Airports Add 21st Century Twist to Customer Service

Author: 
Kathy Scott
Published in: 
November-December
2012

A new breed of customer service representatives is popping up in a handful of eastern U.S. airports. They speak to passengers in a clear, pleasant voice and maintain a steady, predictable level of patience and enthusiasm — even though they work 24/7. They’re never pulled away on a more urgent matter and hold strictly to the “company line” that airport officials want them to convey.

One not-so-small detail? Technically, they’re not human; they’re virtual. Despite familiar names, inviting personalities and engaging speech patterns, they’re nothing more than video images projected onto cutout figures engineered to create the illusion of real airport personnel. Granted it’s high-definition, three-dimensional video captured by advanced multimedia creation equipment; but it is just video.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is currently using three “virtual customer care representatives” produced by airportONE.com — one at each of its three busiest airport. In July, the Port Authority unveiled “Libby” at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), in the International Arrivals area of Terminal B.

Tom Bosco, general manager of LaGuardia Airport (LGA), introduced “Marie” at a press event in August. Named after former Mayor LaGuardia’s wife, Marie is located at the airport’s Central Terminal Building. John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) posted “Sarah” at the Welcome Center in JetBlue’s Terminal 5.

Libby, Marie and Sarah are part of the Port Authority’s multi-billion dollar initiative to improve efficiencies and customer care over the next eight years. The “airport avatars” are just one example of its “system-enhancing projects” designed to improve customer service.

Happy Customers Spend More

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Project: Virtual Customer Service Representatives

Location: Boston Logan Int’l Airport, John F. Kennedy Int’l Airport; LaGuardia Airport; Newark Liberty Int’l Airport; Washington Dulles Int’l Airport

Cost: Begins at $25,000/unit

Ancillary Cost: Staff time to develop & refine content

Suppliers: airportONE.com; Tensator

Applications: Greeting visitors, providing
wayfinding information, delivering marketing/
advertising messages, briefing passengers about screening procedures, etc.

Benefits: 24/7 customer service content; elimination of human limitations such as fatigue, poor communication skills, language barriers & negative emotions

A 2010 study by J.D. Power & Associates found a direct correlation between highly satisfied passengers and increased retail spending at North American airports. The 45% increase is all the more reason to have avatars like Libby, Marie and Sarah win passengers over with pleasant greetings, basic wayfinding information and the overall novelty of their appeal, say officials from airportONE.com.

But San Zarrouk, director of marketing and ecommerce for the company, encourages airports to apply the technology more broadly. Using airport avatars to deliver marketing or advertising messages could be highly lucrative and inspire hotels or tourist attractions to sponsor some of the content they deliver, explains Zarrouk.

Patrick Bienvenu, COO of airportONE.com and an airport consultant, considers the company’s airport virtual assistants, or AVAs as they call them, “an important necessity.”

“Airports have a public responsibility to make sure that passengers make it from Point A to Point B efficiently and safely,” explains Bienvenu. “The beauty of AVAs is that they grab passengers’ attention — often the first challenge in communication.”

Because avatars attract so much attention, it’s vital to place them in locations where they won’t cause bottlenecks in traffic, he cautions.  

Model Employees

While creating an avatar or virtual greeter allows airport officials to engineer out human limitations like fatigue and foul moods, those benefits come at a cost. Prices begin at about $25,000 per unit and vary according to each model’s capabilities. airportONE.com also leases its AVAs.

“There are varying levels of interactivity,” explains Bienvenu, noting that voice recognition technology can enable avatars to respond to common passenger questions about restroom locations, concession options, gate areas, etc. Each airport’s budget, needs and imagination determine the scope of its avatar, he adds.

Tensator, another developer in the market, equips its Virtual Assistants with quick response code readers to provide passengers with special promotions and additional information.

Both Tensator and airportONE.com pride themselves on being a turnkey resource for clients, beginning with fact-finding to determine how an airport will use its unit (greeting passengers, delivering wayfinding information about ground transportation, Baggage Claim etc.) and ending with identifying the most strategic place to locate the unit. In between, company personnel write scripts based on input from the airport, cast talent to deliver the content and shoot footage for the final product. Post-production work ensures that the avatar’s words and movements are in line and connected, explains Bienvenu.

In addition to the direct costs of leasing or purchasing a unit, airports also invest time developing and refining content for it. However, Bienvenu reports that a recent cost/benefit analysis performed by Quadrex & Associates for a major U.S. airport found that five AVA units would pay for themselves in a little over a year, due to subsequent cost savings from the more efficient deployment of the airport’s customer service staff. 

‘Paiging’ Customer Smith

Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) was the first North American airport to begin using a virtual customer service representative. In May, it installed “Paige,” a Virtual Assistant created by Tensator, to deliver routine information to passengers. While Tensator promotes its virtual airport assistants as “the next-generation digital signage,” some of its overseas customers seem to view them in more personified terms, referring to them as “holographic mannequins” or “virtual staff.”

In addition to delivering wayfinding prompts, Paige also shares tidbits about IAD’s history and growth, complete with video clips that are shown on a board she holds in her hands. To date, she has welcomed more than 1 million visitors since she was installed on a trial basis last spring.

“When a light bulb goes off, you pounce,” says Dennis Hazell, associate executive staff coordinator for Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Haskell credits Chris Brown, IAD’s vice president and IAD airport manager, with developing the unconventional customer service tactic.

“It exceeded our expectations,” says Hazell, noting that many passengers describe IAD’s virtual greeter as welcoming, with a warm and inviting delivery style. To garner such a reaction, Hazell assumed the role of executive producer, casting the appropriate person to serve as the “face of IAD” and crafting her script. Tensator also provides such services.

“We wanted to have the right personality that characterized the heart and soul of Dulles,” he explains.

Once Paige’s look and delivery style were established, a strategic location was selected for her, just after international passengers hand off their declaration forms to Customs personnel. The airport posted Paige there, because it’s the first place where passengers start to decompress and are more likely to be open to the avatar’s messages, explains Hazell. For some arriving passengers, Paige may be the only interaction visitors have with the airport, he adds.

In November, Paige will be given even more exposure, when she is relocated to the Main Terminal and integrated into IAD’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration. In October, the actress who portrays Paige was preparing to record new information for the additional content.

Bienvenidos Pasajeros

Paige’s pal Carla began her duties at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) as a “virtual greeter” in June. Stationed just before the security checkpoint in BOS’s international terminal, Carla reminds passengers to have their identification and boarding passes ready. She also delivers detailed instructions about TSA limits for carry-on liquids, removing shoes and belts, when to enter the screening machine, etc. And she does it all in English and Spanish.

“Boston Logan International Airport is an industry leader in deploying new technology,” says Bill Vetter, senior vice president and general manager of Tensator. “By leveraging the Tensator Virtual Assistant, passengers are assured of receiving consistent instructions in both English and Spanish on the preparations they need to make before going through Security. Important messages are effectively communicated and valued staff is freed up to attend to critical and important responsibilities.”

Officials from airportONE.com report that Long Beach Municipal Airport plans to place a bi-lingual AVA near its security pre-screening line. “The hope is that because AVA attracts so much attention, passengers will hear the message to remove belts and items from their pockets prior to reaching the actual TSA screening point, thus speeding up the overall TSA screening process,” explains Bienvenu.

With multiple companies developing virtual staffing options for airports, additional uses and features
seem likely.

Subcategory: 
Operations

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