For a flight booking we provide a full recap showing the details of the customer’s selected itinerary immediately prior to beginning checkout and again before submitting their credit card information.

Within our checkout path we allow customers to store their travel details such as traveler name, phone numbers, and address information within their profile to avoid have to re-enter them for each reservation, minimizing the likelihood of errors and speeding up the checkout process for them.

We conduct regular usability studies to ensure that we are making it as easy as possibly for customers to enter their information correctly. We monitor both incidents reported by our call centers and also regularly have our product teams listen directly to customer calls to identify any recurring issues and make site changes as necessary.

All that said, we know that errors will inadvertently occur when customers enter their travel information. In instances where customers discover they have made an error with the name on their reservation, we will work with the airline to try and correct their reservation. Most airlines distinguish between name changes, which are generally never permitted, and name corrections which some airlines allow limited changes although the precise outcome depends carrier by carrier, based on the specific policies that they choose to impose.

Once someone makes a mistake, how are you helping them fix it without spending a lot of money? I’m thinking of people who are told that they have to buy a new ticket because their first name is “Bob” instead of “Robert.”

We are required to follow the airline ticketing and purchase requirements dictated by the airlines and the TSA for the United States. We don’t specify these requirements, but we do provide links during the purchase process to specific fare rules and requirements. When customers find themselves in a situation like this, we work with each airline’s rules and processes to address name corrections, when necessary. As I mentioned in the previous question, each airline handles the process a little differently and, admittedly, many are more restrictive than consumers would prefer. Some, too, require an additional fee. We will assist the customer through the correction process, if it’s applicable and possible in their specific situation.

We have continued, even throughout the downturn, to offer our 24-hour void policy on standalone flights. This really helps customers who accidentally make a booking mistake, but recognize it as soon as they review their confirmation email. It’s really important for all customers to verify the final itinerary selection before booking, and also to carefully review and check their confirmation page or email once they’ve completed a purchase.

Let me ask you about ticket refunds, if I may. Here’s a question I get a lot: If I buy a ticket through an online agency like Travelocity, my flight is canceled and I’m owed a refund, why should I have to wait two billing cycles to get my money back? Why can’t an agency like Travelocity refund my money right away?

When you purchase most standalone airline tickets through Travelocity, we are acting as an agency, rather than the merchant of record. If the customer looks closely at their credit card statement, they’ll see that the merchant actually charging for the ticket price was in almost all cases the airline. If the customer is later eligible for a refund, we process that request according to the airline’s required process. Sometimes those processes take a few days, and sometimes a few weeks. Depending on the customers’ individual billing closing dates, it may take two cycles for that to appear on their monthly statement since the next statement may have a closing date prior to the resolution of the refund process.

For purchases such as prepaid hotel reservations or vacation packages where Travelocity is the merchant for the sale, if a refund is necessary, we typically process those within an average of three to five days.

When should a traveler not book online, in your opinion?

Good question! I generally think the additional flexibility, choice, and control that online shopping and booking provides a traveler has transformed the customer experience. In that, Travelocity’s launch in 1996 was truly revolutionary. Consumers have more information than ever before at their fingertips.

If the customer feels more comfortable talking with someone about their travel plans, I would encourage them to consider Travelocity’s own travel consultants, who are trained on many destinations, and can be very helpful. Over the years, these agents have booked many five-figure vacation packages and cruises without a hitch.

While I am, of course, an unabashed advocate of our services, I also maintain that there is still a place for traditional travel agents, particularly those that have carved out a niche, like adventure travel. Depending upon the traveler and their needs, a face-to-face meeting with such a consultant could be wise though, of course, higher fees will apply.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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