Sometimes technology can feel like an enemy – it’s a new way for vendors to shift money when their products or services don’t work.
It’s a chatbot that appears when you think your identity has been stolen, a digitized voice on the other end of an emergency call, it’s a text message that informs you that your flight has been canceled with a link to another email link.
For this reason, United Airlines has developed the Inquiry Agent initiative, which uses technology to deliver a living person through the AWS United cloud during trouble, earning airlines CIO 100 Award for Innovation and Leadership.
Jason Birnbaum, United’s senior vice president of digital technology, has launched customer service at e-Cloud United with a technology partner amid the pandemic, both to ensure social distance and to improve the experience for frustrated travelers. In late 2020, work began on a service that allows customers to connect via a live video / audio session with a United agent who can, in times of uncertainty and stress for travelers, make new bookings on the fly, soothing worries about changing gates. , and even upgrade seats for passengers on the next flight.
“When there is a storm, there are never enough people. At the airline, anything can happen very quickly, and when that happens, human nature wants to talk to someone directly – face to face with someone who can help you, ”says Birnbaum. “You see it at the airport. People will line up for a long time just to be able to talk to someone who can pick up your paper so you can help them. ”
The service also allows United to maximize its workforce. Agents stationed at airports across the country can help passengers at any airport by mobile phone, and in the future – through next-generation kiosks, he says.
“Our answer: you can do it with this technology and you don’t have to wait in line,” says Birnbaum, adding that United has built QR coding into the system to provide smartphone users with an almost instant human-to-human connection. “And it allows our employees [at many airport locations] to help those who need help immediately by helping clients in a way that makes them feel better right away. ”
Connecting customers and agents
United has a large IT staff, but given the circumstances of the pandemic, Birnbaum wanted to quickly launch Agent on Demand. After looking for possible technology partners, the IT manager turned to Acquire.io, a SaaS provider, which offered reliable video and audio capabilities that United developers could set up to create certain features needed by the flight audience.
United itself is halfway through cloud migration mostly to Amazon web services, with some Microsoft Azure mixed, says Birnbaum, adding that the AWS stack offers many APIs and services that allow United.com to integrate with external services such as Acquire . io’s. United IT staff, designed for the project – from 6 to 10 developers – performed quickly. In 2021, the service was used by 350,000 passengers, and more than in 2022.
Rob Bence, director of digital transformation at United, says the setup for Agent on Demand goes far beyond connecting to Acquire.io’s Real-Time Web Communication Protocol (WebRTC) for audio / video communications. To complete this work, United developers used APIs and developed algorithms on the e-Cloud stack from United, primarily based on AWS components.
“We had four weeks to endure something, so we had to move fast, and here came the integration with the cloud,” Bence says, adding that they wanted the WebRTC broker to link the passenger to the agent rather than a full-fledged app which worries customers would have to download and deploy on their smartphones when in crisis.
The WebRTC protocol has been integrated into the intelligent routing component of the United.com booking system to find customer information and prioritize queues based on specific flight attributes. The algorithms and models of machine learning in AWS allow you to prioritize call traffic to determine the urgency of each traveler’s needs, he adds.
“We rank it and give some metadata to the Acquire platform so they can reasonably queue it for us,” Bence says. “Like which customer needs service first because one customer may miss a flight and another customer may have two hours before the next flight. We wanted to take that into account, rank, and then it opens up a session between the customer on their smartphone and the agent. ”
The data is in the United booking system on several databases, including Amazon S3 and Dynamo.
“Everything is done from our cloud environment, in which we have supported this ranking and intelligent routing caused by the AWS infrastructure, and we pass this through the API web hook infrastructure to the Acquire platform and vice versa,” adds Bence. “They open their APIs for us to then receive calls and provide summaries of interactions … records of interactions, its duration, so we can make it into our analytical reporting.”
Customer service in the cloud
Of course, the peak use of the Agent on request occurs during storms or mechanical problems that lead to delays or the need to switch to another aircraft. The resilience of the cloud is ideal for this type of customer service not only in terms of scalability but also coverage.
“Passengers used to be handcuffed,” Bence said. “Now we have people all over the world, so instead of waiting in line for hours, they only need to wait a few minutes. They open their smartphones, and boom, in three minutes their situation is corrected, and maybe they should never have left the club or Starbucks. “
The on-demand agent started as a test scenario with less than 10 customer service agents from one airport and evolved into a team of more than 2,000 specially trained representatives working at more than 40 stations across the country. According to a United analysis for 2021, now, according to forecasts, Agent on Demand will lead to labor savings of 182 to 212 million dollars in 2022.
United has also developed a dedicated user interface that teaches agents how to use the system in 15 minutes, while also providing a language translation component.
Bence says United has a “very close relationship” with Acquire.io to keep the system running smoothly. According to Acquire.io CEO Amrita Dhangala, Acquire.io, founded in 2017, has about 120 employees and it works with Elevate in financial services and with Audi and Samsung in retail.
United now employs about seven IT professionals to maintain and develop the system, Bence says, and plans to expand the Request Agent service to its baggage services and other needs as they arise. Meanwhile, as the peak of summer travel approaches, the Agent on Demand will soon pass combat tests like never before. Birnbaum and Bence, however, are confident that the service will handle all needs.
“We’re going to go in a very busy summer,” Bence says. “Our goal is to make sure the technology is reliable and that our customers know it exists.”