How to deal with an airline or hotel chatbot — and how to get a human

If it feels like you’re talking to a robot when contacting your airline, car rental company or hotel, it’s probably because it’s you.

During the pandemic, the travel industry rushed to build contactless customer service systems to handle inquiries. It may have gone too far.

Chatbots and form responses generated by artificial intelligence are more prevalent than ever, experts and travelers told me via email. They allow companies to save money by hiring fewer call center agents and speeding up the resolution process. And while there are benefits for businesses, customers don’t always connect to the new technology.

Hotels have gone to the robots

A customer survey conducted by Zendesk, a provider of customer service communications, found that multi-channel conversations that rely on automation have increased over the past year. The biggest growth is on social media (up 32 percent) and on WhatsApp (up 370 percent).

“Self-service,” says Mike Gozzo, senior vice president of product at Zendesk, “is the future of customer service.”

That bothers travelers like Kent Sharrar, an airline worker in Phoenix. He recently had interactions with chatbots at a car rental company and a hotel that left him feeling empty. Both quickly responded to his request with an automatic apology and an offer of compensation.

“But my goal is not to get compensation,” he says after renting a car in poor condition and being charged from a canceled hotel room. “It’s meant to smooth out the bumps in the road for future experiences.”

“Bots… don’t resign”

So what caused the rise of automation in travel? First, the pandemic has forced many travel companies to review their customer service systems from the ground up. They wanted to reduce costs as travel slowed significantly and ensure minimal contact between customers and employees. Then came the Big Retirement, which led to widespread customer service issues last summer. For many companies, implementing AI has been the solution.

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“Bots don’t call in sick and they don’t quit,” says Matt Edic, chief experience officer at IntelePeer, a provider of automation systems.

How do you know if you are dealing with an automated system? “Usually the service itself makes it clear that it’s a bot,” said Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage.com, a travel insurance marketplace. But if not, you can usually figure it out quickly because of the speed of the response (it’s faster than a human) and the nature of the response (it’s scripted and doesn’t make typos).

Chatbots can test your patience. Matthew Carter, a Las Vegas-based attorney, recently contacted his online travel agency to inquire about making a reservation and said it quickly became apparent he was speaking to a computer program.

“At one point I mentioned the airline I was using — Peach Airlines in Japan,” he says. “And she said, ‘Is Peach your travel agent?’ I was really stunned. Supposedly she had pulled the flights in front of her. So either she wasn’t paying attention or she had no idea.”

But automation also has advantages. A carefully coded chatbot can efficiently provide information and answer basic questions, says Steve Schwab, CEO of Casago, a vacation rental company. And best of all, it’s always on.

“That guarantees an answer,” he says. “No matter what time.”

Automated systems can also fix some problems much faster than a human, says Gadi Shamia, CEO of Replicant, a contact center automation company. “Automation can, for example, rebook a passenger who has missed their flight,” he says. “This gives an agent more time to help a family book hotel accommodations if their red-eye appointment is cancelled.”

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Still, I worry about the over-automation and loss of personal touch. I’ve seen too many gibberish responses generated by AI.

“People like to talk to people, not robots,” says Francois Gouelo, CEO of Enso Connect, a provider of AI services for the hospitality industry. “That’s why it’s important not just to implement automation solutions in hospitality operations, but to build a comprehensive guest experience strategy and plan for how technology complements human capital.”

In other words, don’t forget the people.

If you’re stuck in a conversation with a bot that doesn’t know the difference between “Peach,” the airline, and “Peach,” your travel agent—and believe me, you will know if you are—there are options to get a person.

Words like “representative,” “agent,” or even “help” can route your case to a real human. If you’re dealing with a scripted email response and need a response, you may need to start a new conversation with a manager via email to override the system.

Automation seems to be an unstoppable trend. Tausif Khiani, vice president of hospitality at consulting firm Capgemini Americas, says his research confirms hospitality brands are increasing customer engagement with AI and chatbots. But enough is enough.

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“The next generation of travelers wants the ability and choice to interact with both people and technology,” he says. “The key is to seamlessly transition between the two.”

What is the solution? Sharrar, Phoenix’s airline employee, thinks more human staff – not fewer – is the answer.

Maybe, he says, you can overdo it with automation. Perhaps we will find out in the coming holiday travel season.

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