Why We Decided to Build Our Own Chat Platform
by Jeff Klee, on September 23, 2020
Like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods with no one around to hear it, what if we made a great enhancement to our travel platform but nobody even noticed? Could we still call it “great?”
Earlier this year, we decided to take a road less traveled by -- again. For many years, we have offered live chat from our booking portal and, like most companies, we have used a third party solution to power that chat tool. It worked well enough and became very popular (our percentage of chats relative to phone calls grows 50% per year), but it didn’t seamlessly connect with our all-in-one platform. As we think bigger about what we want our chat experience to be, we consistently found ourselves bumping up against limits of the third party solution. So we finally decided to ditch that product completely and build a new solution from scratch precisely tailored to the needs of business travelers, now and in the future.
Last week we launched the first version of this new chat service. Phase One is admittedly a lateral move: you might notice that the chat window looks a little different, but it still functions more or less how it always has -- you type a message, and we type something back. Not much to get excited about.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. Although the visible enhancements are minimal right now, we’ve laid a foundation to do bigger things in the future to save you time and headaches when booking travel or on the road.
It’s a big endeavor to build our own chat system, and it took a lot of hard work and smart coding from our development team to get us to where we are today. (They should be very proud of themselves!) We knew this wouldn’t be easy or quick, but we decided to undertake it for these 4 reasons:
To Provide Context to our Travel Advisors So You Don’t Have To
Reviewing our old chat logs, we saw our Travel Advisors sometimes having to ask “What’s your booking number?” That made us cringe and we’re sorry if that was you. Because our new chat engine is part of our one connected platform, the Travel Advisor receiving the chat will now know instantly who you are and what current or upcoming trips you have booked. They will have easy access to your preferences and your company’s travel policy, too, so they will be ready to help you much more quickly.
So You Can Communicate With Us From Wherever You Want
Off-the-shelf chat solutions can typically be plugged into a website and sometimes a smartphone app, but we want you to be able to contact us from whatever communication platforms you use -- now and in the future. So we’ve architected a system that can easily be plugged into any messaging platform: Slack, SMS, perhaps Alexa or Google Home, and others that haven’t even been built yet. All the messages will funnel to the same Travel Advisor team and provide you a fast, consistent experience.
So You Can See Things Visually, When Appropriate
Chat (and phone calls for that matter) tend to get frustrating when it comes to reviewing itinerary options. If a Travel Advisor wants to suggest 3 flights or hotels for you to choose from, it is a much better experience if you can see those options visually, with images where appropriate, formatted in the same way you would see them on a mobile web site. And once the options are presented, it’s much easier to tap the one you want then to type, “I’ll take the 3:00 flight.” Although it’s not part of the first phase, our new platform makes it possible for our travel advisors to push out this rich, accessible content.
So Your Quick Questions Can Be Answered Immediately
Finally, we want to make sure that if you have a quick, simple question, you can get an answer within milliseconds without having to wait for a travel advisor to type. So we laid the groundwork that allows us to eventually respond to simple requests automatically and intelligently. We’re not the first ones to talk about injecting artificial intelligence into customer service. But many travel industry AI bots suffer from a frustrating lack of intelligence and can’t answer simple questions correctly because the AI engine is just a bolt-on that doesn’t understand who you are and what you need. So after researching this to death, we decided to build our own intelligence with truly seamless access to your booking, profile, and history.
When online booking became the norm about two decades ago, it was liberating and a huge time-saver for business travelers to finally be able to compare options and make choices themselves. But in order to get that benefit, travelers have to navigate search forms where even the best ones aren’t as easy as just saying out loud what they want to search for. We believe chat, done right, can be a best-of-both-worlds channel for the future. As we envision it, you will still be able to call, you will still be able to self-serve, but you will also have that third hybrid option where you can push a button on your phone and explain what you want verbally, and then see your options visually like you would on a website. In this new world, your request can be spoken, which is much easier than typing or clicking. But the answers could be rich and nicely formatted, which is much easier than a spoken list or dense paragraph. AmTrav isn’t there yet -- no one is -- but that’s our vision. And last week, even though the tree didn’t make a sound when it fell, we took a big step toward building this reality.