Sometimes technology can feel like the enemy: a new way for vendors to pass the buck when their products or services aren’t working right.
It’s the chatbot that shows up when you think your identity has been stolen, the digitized voice on the other end of an emergency call, that text message letting you know your flight has been canceled with a link to another electronic support link.
For that reason, United Airlines developed “Agent on Demand,” an initiative that leverages technology to deliver a live human on United’s AWS Cloud in times of trouble, earning airlines a CIO 100 Award for Innovation. and leadership.
Jason Birnbaum, United’s senior vice president of digital technology, launched United’s e-Cloud customer service with a technology partner in the midst of the pandemic, both to accommodate social distancing and to provide an enhanced experience for distressed travelers. Work began in late 2020 on the service, which allows customers to connect via a live video/audio session with a United agent who can, in times of uncertainty and traveler stress, make new reservations on the gear, ease worries about gate changes, and even upgrade passengers’ seats on their next flight.
“When there is a storm, there are never enough people. Things can happen very quickly on an airline and when that happens, it’s human nature to want to talk to someone directly, a face-to-face interaction with someone who can help you,” says Birnbaum. “You see him at the airport. People will line up for a long time just for the chance to talk to someone who can take their job so they can help them.”
The service also allows United to maximize its workforce. Agents located at airports across the country can help passengers at any airport via mobile phone and, in the future, using next-generation kiosks, he says.
“Our answer is that you can do that with this technology and not have to wait in line,” Birnbaum says, adding that United has integrated QR coding into the system to give smartphone users a near person-to-person connection. snapshot. “And it allows our staff [at many airport locations] to help those who need help right away, supporting customers 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 Agent on Demand up and running quickly. After researching potential technology partners, the IT executive turned to Acquire.io, a SaaS provider that offered the kind of robust video and audio capabilities that United developers could customize to create specific features needed by the traveling public.
United is in the midst of a cloud migration primarily into Amazon Web Services, with some Microsoft Azure mixed in, says Birnbaum, adding that the AWS stack offers many APIs and services that allow United.com to integrate with external services. , like Acquire. io’s United IT staff assigned to the project (between six and 10 developers) delivered quickly. In 2021, 350,000 passengers used the service and more than that have used it to date in 2022.
Rob Bence, director of digital transformation at United, says customization of Agent on Demand goes far beyond connecting to Acquire.io’s Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) protocol for audio/video communications. To complete this work, United developers used APIs and developed algorithms on United’s e-Cloud stack, primarily based on AWS components.
“We had four weeks to figure something out, so we had to move fast and that’s where cloud integration came in,” Bence says, adding that they wanted a WebRTC broker to link the passenger to the agent and not a full-fledged app so anxious customers would have to download and deploy on their smartphones when they are in crisis.
The WebRTC protocol was integrated into the intelligent routing components of the United.com reservation system to locate customer information and prioritize the queue based on specific flight attributes. Algorithms and machine learning models within AWS allow call traffic to be prioritized to determine the urgency of each traveler’s needs, it adds.
“We’re classifying it and feeding some metadata to the Acquire platform so they can intelligently queue it for us,” says Bence. “For example, which customer needs service first because one customer might miss a flight and another customer might have two hours until the next flight. We wanted to take that into account, classify it and then open a session between the customer on their smartphone and the agent.”
The data resides in the United reservations system in various databases, including Amazon S3 and Dynamo.
“It’s all powered from our cloud environment where we’ve kept this classification and intelligent routing called from the AWS infrastructure and we’re powering it through a web link API infrastructure on the Acquire platform and vice versa,” adds Bence. “They expose their APIs so we can retrieve calls and provide engagement summaries after…logs of the engagement, the duration of the engagement, so we can include it in our analytics reports.”
Customer service in the cloud
Of course, the maximum use of Agent on Demand occurs during storms or mechanical issues that cause delays or the need to switch to a different aircraft. The elasticity of the cloud is ideal for this type of customer service, not only in terms of scalability but also scope.
“Before, passengers were handcuffed,” says Bence. “Now we have people all over the world, so instead of waiting hours in lines, they only have to wait a few minutes. They open their smartphones and boom! Three minutes later, their situation is fixed and they may never have had to leave the club or Starbucks.”
Agent on Demand began as a test scenario with fewer than 10 customer service agents from a single airport and has grown to a team of more than 2,000 specifically trained representatives operating in more than 40 stations nationwide. Based on United’s analysis for 2021, Agent on Demand is now projected to deliver labor cost savings of between $182 million and $212 million in 2022.
United also designed a special user interface that teaches agents how to use the system in 15 minutes, also providing a language translation component.
Bence says United has a “very close relationship” with Acquire.io to keep the system running smoothly. Acquire.io, which was founded in 2017, has about 120 employees and works with Elevate in the financial services industry and with Audi and Samsung in the retail sector, according to Acquire.io CEO Amrit Dhangal.
United now employs about seven IT professionals to maintain and grow the system, Bence says, with plans to extend the Agent on Demand service to its baggage services and other needs as they arise. Meanwhile, with the peak of summer travel approaching, Agent on Demand will soon be tested like never before. However, Birnbaum and Bence are confident that the service will take care of all the needs.
“We’re about to enter a very busy summer,” says Bence. “Our job is to make sure the technology is reliable and that our customers know it exists.”