Action Demands Agility

Agility Platform Effectively Harnesses Customer Data

An industry game-changing agility platform offers an unmatched level of integration across an airline’s entire organization by compiling customer data and operational data, analyzing it and gaining accurate, real-time insights across all touchpoints. The platform enables all systems, whether in-house or third-party, to communicate with each other in real time. It also provides greater automation to an airline’s business processes and facilitates a seamless experience across all customer touchpoints and channels. Moreover, the platform accelerates an airline’s digital-transformation objectives.

Rodrigo R. Ramos, product and marketing leader for Sabre Iceland, is responsible for Sabre Intelligence Exchange and Sabre Qik. He has more than 13 years of experience in product management, marketing, delivery, consulting, pre-sales and business development in the airline and financial industries. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington, and he currently resides in Reykjavik, Iceland.
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Airlines are challenged with delivering a cohesive, personalized customer experience due to lack of communication and integration among their websites, apps, airport agents, call-center agents and various other entities across their organization. This problem stems from the fact that an airline’s systems were all built at different times — some even decades apart — and they are not connected via a central platform that aggregates, analyzes, actions and adapts to the real-time business environment. In addition to hindering an airline’s ability to make efficient, accurate business decisions, it clearly has a negative impact on customers.

The analytics maturity model from Gartner illustrates how companies (shown as airlines) can obtain greater business value and outcomes as they achieve greater decision-making intelligence. more specifically, this is accomplished through dEriving increasingly forward-looking insights from their analytical tools to inform them of changes, occurrences or opportunities within the business.

Airlines have all the data they need to garner a complete understanding of their individual customers, which could clearly be used to provide a more superior, differentiated customer experience. However, their current technology, processes and disparate structure doesn’t allow them to use this data to its full potential. To do so, they need to quickly harvest and analyze their real-time data so instant action can be taken across the organization, resulting in a marked improvement across their customers’ end-to-end travel journey.

There are a few main reasons airlines aren’t able to leverage the vast amounts of customer data they receive including:

  • Lack of organizational velocity,
  • Outdated technology/inability to process big data,
  • Restricted cross-organizational integration.

Even while some airline systems are in sync, most are not. Integration is limited at best. In addition, many carriers use a combination of in-house and third-party systems from different vendors, which widens the gap between and among enterprise-wide systems. To compound the situation, we have entered a digital era where consumers are far more advanced in the technologies they use, and they expect the companies with which they do business to become equally, if not more, progressive. Online retailers have kept pace; however, unfortunately, the airline industry hasn’t yet caught up.

Though, as with any industry, where there are problems, there are bound to be solutions. And often times they are less complex and more efficient to incorporate than some may think.

Lack Of Organizational Velocity

The speed at which organizations conduct business, including customer engagement — otherwise referred to as organizational velocity — is a critical differentiator. In fact, airlines that adopt organizational velocity are capable of responding to specific business problems in minutes or hours, whereas carriers that choose a linear data approach can spend weeks, or even months, trying to solve the issue. These days, customers won’t wait around for weeks or months for an airline to right a wrong. They will have long moved on to another carrier, all while using social media to share their undesirable experience.

“Because airlines rely on customer retention and loyalty, speed is the name of the game,” said Michael Reyes, senior data & analytics director for Sabre. “Customers won’t settle for anything less than superior service and swift resolution if unexpected issues arise. Therefore, the speed at which an airline can convert mass amounts of customer data into insights and insights into action is mission-critical.”

It goes without saying that airlines must keep pace with today’s tech-savvy customers. For example, a modern traveler can hail a taxi that appears in less than five minutes, check in for his flight, purchase ancillary products and services, and request an upgrade using any number of mobile devices.

This is nothing new. These customer capabilities have been in play for years. Thus, for airlines, gone are the days of customer life cycles, funnels and segmentation models that lack the data and technology to help carriers understand complex customer attitudes, behaviors and habits at an individual level.

Rather, an airline should have a clear, real-time view of all customer actions across its organization so it can quickly absorb, interpret, personalize and deliver a consistent product that customers will remember, pay for and return to experience many times over. This means moving from diagnostic data-analysis technologies that only look at historical data, to a predictive or prescriptive model that takes a more analytical, foretelling approach.

Ethiopian Airlines is doing just that. According to Miretab Teklaye, the airline’s director of digital, it is building an application with very specific performance thresholds based on customer data from previous and current flights. This enables analysts to proactively use the data to make adjustments to future flights. The app is designed to send an alert any time a threshold has been reached. For example, if the airline ran a specific promotion for a specific flight, segment or O&D that appealed to a large number of customers, the promotion did its job and an alert would not be sent. However, if the promotion did not produce the desired results (based on predictive insights from previous similar promotions), an alert would be sent to the analyst who would then evaluate the terms of the promotion, determine why it wasn’t successful and make adjustments for future flights.

Aligning the objectives, strategies and decisions of the commercial area of an airline with the operational execution at the airport is difficult with disparate systems. The customer experience is the holistic outcome of this alignment, which can be aided by integrating the commercial and operational systems, giving all areas across the airline the same data at the same time.

Outdated Technology/Inability To Processes Big Data

When it comes to data, airlines face a few challenges that don’t apply to other industries, such as online retailing. For example, airline customer data has been growing since the mid-20th century. To harvest this data and analyze it, airlines had to create systems and processes long before online retailers were even a concept.

In the early days, carriers used systems such as ticketing, coupon records and check-in message processing as technological foundations. Over time, they continued to build on top of these systems as opposed to investing in new technology and, today, those systems are rendered obsolete when it comes to effectively and efficiently processing considerable amounts of customer data. That’s because it is impossible to compile every piece of customer data, analyze it and gain accurate, up-to-date customer insights in a timely fashion without modern data-processing technologies.

However, while technology investments and innovation in this area are a necessity for the airline industry, it is often viewed as cost prohibitive due to the low-margin nature of the airline business. Nonetheless, compiling customer data and analyzing it in real time is the key to understanding customers, engaging with them and gaining their loyalty, so some form of technological investment and advancement is required for airlines to leverage their data and serve their customers in the same vein as today’s online retailers.

“It is critical for the same information to be given to our customers, to our frontline employees … the gate agents, as well as down below the wing in baggage claim,” said Karen Carter, senior director of enterprise data strategy for Southwest Airlines. “So we want one version of the truth for that data for all the different organizations, as well as our customers.”

Some of the world’s most successful online-retailing giants such as China’s Alibaba (US$23 billion in online sales, 2016) and U.S.-based companies Amazon (US$94.7 billion in online sales, 2016) and Apple (US$16.8 billion in online sales, 2016) were conceived with customer-centric data science in their DNA because they were launched during the dot-com era near the turn of the century or later. These types of companies were built on a data-first foundation from the beginning. Even traditional in-store retailers, such as Walmart, have mastered online retailing. The U.S.-based mogul retailer cleared US$14.4 billion in online sales in 2016. These businesses have the knowledge and technology to gather sizable amounts of customer data and effectively analyze it to radically boost sales.

Despite the fact that airlines, which represent one of the world’s largest industries, have access to myriad types of data from multiple sources, most are not leveraging big data to the fullest to gain valuable customer insights. This is due, in part, to lack of advanced technology and a deficiency of employee skill sets. In fact, managing and integrating data from a variety of sources is the single biggest challenge for customer-analytics professionals globally. As a result, many airlines use as little as 12 percent of their data; meaning they are leaving as much as 88 percent of it on the table.

The Challenge Of Cross-Organizational Integration

Unlike many service providers and retailers that only have one or two touchpoints with their customers, airlines are fortunate to have visibility of their customers in multiple phases, and for extended periods of time, across the customer journey. Not only are these touchpoints unique opportunities to serve customers, they are also vital to collecting immense amounts of data for each specific customer, giving airlines a cohesive view of every person they serve.

The airport is a crucial environment for airlines to interact with customers. Intelligent- and network-linked devices, such as smartphones and tablets, present yet another data-collection opportunity. In essence, any action taken by a customer gives an airline more opportunities to acquire valuable information. However, an airline needs the capabilities to effectively analyze real-time data across its entire organization so it can take accurate and timely action when interacting with customers along their entire travel journey. To date, this level of cross-organizational integration has not been available to airlines.

“Airlines are unique because the digital-commerce function of the business manages all of the customer and transactional data in a series of systems,” said Sabre’s Reyes. “In addition, the airline must fulfill on its sale to the customer by operating a logistics business at airports, as well as possess all of the unique software systems to support this objective. These two polar-opposite functions must come together in a single, actionable data landscape where the airline can deliver a seamless experience, despite the reality of a large number of ‘seams’ of data being stitched together with high-performance software throughout the process.”

The ideal solution to this complex business challenge is a seamless customer-data environment that ties back to all systems involved in shopping, reservations, check-in and the numerous other areas throughout the travel journey. Seamless technology streaming into a master customer profile could unify these data-creating systems, making airline system integration a problem of the past.

However, acquiring and implementing the latest technology across every customer-data point within an airline isn’t a reality, nor is it the answer. Rather, an agility platform (or integration platform) can tie all of these systems together, whether they are in-house, third-party or a combination of systems from numerous sources.

The Airline Agility Platform

Sabre Intelligence Exchange is the industry’s only agility platform of its scale and magnitude. In addition to being reliable and cost-effective, it enables all of an airline’s disparate systems to communicate in real time. Using the Intelligence Exchange platform, airlines can quickly and easily gather all customer data across their enterprise, analyze it and determine the best way to use it to their advantage. As a result, today’s digital customers get the exact experience they expect and the same experience they receive from the most successful online retailers.

The platform addresses a set of business problems that are generally too complex and cost prohibitive for an airline’s in-house systems. Intelligence Exchange, among myriad capabilities, performs as a digital, data-integration and innovation enabler.

Digital Transformer

The insurmountable volume of digital customers requires airlines to completely abandon their manual, disconnected processes and sync their systems and people across the entire enterprise through digitalization and automation. Intelligence Exchange enables digital transformation by seamlessly bringing people, systems and airline customers together in real time.

Data Integration Driver

The quality and value of an airline’s data is only as good as its systems integration. Data-integration-driver strategies help eliminate silos between and among an airline’s departments and systems and enhance data integrity across various technologies. They improve business intelligence in countless analytics scenarios and expand capabilities into areas such as big data and the Internet of Things.

Innovation Accelerator

An agility platform uses native integrations of all data across an airline. Therefore, an airline’s IT experts do not have to rebuild the integration foundation every time they want to run an experiment or create a new business rule. They simply use the agility platform to quickly create actions and test the success of the experiment, and then they can choose to move forward or remove that business process depending on the results of the exercise. This eliminates today’s process of initiating a sizable IT project that must be funded, developed, tested and put into production, costing the airline vast amounts of time and considerable capital outlays.

In short, Intelligence Exchange delivers greater automation to an airline’s business processes while presenting a seamless experience across all customer touchpoints and channels. The platform paves the way for airlines that plan to make digital transformation a reality.

“There aren’t many agility platforms around just yet,” said Chris Bird, principal architecture analyst for T2RL, the market leader in the evaluation, selection and contracting of commercial and operational solutions and services for airlines. “Sabre Intelligence Exchange is the only one that really has full traction in the marketplace. It’s nice to see the realization of that kind of platform in that kind of niche that Sabre has.”