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Extract from Customer Focus Magazine: Issue 30 (Sept 2020)

Like many in the holiday sector, Cosmos – one of the UK’s oldest tour operators – saw its plans for 2020 turned to ruins. But ceo Giles Hawke says the experience he’s taken from dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, has been just how customer experience still has to be king – even if that means telling people their dream holiday might have to be postponed.

Everything was going so well. “It seems so long ago now, but at the end of last year we were in a great place. We had strong bookings (the year was up 20% compared to the same time in 2019); we had all the right people in the right place; and all in all, we were looking forward to a strong 2020 – with 70% of all tours sold. What a difference a few months made to all of this.”

No matter how many times he’s probably recounted this ‘calm-before-the-COVID-19-storm’, scenario it’s impossible not to detect some incredulity in the voice of Giles Hawke, the UK ceo of Cosmos – the tour operator offering guided experiences, cruises and rail journeys to holidaymakers in more than 40 countries. Reflecting on the lost opportunity 2020 has brought can’t be easy. While the pandemic has scythed its way through all manner of different industries, few sectors have been so badly decimated as the travel and tourism one. Lockdown-induced travel bans meant that almost overnight, global air travel fell by more than 90% in April and even as restrictions start to be lifted now, the boss is expecting that the rest of this year will be largely written off.

He says: “Each month we’ve progressively issued statements pushing back the start of tours – first cancelling all holidays booked from April to June 30th, then from June to September, and as we speak (mid- July) all tours are currently under review till the end of October.” If this hasn’t been enough of a customer services task, in the immediate-term, there was also the need to deal with repatriating people already away, and all by employees who were having to work from home, often in flat-share accommodation, which – to put it mildly – is not always the most conducive environment for speaking to customers. Oh, and let’s not also forget that Cosmos doesn’t just book customers direct, it predominantly delivers holidays through high-street travel agents too – many of whom had shut down completely, or had their staff on furlough.

“You could just look at all this, and think ‘where do even we start with all of this?’,” he says. “Luckily we switched to a cloud-based call centre last year – we couldn’t have managed without it – but more than this, in everything we’ve done since, we have been guided from the start by our underlying mission – which is to create happy customers.” He explains: “Our industry came under a lot of flak for trying to hold on to people’s money, and for not issuing refunds. Often this was because the complex holiday supply chain – hotels, the coaches, flights – have often already been paid their percentages of the total fee in advance. But we took a position very early on to give people a no-questions-asked refund unless they wanted to move their holiday to a different date.”

After dealing with holiday-makers that needed to be brought home immediately, Hawke says the business quickly switched from emergency-mode into one of proactive communication. “Our philosophy was very much to contact people before they contacted us – either directly to those who booked with us online or by phone, and also by issuing letters that we sent to travel agents who would then send them on to their customers and have their own follow-up calls.” The ‘no quibble’ option to cancel was the key message conveyed, and the guidance to Cosmos’ own staff and to travel agents was to speak candidly to customers, to ask more about what their real worries were, and whether they wanted to simply change their dates rather than have their money back straight away. Not only was this backed up with the promise of an enhancement to their holiday if they wanted to move it, but also a new service commitment – that even if they moved their dates to next year, customers could still move their dates again – for whatever reason – up to a month before their new departure date.

“You have to remember that people holidaying with us are buying life experiences – they’ve been looking forward to having their breaks for some time, and for many, the anticipation of going away is just as exciting as the holiday itself.” He adds: “We’ve wanted to communicate that people’s plans don’t need to be cancelled just like that.” He adds: “What we’ve really learned in this period of talking to customers much more, is that most people don’t actually want to cancel. They want to go on holiday, but at a time they feel comfortable going away.”

This is proven by some impressive early statistics from Hawke, which show that once communicated with, 70% of customers opted to receive a letter of credit – and of these, about 90% rebooked their holiday at a later point in time. “It shows that when you treat customers well, people are actually loathed to relinquish their holidays and their relationship with a brand,” he says.

Hawke says he is also proud of the work travel agents have done on Cosmos’ behalf. “It could have been easier for us to talk to travel agent-booked customers ourselves, but it’s right that agents ‘own’ their customers too. Agents will have initially spent a long time sitting with customers, planning the perfect holiday for them, and from the customers’ point of view, that’ll be who they’ll be expecting to deal with too.” He adds: “What’s been encouraging to discover, is that cancel rates and re-booking rates don’t really differ, whether it’s us talking direct or agents talking to them – which just goes to show that if you get your messaging right, you are in a good starting place.” He continues: “A definite learning I will take from this experience, is that in service you just have to be upfront with people – in our case that some people have cancelled, and others haven’t, but these are the facts, and we’ll work with you.”

The reason for the success, claims Hawke, is that agents and the team in the contact centre understand the ‘why’ (a customer’s future holiday might now be cancelled – especially if it seems a long time away still), as well as the ‘what’ – the specific details of this. “Agents understanding the ‘why’ is key for us,” he reiterates. “I say to people that we’re not in a crisis phase now; we’re just managing a very difficult situation – and that’s how they should talk to customers too. As time has passed, we’re now getting vastly different customer queries. Some now think we should be re-opening our tours earlier, because the cancel date seems a long way off for them, so it’s about managing their expectations.” He adds: “Because we know travel agents are getting these sorts of queries too, what we’ve also tried to do is open up our call centres to them too – so they can get the most up-to-date information, and more of the ‘why’ to then relay that to their customers.”

“All of this is designed to ensure the agent gives the best customer service possible.”

If things sound bleak though, there are – he says – more positive signs ahead. “Just recently, agents have been getting in touch with us, asking for brochures. We’d held off sending them out because the resumption of tours was so far off, but what seems to be happening is that customers are starting to look to 2021 now, and want to think about booking holidays again.” According to Hawke, bookings for next year onwards are up 30% compared to where they would normally be in the preceding summer. And not all of these are this year’s holidays just moved to the following year. “Around 50–60% of holidays already booked for 2021 are actually from new customers discovering the company,” he says.

Although COVID-19 has completely taken over proceedings, service was something the business was already taking far more seriously anyway. In March 2020, Cosmos launched an improved agents’ portal, to help agents improve the customer experience in-store. He says: “The portal was a big investment for us, designed to make the process for agents as simple as the online system customers booking direct with us experience.” Hawke adds: “But there are extra elements too – such as being able to hold holiday options for 72 hours and see – in real time – exact availability of different options. There is also extra information – such as what happens to people’s bags at specific points in a break, or how long transfers take, etc – which answer the sorts of routine questions people need to know, but which not all agents could possibly remember.” He adds: “All of this is designed to ensure the agent gives the best customer service possible.”

So what does Hawke see as the outlook ahead? “If this crisis has taught me anything, it’s the importance of meeting people’s expectations, and servicing against this,” he says. “I think next year we’ll still see fewer people travelling than in 2019, but I’m quietly confident we will emerge from all this.” He says: “I think that even if there’s a second wave, it’ll be more localised lockdowns, and I don’t think the same level of first-time panic will be witnessed again. We are totally prepared to be able to offer cruises and coach tours again – all that’s needed is for people to see that everything’s in place that makes them feel confident about travel.”

In the more immediate term though, Hawke also has other plans on his mind. “Next week I’m off on holiday myself, hiking in the Mont Blanc region,” he claims. Normally high-profile bosses might be berated by the mainstream press by somehow ‘disappearing’ off on vacation during times of difficulty. But not only does Hawke arguably deserve his break, there’s also one very good reason that he points to for having one: “I can’t very well head a travel company, and be encouraging people to travel abroad, if I’m not prepared to do it myself!” he says playfully. Once again, it’s all about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.

 

 

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