Southwest wants to add email and mobile phone text message notifications to the application but decided voice notifications were the right place to start. For one thing, the airline's customer database doesn't necessarily contain an email address or a mobile phone number for every passenger - although initiatives to gather that information more routinely are under way.
For example, Southwest would have email addresses associated with reservations made online but not necessarily for those made over the phone."The thing we have for every customer who makes a reservation is a phone number," Taylor says. "So when we looked at what kind of message can we send them, the guaranteed thing is a phone message."
What he didn't want was for that message to sound "canned or robotic," so Southwest worked with Varolii to make sure the automated caller would come across as friendly and natural, clearly introducing itself with something like "this is Southwest Airlines calling" and a quick description of the problem, and then giving passengers the opportunity to talk with an agent. Varolii uses a trademark chime at the beginning of each call as a clue to the recipient that they're talking to an automated system, rather than a person.
While outbound automated "robocalls" from telemarketers and political candidates are often unwelcome, Varolii specializes in a different use of the technology that is more focused on outreach to its clients' existing customers. The automated messages sometimes deliver bad news - e.g., that your flight's delayed or, in another key market segment, banking, that you need to make a mortgage payment pronto to avoid foreclosure. But even with those collection calls, part of the emphasis is on giving customers options for avoiding a crisis - and some bankers say the automated calls are less embarrassing to their customers than having to speak with a human collections agent.
Taylor insists Southwest doesn't give out product endorsements like salted peanuts. "But we're happy to do it when it's earned," he says. When Southwest went shopping for this technology in 2007, it considered five vendors, ranking them according to 11 criteria, Taylor said. "Varolii not only came out highest on our scorecard overall, but they were highest in each category as well. At that point, it was a no-brainer for us - and they've lived up to our expectations."
That decision was followed by close to a year's worth of development work before the application was launched in August 2008. The complications were mostly on the airline's side of the integration puzzle, in areas like generating the data that would be fed into the Varolii system via a web services application programming interface.
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