Tuesday, April 28, 2009

aQuantive Story - how to grow and sell a company in tough times

Very interesting read over at The TechFlash site. John Cook has a post called "Strip clubs, Aeron chairs and other tales from aQuantive". Is an interview with aQuantive founder Nick Hanauer on how he managed aQuantive through the dot com bust and resulting downturn leading up to the $6 billion buyout by Microsoft. Some interesting messages and stories for all of us during this Global F'n Crisis. Is the BOOT recommended read of the week.

Hat tip to @barneyh where I first saw a link to the story.

Southwest Airlines Rapping announcement "you will not get that on United Airlines"

It is going to be United Airlines week here at the BOOT. Already had a seat review, prediction of the death for the brand and now a video of a rapping Southwest crew member giving United a hard time (and I have another post up my sleeve before the week is out). Thanks to my mate Chris from San Fran for sending through the video link

hat tip to Huff Post.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Budget and United make 24/7 Wall St's list of 12 brands likely to disappear

Equities and investor blog 24/7 Wall street posted last week on the "Twelve Major Brands that Will Disappear" - joining the likes of Ansett.

Topping the list was the struggling former Car Rental giant Avis/Budget. As I talked about in this post Avis/Budget (CAR) is a shadow of its former self. Having just avoided de-listing on the NYSE, the company is struggling under a mountain of debt, mounting costs and falling revenues.

At number twelve on the list is United Airlines (UAUA). 24/7 Wallst puts United among American and US Air as the three most at risk airlines in the US and in convinced that someone like Continental will step in as an acquiring for one of these. United is most at risk among the three (according to 24/7) because their passenger numbers are dropping faster (despite your BOOT correspondent's recent travels with United). In my 2009 predictions I mentioned that I thought more airlines would go bust (hardly a revolutionary prediction).

Full details over at 24/7 Wallst.

Here is the full list of the 12 brands at risk
1. Avis/Budget
2. Borders books (BGP)
3. Crocs footwear (CROX)
4. Saturn vehicles
5. Esquire Magazine
6. Old Navy apparel
7. Architectural Digest Magazine
8. Chrysler brand cars:
9. Eddie Bauer (EBHI)
10. Palm (PALM)
11. AIG
12. United Air Lines (UAUA)

Hat tip to Seeking Alpha where I first spotted the story

Thanks to Adelaide Archivist over at flickr for the photo

Hudson Crossing Blog added to Blog roll

I have been enjoying reading Tom Botts' online travel industry blog for travel industry consultancy Hudson Crossing. I have added it to my Blog Roll and recommend you add it to yours.

Seat Review - United Airlines International Business Class

Back in the USA this week for work in Los Angeles and Chicago. Allowed me to try the newly refurbed United Airlines International Business Class (proud brewers of Starbucks Coffee!). When launching the new product at PhoCusWright in LA last November Tim Simonds (United’s MD of Customer Strategy and Metrics) candidly admitted that the product was not “as good as foreign flag carriers”. That is was designed to compete with other US based carriers.

Simonds was
right. As an overall experience the United International Business is well behind my preferred rides (Qantas, Singapore, BA, Virgin-Atlantic and Cathay Pacific). However in terms of the seat itself, the gap has been dramatically closed. On the Pacific route specifically Qantas maintains a clear lead in terms of quality of the food and the lounges but judged by seat and in-flight entertainment United is now on par with a world class product. The challenge for United is that it is charging the same price as Qantas. This means that on a same cost basis I will continue to fly Qantas. But if circumstances dictate that I fly United I will be approaching the flight with thoughts of comfort and productivity rather than with fear and loathing.

The BOOT rating for United's International Business Class is a 3.5 stars out of 6 or "Good Seat". Here detailed review
(More reviews and details of scoring system here)

Getting on Board

Score 0

Nothing remarkable about the United boarding process. But when competing with Qantas’ Pacific route United’s lounge set is vastly inferior to Qantas. It is an unfair benchmark as the Qantas First lounge in Sydney (which my status allows me to visit) is one of the best in the world. But even against a industry average the United lounges are second rate – especially when travelling westward (ie from the US home). For the business traveller with choice it is not enough to put a seat next to a post mix machine and call it a lounge (even if there is free ranch dressing for the bendy carrots on offer).

The Seat

Score 1.0

The seat is long, comfortable and fully flat. There is little more that a traveller can ask for. Sure I prefer the larger herringbone of Cathay Pacific or the privacy cocoon like set up of a BA window seat. Sure I wish the tray table was a little more flexible to allow for easier exits with a computer of meal on the table. Sure I wish there were a few more seat level places for putting books, laptops and iPods. But all this borders on being picky. The seat does the two main things you need from a 14 hour flight across the Pacific – sit comfortably to work with connected power and sleep peacefully for 8 hours.

The Service

Score 0.5

How to describe the service on United? It is like a very pleasant experience at a 24 hour Denny’s restaurant where the staff average age is about 50. Lots of cheery smiles and “how can I help yous” from smartly dressed silver surfers. It is Airline folk law that during a emergence from Bankruptcy United granted lots of stock to staff an entrenched seniority in route bidding by crews. The result being that premium routes (those with the best away from home allowances and timings) are monopolised by the most senior staff. Does not make for a bad experience on board but the crew tend to fall into habits and routines.

The Food

Score 0.5

Bland. Edible but Bland. I have actually flown four legs (US and back twice) in a very short space of time. Each time, the dinner menu has contained only slight variations on a choice between Steak with veg, Chicken with veg or Vegetarian pasta (with veg). Nothing to run from the room screaming about but nothing to sit their raving about either.

The Entertainment

Score 1.0

The new United VOD is up there with the best. Good selection of 25 or so movies and same for TV shows. As well as a full audio compliment that enables you to build a play list. There are airlines with greater selections but I love that United starts the entertainment before take off and keeps in on until you land and reach the gate. This is an advantage over Qantas that waits until 20 minutes or more after cruising altitude has been reached before turning on the system and then forces you to watch the crappy DVT busting exercise video. The headsets are not as good at cancelling noise but this a complaint at the margins. On a side note, United has tried to be innovative with an iPod jack for power but it uses a unique connector that has to be bought separately (not the standard iPod connector). Defeats the purpose.

The BOOT factor

Score 0.5

You would not expect many “BOOT factor” elements from a US carrier and you would be right. I do like the arrivals lounge at SFO – while not on par with the Virgin-Atlantic and BA equivalents in London it does allow for a shower and toasted bagel before heading on your way. A quirk of the seating layout is that not all of the seats face the same direction. The set up is not the alternating direction style of BA. Rather some pairs face forward and some backward. Does not bother me – except when the magazine folder is faulty and everything falls out on take off. Finally it is also clear that to make room for the new seats United had to skimpt on the size and number of bathrooms

Final Score

3.5 - Good Seat

Details and scoring system for airline seat reviews

thanks to Majiscup - Drink for Design for the photo

Sunday, April 26, 2009

WebInTravel 2009: The BOOT will be there and so will a startup or two

I had a great time last year at WebInTravel (for reminder coverage look here). This year's WebInTravel is on October 20-23 alongside ITB Asia at Suntec in Singapore. The BOOT is planning to be there. Hope to see you there also.

One great session from the 2008 WebInTravel was the Start-Up Pitch competition between entrip, Conference Bay and TripFilms (the eventual winner). Siew Hoon is running this session again at the 2009 WebInTravel and is calling for submissions from companies looking to join the Start-Up Pitch competition for 2009. More details here. If you are a travel start up looking for exposure then I recommend getting involved.

I will be participating in a couple of sessions at WIT but the full programme for 2009 has not yet been released. Will let you know when it is. You can early register here (will open a word doc). Siew Hoon is also runing a series of lead up events called WIT*E - the first one on April 30 with presentations and discussions with Nigel Roberts of Marina Bay Sands, Robin Yap and Sashank Nigam of Insight Vacations and Jeaneete Ho of Raffles.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Martin Colling, the Bow tie, Travel inspiration, lunch and the real Madrid

I was in Madrid for work a few weeks back. It was a classic case of business travel that sounds amazing - "a week of work in Madrid" (especially to my Australian based friends) - but where reality was far from the hype. I was staying at the Eurostars Madrid Tower, a five star hotel in the newish "Cuatro Torres" area of Madrid (pictured here). A new commercial part of the city disconnected from the heart. Imagine an area of Madrid like a Chatswood or junior La Defense or Repulse Bay (depending on your city of reference). You understand what a I mean - a soulless place close to, but not close enough to, a vibrant global capital.

Result was that we spent the entire time in the 30 story hotel or on a bus or in a dining room. There was one moment were I dashed across the multi-lane or mini highway in front of the hotel and found a local bar to have a coffee in. Other than that I could have been anywhere on the planet.

The work was very productive but the non-work highlight was a lunch with Amadeus' Head of Airline Robotics - Martin Colling. As well as working for Amadeus, Martin has an airline industry blog called "the Shearwater Blog" (what is it about Amadeus people and blogging??).

Martin and I had a great lunch together. The sun was shining and after a week of corporate meals we were outside in a local "joint" for a menu del dia. I finally felt like I was in Spain rather than Hotelland. I enjoyed the conversation too. With Martin's day job focused on Airline sales and ancillary revenue our conversation quickly turned to online sales for airlines and following the recent themes on the BOOT to travel discover and inspiration. We talked at length about all of the activities that a customer engages in on and offline before making an booking and after making a booking. The inspiration, research and collaboration before and the additional planning, sharing, reminiscing and repeating that goes on afterwards. Martin has just published a post on his thoughts on this area (with a heavy airline slant) called "Using a Bow Tie to Make Optimal Marketing and Technology Investments". It is the BOOT's recommended read of the week.

thanks to Pulsarin over at flickr for the photo

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cheapflights.com.au launches in Australia - but this is not meta-search as it should be

It is supposed to be interesting when an international online travel company launches in the land of the barbecuing shrimp. So here I am on staycation leave quietly reading my newsfeed and blog email address when I spot care of m-travel and an email from Steve Sherlock of Oodles that "Cheapflights have launched an Australian and New Zealand version of their site". I should be excited by an international launch in Australia but Cheapflights is not exciting for two reasons.

Firstly, as I said back in July 07 when the rumours first started of Cheapflights coming to town (where 2008 was the planned launch date), this market (online air in Australia) is already too crowded for a domestic market with 2/3 carriers. OTAs like Webjet, Travel.com.au (owned by Wotif), Flight Centre, Expedia, Zuji (Travelocity) and Bestflights and regional meta-search player Wego (part owned by News Corp) are fighting for scraps left over by the online air dominance of the major airline websites (Virgin-Blue, Qantas and the Qantas owned Jetsar). Granted those scraps are getting bigger and bigger but still this is not an easy market to enter. Secondly, the Cheapflights product is simply not good enough to be of value to the consumer.

For those that don't know, Cheapflights is a quasi meta-search company started in the UK way back in 1996. Even describing them as "quasi" is generous because to me the hallmark of a meta-search business is an integrated display of up to date results in one place. The UK version of Cheapflights has the integrated display but the results are not up to date. Have a look at this extract from a London to Paris search

Notice where it says "updated 9 minutes ago" next to the BA quote and "updated 2 days ago" for ebookers. Also have a look at the URL for the page

It is a static landing page - http://www.cheapflights.co.uk/flights/Paris/London/ - rather than a dynamically generated page based on the timings of my specific search. The results are not timely or up-to-date. I clicked on a few of the links and they ended up on either dead search pages or some other destination page where the results did not match the search terms. In short the UK version Cheapflights - the oldest and most established version - does not work on a stand alone basis nor meet the minimum criteria for a meta-search player.

The Australia version of Cheapflights is even worse. It may be just early days for the product but the AU version is many steps behind the UK product which itself is steps behind competitors Kayak and TripAdvisor.

To give them some due, meta-search in Australia is not easy. As I discussed here in a Webjet vs Wego post (another Steve Sherlock tip) it is has proven very difficult to facilitae multi-carrier domestic meta-search in Australia. Wego has tried a work around (again go back to this post for more) but Cheapflights are not even trying. Have a look at this shot below of Cheapflights.com.au

This is the results of a search of Sydney to Melbourne. Rather than being presented with a set of even un-integrated (or disintegrated if you prefer) results I am given four options, four different websites that I can click on. Each click generates a new pop up with search results from the named party. If I want to do what meta-search is supposed to be for - comparing multiple sites - I have to open all four sites and looked at the results one by one. In other words do exactly what we used to do before meta-search came along. In some other words, it adds no value to the standard surfing practices of a regular internet consumer. In some more blunt words, next to useless.

In truth I don't think even Cheapflights think of themselves internally as a meta-search company. They target more of their effort and energies in their Travelzoo style Hot Travel Deals newsletter. Am undecided if there is value here,

Either way I am not predicting success for this product. The product in its current form adds little to the market and the competitors have more money to spend on marketing.

Told you I would get tough again? Am I being too tough?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Triporati - Jim Hornthal interview

A new theme for the BOOT has been working on classifying and and analysing the different travel content, planning, community and search sites. Last month I started off this work through a review of Triporati (and drawing a comparison to my favourite non-travel web product Last.fm). This month I was able to continue my investigation into the sector via an interview with Triporati Chairman Jim Hornthal. We cover areas such as the business model, UGC vs editorial, the company and more.

Business Model

Hornthal was clear that Triporati's main distribution and monetisation push will be around working with partners. I have been hearing this again and again with content/planning/community sites. Most recently in my review of TripIt and before that in an interview with TripSay Board Member Alfonso Castellano. The rationale behind this is clear and makes sense to me. The battle for traffic from Google (either paid or organic) is either too expensive for a travel planning/inspiration site (in the case of paid) or not the core competency (in the case of organic). Better to take a great travel planning/inspiration product and add it to other high trafficked travel sites that are focused purely on booking or content (or both).

One of Triporati's first major deals here is with the triple A (Automotive club) network of sites. There are multiple link offs from the base AAA.com site and Triporati hosts the final landing page (here is the AAA Carolinas Example). There is lots of bespoke work for each deployment as it needs the media spaces from AAA, the booking widgets from AAA and trip options from Triporati are redefined for the partner. In effect AAA is the media partner and Triporati plays the content and technology role. Hornthal is particularly happy with AAA as a partner as AAA brings a offline presence as well as online. At the start 250 AAA travel agents are using Triporati to provide the expertise that is taken away from offline agents as the fam trip continues to disappear into the travel industry history books.

On the revenue side, because of the bespoke set up work Triporati is charging a set up fee, monthly fee tied to traffic as well as the obligatory ad share. I am impressed that Triporati is generating upfront payments from partners as this is not a normal practice in online travel where affiliates are used to a rev share only way of life.

[there is also a test version with TripAdvisor from a a email engagement plan]

On Editorial versus UGC

I have blogged before about how content companies need to find a balance between editorial content and UGC. Too much editorial and you risk not being up to date because editors cannot be in as many places as often as the masses out there. Too much UGC and you end up with the masses going off topic and insulting each other.

Hornthal's view on this balance is to have Triporati's technology and their editors as the discovery engine and then the crowd as a validation engine. Is clear to Triporati that you need to link the two parts but also need to keep them separate. I agree with this approach. Hornthal also put it like this "know where the right answer is not what the right answer is".

On the Triporati Company Background

I alluded in last month's post on Triporati to the pedigree behind Triporati - with Triporati founders Hornthal and Sharlene Wang being behind Preview Travel. The Triporati Board is also packed full of high profile names - Tim Draper (of Draper Fisher Jurvetson), Ted Leonsis (former Vice Chairman of AOL), David Patrick (Charles Schwab), Ron Conway (Google angle investor). Impressive.

My take

I get this space. I am very excited about this space. Triporati well placed to take the lead and own it. The product looks good, they have money and a Board stacked full of experience. The only but is that Triporati takes the Vacation Genome approach as the starting point (much like Pandora in music) rather than the user based recommendation editorial control (much like Last.fm in music - see earlier post if you want this explained further). This does not mean I will bet against Triporati as all the pieces are there, the approach is right and I don't see the genome over crowd approach as a fatal flaw. Triporati is the site and business that competitors TourDust, Geckogo, Joobili, TripBase, TravelMuse are behind and have to chase. [have already written a post on Joobili - more on the others soon].

Seems like I am being too nice. Second positive review in a row (TripIt earlier this week). Am determined to find someone to be nasty about next week.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

TripIt Product review: ready to use and saving me time (mostly)

Back in November 2007 I tried Web2.0 travel start up Tripit for the first time. The product was in the early days of its beta launch and as a non-US based traveller I had unfortunately chosen suppliers not yet set up for TripIt. As a result the product did not work for me and I gave a poor review. After coming across TripIt again at the PhoCusWright Innovation Summit I decided to give them another try.

For those who have missed the hype around TripIt, it is an itinerary consolidation and sharing tool. You send to plans@tripit.com all of the itinerary emails you receive from various providers (air, car, hotel etc) and TripIt combines all of the elements into one itinerary. That itinerary can be then saved to your calendar and shared with others. When it works it allows for easier management of complicated itinerary and (most importantly) provides a central place for different people to view and interact with an itinerary (ie travel planner, spouse/partner, business colleagues, friends on the road).

Generally I like TripIt and am now making it a standard part of my travel planning. I particularly like the features that allow me to share my trip with others and have my travel arranger and I collaborate in the one place on a trip. There are still a few glitches and functionality pieces that need work but the product is useful and valuable in the time it saves me and others that wish to track my travels. There are three elements of this that I find attractive and will review – itinerary collation, itinerary management and itinerary sharing & networking.

Itinerary Collation – when it works it is seamless and makes complicated trip easier to manage. Even though I work for a large online travel agency when I book a business trip I often end up with specially negotiated itineraries for air, car and hotels (and often more than one). In the past I manually added them to my diary (no easy task with different time zones) or printed out lots of paper. There is a real “I love technology” pleasure when you simply forward all of them to one email address and an itinerary is automatically built. However I still have times when it does not work perfectly. On a recent trip to Madrid, I changed the airline to cover the London to Madrid leg of my trip. When I sent the new itinerary from my TMC to plans@tripit.com TripIt correctly added the new London – Madrid leg to my existing itinerary but doubled up on the Sydney to London piece – meaning I had the same flight SYD to LHR listed twice in the itinerary. It is not easy to delete one because you have to delete the “right one”. I deleted the wrong" version of the SYD to LHR leg and it also deleted the London to Madrid piece. In the end I deleted both and resent the itinerary by email. The something more frustrating happened. TripIt received the itinerary and added it to the right trip but for some reason tracked the Bangkok to London leg as happening before the Sydney to Bangkok leg. Required me to manually go in and change the dates on a leg of the trip to get the trip properly aligned. This made for a frustrating 30 mins on the computer which I am sure other customers would not have persisted with. It was a shame as I know the system works and have seen it work, just in this instance I hit a glitch. One other minor annoyance is that sometimes it copied across the terminal for a flight and sometimes did not. TripIt says it is aware of both of these issues and is working on them.

Itinerary Management – TripIt makes it very easy for the combined itinerary to be downloaded to calendar or synced with mobile devices. What is best with this is that it adds to my calendar taking into account the different time zones and (in my experience) matches perfectly. Very useful feature that says me time and paper shuffling in taxis and meetings. Naturally there is an iPhone app to support all this but I am still in the Blackberry universe so have not tried it

Itinerary Sharing & Networking – as a very active business traveller I have a lot of people I want to share my travels with. My boss, travel organiser, colleagues, Madame BOOT, son and more. I also want people to be able to add things to my itinerary as things come in (such as transfer confirmations). I love this feature of TripIt. I find the traveller arranger/sharing parts of TripIt the most valuable. It allows each of the connected people that I have to be able to see the same up to date trip that I see. If I extend a day, change hotel, move a flight etc – all the people I want to see that can see it. The process is great and I will use it again but is not perfect. I gave TripIt some feedback that they should make it a little clearer what timezones are in operation and when some one is where. This is especially true with long haul flights were I can leave one place on a Friday (which is actually Saturday at the destination) but not land until Sunday (which is still Saturday at the port of origination). There are also social networking elements available for meeting up with people that are in the same place you are. TripIt call this the "Who's Close" feature. Given my busy travel schedule I find that of less interest than the travel arranger sharing so don’t have a view on how the usefulness of that feature. I can see that if a user mass the size of Linkedin develops for TripIt then this feature could expand into areas currently dominated by WAYN and Meetup.

Turning to the business of TripIt I had a chance recently to talk with TripIt VP of Business Development Scott Hintz after the launch of the TripIt API and deal with Linkedin.

He wanted to share with me some of the early successes of the API such as the launch of seven applications and registration of more than 100 developers in the first 30 days of launch. One application he particular liked was Fligth Tracker Pro.

For TripIt the application angle is all about user acquisition. In a pattern I am seeing again and again for travel application/content companies the main form of distribution is partnership based rather and search engine based. This makes sense to me. I don’t see a large number of customer’s typing in “Trip Consolidation” into Google. Therefore I agree with the strategy of focusing on deals with networks liked Linkedin and eventually travel agents and OTAs as the means for TripIt distributing their product.

I wanted to talk to him about the monetisation efforts so far. Hintz was sounding very confident about the revenue potential for TripIt especially with the success of landing Marriott’s sponsorship fo the Linkedin plugin. He is also looking into revenue share for applications based on the API. With site traffic (mobile and web) at the 250k uniques level (and growing 20-40% month on month) you can understand his optimism. That said online banner ads are being hit hard by the downturn so I will be interested to see if they turn more to other forms of monetisation. Hintz also hinted at some premium paid service offerings - I am guessing more around travel planning and corporate services. They expect these revenues to be greater than advertising.

There are still pieces being worked on but I like TripIt and am using it.

If you are interested in more stories on TripIt you might enjoy the following:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Qantas customer service centre tour - the BOOT is feeling hopeful

Back in February Qantas announced the launch of a new Customer Service Excellence centre.

This tripped my interest because I have long commented on the need for customer service improvements at Qantas. I have described the current culture as a "process culture" meaning that the staff looked to follow the processes set for them and get you through the flight rather than focused on making the flight the best it can be. I do this as both a blogger and top tier (platinum) flier with Qantas.

To Qantas' credit they agreed to talk to me more about the Customer Service Centre, to answer some questions I had on it and offer me a tour.

I serve a lot of criticism Qantas' way but in the case of this centre I was very impressed. You could see where the money was spent. They have invested in creating a physical location for each of the main cabin experiences (first, business, premium economy, international economy, domestic economy, Qantas link). They have filled the space with plenty of employee morale building activities but also what appeared to be genuinely well thought out training spaces. For example in addition to having fully functioning mock aircraft cabins for service training I saw a a dedicated sommelier training section for on board wine training (there are some 2-2,500 accredited "sommeliers in the sky"). Another example was the way I say classes being set up directly in the mock on board and lounge environments. Classes made up of teams from different parts of the business looking at customer care issues.

Qantas are claiming that this centre represents a $10mm investment and will cover all elements of the business. Every single person will go through it in an aim to make the customer experience part of every element of the business.

Beyond the building they have also set up the training to be applied to all members of the company. The comms staff taking me on the tour used the phrase "end to end customer experience" to explain the aim of having every single company employee from all departments to come through the training. They are aiming to have 18,000 people through the centre this year (110 a day).

The theory behind this is that they recognise while price is a clear factor in decision making by customers it is not the only one. Qantas want this training program and supporting internal work to drive the customer service to be a decisive factor in customers' choosing to fly with Qantas. I get this approach and think it is the right focus for the Qantas brand. I have been in customer research events where initially customers talk about the importance of price. Then you confront the customer with the impact of price based decisions (distance from the beach, level of facilities, number of staff, quality of food) and customer quickly tell you that what they meant is that value is what they are looking for not just price

By nature I am a surly traveller and past experience around Qantas leaves me to be hesitant to provide too much praise but I left the tour filled with hope that the monetary investment and staff time commitment that this centre represented indicated a turning point in Qantas' approach to customer service. So Qantas...you have now raised my expectations and set me up to be interested in the product again. Please don't disappoint.

Here are some more photos of the centre

Below is an email exchange of questions and answers with Qantas during the research for this post. The answers are a bit too PR/Comms controlled for incorporation in the main part of this post but I will publish them here for you if interested.

The BOOT: What is your feeling as to the perception customers have of Qantas' level of customer service? Is this perception at the level you would like it to be?

Qantas: Our customers tell us we generally provide a high standard of customer service. However, our ambition is to be recognised as the world’s best premium airline and as an organisation that is defined by customer service excellence, so we are raising the bar.

The BOOT: Are there particular areas of customer service/care training that are a focus of this centre? Are there areas of weakness in customer care that have been identified as requiring focus?

Qantas: With regards to customer service excellence, we consider two concepts of equal importance. A consistent, brand-aligned and seamless customer experience is critical to our success and that every employee, customer facing or one or more steps removed, has a vital role to play in the customer experience.

The BOOT: What role has the Qantas Advisory Panel played in your planning for this Centre and customer service training in general?

Qantas: The Qantas Customer Advisory Panel supports our business with the ongoing refinement of our customer product and services. We work with the Panel on a regular basis to validate and test strategies and initiatives and to determine where we need to focus our efforts. Our research indicates there is an opportunity to drive consistency across the touch points and the Centre provides us with a resource to do just that.
The BOOT: Have any changes been made in the way you train staff or focus on customer service as a result of the feedback from the Qantas Advisory Panel? If so, what changes?

Qantas: The Panel tells us we need to be providing our customers with a consistently high standard of customer service at every stage of the customer journey.

Qantas has always been very customer service focussed and we train people in many ways using contemporary face-to-face methods, a variety of print collateral, digital (including eLearning) and broadcast tools. However, the Qantas Centre of Service Excellence provides us with a unique opportunity to bring all our customer service excellence training under the one roof – and, using the state-of-the-art brand experience space, along with techniques that immerse our people in the different product offerings and service expectations, people are inspired and clearly understand what is required to realise our vision.

In addition, as we recognise that every employee has a role to play in the customer experience, we are now taking a cross-functional approach to customer service training. Throughout 2009, the Centre will host nearly 18,000 people – more than half of the Qantas Group in ‘exceptional’ service training – from CEO, Alan Joyce right down to the frontline. The training is well underway and the positive feedback indicates the fresh, adult-style approach to learning benefiting the audience greatly.

The BOOT: Will the training at the centre be for Jetstar staff as well or just Qantas?

Qantas: The Centre is focussed on the Qantas brand experience, however we do represent our successful two-brand strategy to illustrate the depth and breadth of our domestic network offering.

The BOOT: How will you measure the return on investment for you/shareholders in this Centre? Put another way, how does Qantas put a price or "asset value" on customer care improvements?

Qantas: Customer satisfaction scores, brand recognition / loyalty and shareholder return will be considered when measuring the return on our $10 million investment.

The BOOT: With more air crew being based overseas are there plans for more of these centres in other locations (Bangkok, London)?

Qantas: On 27 November 2008 we opened the London Cabin Crew Training Centre which boasts the same guiding principles as the Sydney based Centre of Service Excellence. Its purpose-built experiential design has training and interview rooms for learning and development, events and wine training along with cabin simulators that represent our First, Business, Premium and Economy inflight offering.

Regarding other locations, we ensure that our learning and development programs can be executed off-shore to ensure that our teams, no matter where they are based, receive the same experience.

The BOOT: How much do the training programs differ between the different classes (econ, prem econ, bus, first) and the different environments (check in, lounge, air)?

Qantas: Training is tailored to the stage of the participant’s career (New trainees through to Managers) and the different customer product and service offerings. However we are aligning our ‘standards’ and ‘signatures’ right across the touch points and have four service behaviours: that provide us with a united way of working ensuring that the service our customers receive, is exceptional, at every stage of their journey.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Expedia, Sefiani Commnications and Fairfax press combine to bring to an end the BOOT's reading of newspapers

I rarely read offline newspapers now. Simply don't have the time and like a good Interweb user I collect and read most of my news via by feedreader and twitter. I have also found that as newspapers have cut more and more staff they have descended into being too dependent on PR companies feeding them whole stories. With this in mind I was reading in Singapore Airport the weekend Life and Leisure supplement from the Australian Financial Review (owned by Fairfax Media). Up until yesterday I have enjoyed the "Traveller" section of that supplement which each week asks a road-warrior to answer a few question about their experiences as a business traveller. This week it was Robyn Sefiani of Sefiani Communications Group. There was one question and answer part of her profile that caught my eye and I thought I would share with you...
"Travel Tips

I do all of my travel bookings online through Expedia.com.au and Hotels.com. The savings can be significant and the traveller reviews are a great guide to finding the best hotels."
This clearly reads like PR messaging regurgitation, not insight shared by one traveller to another. Intrigued I looked up Robyn Sefiani's company and found that she does a lot of work in communications and PR for consumer companies. In fact she lists as one of her client's
"The world’s largest online travel company" (and this news story confirms that she does PR for Expedia)
et tu Australian Financial Review? Have you run out of people to profile in the "Traveller" section - one of the last pieces of offline news media that I consume - and are now selling it off to the highest bidder? Best case view, the AFR did not realise that Sefiani was using the Traveller section to promote one her client Expedia without disclosing the link. In which case it is sloppy work by the AFR/Fairfax for not checking and unpleasant work by Sefiani for tricking the newspaper. Worst case view, the AFR is using this spot as another revenue generating part of the paper regardless of the impact on readers' trust.

I am all for creative PR. For finding ways to get your company's brand read by consumers in a fashion that exploits the consumer's desire for information and entertainment rather than through pure advertising. In a way where the consumer does not mind having the brand promoted. But having a paid representative simply recommend a brand name without disclosing that they are paid to do so is not creative PR - it is advertising deceitfully dressed up as information. This piece should have been labelled as an advertisement. Shame on you Fairfax for this lapse and shame on you Sefiani Communications and Expedia for not having more creative ways of getting your message out. That's it, no more newspaper reading for the BOOT (and we used to be such friends). Back to the Internet for me where you can trust everything your read as being independent and without spin...cough...hmm

Update - Robyn Sefiani has sent me an email on this. Here it is unedited

Dear Tim,

I see I feature on your blog today, following my recommendation of Expedia and Hotels. Com in the Australian Financial Review ‘Traveller’ column last week, which is a regular reader Q&A in the Life & Leisure section of the AFR.

The facts are these: I was an avid fan and regular user of Expedia two years before our firm was invited to pitch for Expedia’s PR account in Australia, and I continue to do most of my travel and accommodation bookings online through Expedia and Hotels.com.

My favourite hotels mentioned in the ‘Traveller’ column, the W Court in New York and Le Agavi in Positano, were discovered on Expedia, well before Sefiani was appointed by Expedia Australia.

I do accept that public relations firms have a responsibility to declare commercial interests, but as my comments in ‘Traveller’ were my own personal views, I stand by them.

Best regards

Robyn Sefiani