You would think that technology in a service industry like mine would be a contradiction in terms, but there are so many ways that technology can enhance service rather than destroy it like so many other industries have, banks being a prime example. To get the balance right, personal touches are an important part of the process. Asking customers to go online or use a machine instead of offering a service is not necessarily the way forward. All these options should be available to the customer. Some are happy to go online, some like machines and some want friendly advice. I am in an industry that doesn’t just offer, but also enhances personal service by using the latest technology
So what is the single most useful piece of technology. I think that is impossible to answer but I think broadly speaking communication has to win hands down. Not just email, but text, Skype, Facetime, social networking, all those things have bought the world together, enabled us to see as well as speak to our families and friends across the world, they have made us curious to see all sorts of places and things that we only read about as children, find and reconnect with lost friends and maybe go to visit them and being able to email requests and questions to suppliers, hotels and clients
Many of the manuals I used to use in those early days are now either completely obsolete, such as a books of fares, rules and mileages which are all now online and in any case fares are now far more complex and no longer fixed.
I do still find timetables and route maps useful as they are quite difficult to find online and are nearly always in PDF format so I still keep an out of date copy of the Thomas Cook Railway timetable which I still use. Timetables are useful because they tell you where the train begins and ends and the route maps tell you whether a route is possible or practical by rail. It isn’t easy to do this online
I also like a paper guidebook and a map that I can mark with a highlighter pen and use the margins for notes, put noughts and crosses in places I want to see or have seen and want to remember. This is something that Kindle or online apps haven’t quite managed to replace, at least not yet. I do try to include these wherever possible in my ticket packs for that reason
Let’s picture the scene today, the client either calls or sends an email to order the flight ticket. I check the flight myself on Galileo through Phenix. A range of flights and prices come up and I choose the most suitable combination and take payment through our electronic system. Most payments are by debit card so it goes straight into the system which authorises it securely. I confirm the ticket and an email link will come through for me to click a link and then I can print or email it to the client, or I can check the airline reference send it to a mobile to scan at the airport. The receipt can be printed or emailed too.
E-tickets were trialled as early as 1994 by Southwest Airlines in the USA. The first major airline to introduce them on a worldwide basis was American Airlines. This was a real breakthrough, an end to tickets getting lost in the post and months of reclaiming for them, and it also phased out the need for expensive ticket machines, repairs, ticket stocks and all the problems associated with them. Nearly all tickets are electronic now and can just be printed off as bar codes or QR reader scans. These include flight tickets, rail tickets, ferry tickets which all used to be hand written
And as for the dreaded monthly returns, I certainly don’t miss those!
What about the hotel? Nowadays there is more choice, all sorts of health and safety regulations and clients are more discerning so there is if anything there is more work involved in researching the location and facilities such as free wi-fi, but at least I can look things up on google, our internal message board, blogs, forums and trip advisor. I can email a link to the hotel website, sometimes even a video, check the location on googlemaps, the distance from the airport, the nearest restaurant, metro station. I can even zoom in and virtually walk down street. I can find and send information on local transportation, instantly check the voltage, phone code and time zone in almost any remote corner of the world
And what about that hotel confirmation that used to take up to a week on telex? Even in the last two or three years technology has moved on so much, now most hotels can be sold right up to the day of departure across any time zone and the hotel will instantly have it on their computer. I can send an email or text message to confirm the hotel and reference number and also copy in the hotel to make sure that communications haven’t broken down in the middle of the chain
I use many websites for searching hotels, car hire, attractions, many of these are only accessible to travel agents and not to the public so it is definitely worth checking prices with an agent as many but not all are at discounted rates
So what else does technology enable me to do? I never cease to be amazed by the world that the web has opened up. Almost every answer to every question can be answered within a few minutes of extensive google searching. Where this fails is where the supplier fails to mention half the information they need to on their own websites and the information can only be obtained second hand. I have to say the worst culprits are hotels. They rarely mention parking costs, wi-fi costs and ages of kids clubs.
Googlemaps is another fantastic invention that I use for so many things apart from simply where places are. It is so much more useful and interactive than a paper map. How far is the hotel from the nearest landmark, station, shops, restaurants or for business clients how far is it from the conference centre or the head office? How do you get from the airport to city centre by public transport or by car? How far is it to drive from one hotel to the next? How long is the beach? How far is the hotel to the beach? This is all information that is useful to my clients but I have already done the research before sending a list of hotels to clients
Hardly anyone sends tickets now, postage has become so expensive and now that almost everything is electronic is makes more sense to email everything to the client. Even some of the larger cruiselines don’t send tickets now. Eventually, I think not too far into the future, everything will be available on a smartphone
If I choose to post the paperwork to the client, I use a program called smart stamp. I check the width and weight of the paperwork and smartstamp works out the postage for me and then I can print the stamp and stick to the letter
Emails are of course incredibly useful. No more information being misheard, it is all in writing.I can send pictures, hotel links, photos and information to clients. I can send requests to hotels across the globe and get a reply usually within hours. Of course you can never replace a friendly voice over the phone and there are many situations where it is better to have a proper conversation either face to face or over the phone and emails will never replace that but a more sophisticated Skype type system eventually might. At the moment social networking does bridge that awkward gap of choosing the right time to phone someone. If they have just posted on facebook it is probably a good time to phone because they obviously aren’t busy and they are not in the middle of an important meeting or if they are they are so bored they would welcome the distraction of an “important” phone call
I often use social media and particularly twitter as a way of contacting suppliers and to thank them publicly, a gesture that only takes a few seconds. They are always grateful for the publicity and free advertising and will remember you for doing so, but for clients it is far better to phone and ask them for feedback which is far more appropriate and personal so each has its place as a way of saying a simple thank you.
Social media has been tremendously useful in many ways, firstly and most obviously as a way of socialising, because working as home means not physically interacting with colleagues and clients, but social media bridges that gap. I have reconnected with many schoolfriends and a few have become clients. It is also a useful way to refer trades and I have also benefitted from that as other people have referred me and this has increased my client base. Another benefit of social media is a free advertising platform, however it is better to use a business page for sales messages, a personal page should be a lot more subtle, more friendly and interactive but used the right way it can still bring good results.