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By Karen S. Henrie  |  Posted 11-06-2006 Print

Good self-service is simple to use, and it anticipates customers' most common mistakes.

When it comes to customer self-service, most companies seem to have good intentions. In a 2005 survey conducted by CIO Insight, 53 percent of respondents said their company's IT departments supported customer self-service.

Of those respondents, 71 percent said their companies were investing in self-service technologies to improve service quality, while only 29 percent indicated a desire to reduce costs.

Yet success at delivering a great customer experience through self-service channels is spotty at best. Gartner Research Director Esteban Kolsky says nearly half of Web-based customer-service transactions must still be completed over the telephone. Additionally, in that same CIO Insight survey mentioned above, 28 percent of respondents said their company's customer-satisfaction levels had declined as a result of customers' inability to reach a live person to discuss a problem. As Bill Hou, vice president of self-service products at Oracle Corp. puts it, "there's a big difference between deflecting a call and deflecting it with a happy customer."

Customer self-service has been a cornerstone of Queens, N.Y.-based JetBlue Airways Corp.'s business strategy since its first flight back in February 2000. "When we launched this airline," says Eric Brinker, director of brand management and customer experience, "we made a commitment to provide as much technology as possible to make the customer self-sufficient." In 2005, 78 percent of the low-cost carrier's customers booked their flights online at jetblue.com. That compares to just 42 percent online bookings for the total U.S. airline industry, according to travel industry consultants PhoCusWright Inc.

Brinker is responsible for ensuring a consistent experience (and brand image) across all of JetBlue's customer touch points, from the plane itself to the company Web site. The airline has some intrinsic advantages when it comes to providing easy-to-use applications over its self-service channels, which include its airport-based kiosks and phone-based interactive voice response systems. For one, it is unencumbered by decades-old legacy systems built long before anyone was talking about "the customer experience." Brinker says JetBlue's ticket-less reservation system is much more akin to those used by hotels than by most other major airlines: Customers check in simply by providing their names. JetBlue also enjoys favorable customer demographics—skewed toward the young and tech savvy—that have eased widespread adoption of its do-it-yourself approach, for everything from booking flights and printing boarding passes to tracking flights and checking bags.

JetBlue's distribution costs are also among the lowest in the industry. The airline uses only electronic tickets, which saves paper, postage, employee time and back-office processing expenses. It also requires customers to book directly with JetBlue, rather than going through agents or online reservation systems that charge fees. The company's adherence to e-tickets has made it easier to introduce other innovations—JetBlue is among the first carriers to allow customers to change or cancel flights on their own. Brinker says that changing tickets at other airlines is "like doing a wire transfer with your bank, complete with clearinghouses and multiple agencies involved."

Brinker sprinkles his conversation with words like "friendly" and "welcoming" to describe JetBlue's Web site and kiosks. "We looked at a lot of best-in-class user interfaces and took our cues from them. Our kiosk is modeled after the ticketing kiosks used in the New York City subway system. We want checking in with JetBlue to be as easy as buying a MetroCard." The airport kiosk interface also mirrors JetBlue's Web site interface, and anticipates customer mistakes. For example, customers often print out the e-mail confirmation of their flight in error, rather than the actual boarding pass they are required to present at the gate. Those e-mail messages include a barcode that passengers can scan at the airport kiosk in order to quickly print the correct boarding pass on the fly.

JetBlue also rewards self-reliance. Customers are charged $25 to change a ticket on their own, while those who call 1-800-jetblue are charged $30. Members of JetBlue's loyalty program, TrueBlue, receive double points for booking flights online, so they can earn a free flight twice as quickly.

Despite such rewards, JetBlue is continually challenged in its mission to get customers to embrace self-service. The airline promotes kiosks as the fastest way to check bags before dropping them with an agent, but customers sometimes find a much longer line at the kiosk than at the traditional counter, which erodes the kiosk's value proposition. JetBlue would also like to see more customers printing boarding passes at home.


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