How to Keep Customers Happy After a Merger: Travelocity & Expedia

Keeping Customer Service Great After a Merger Can Be Tough - Here's how Travelocity approached it

Keeping Customer Service Great After a Merger Can Be Tough (photo by Tim Fields, on Flickr)

Can You Reconcile Quality vs. Quantity After a Merger?

When your company has built its reputation on great customer service, what happens when you’re in a merger with a bigger company that has a different focus?

That’s the challenge Martin Gurth, Senior Manager of Customer Experience at Travelocity faced after the company was bought by the larger, volume-focused, Expedia.

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In today’s interview, which was recorded at the recent Digital Customer Experience Strategies Summit (DCX), he discusses how they’ve not only kept the strong customer service focus at Travelocity, but how they are now successfully selling the other parts of the merged organization on the value of great customer experience too.

(To hear other highlights from DCX, visit

Same Owners, Different Brands

Martin Gurth, Senior Manager of Customer Experience at Travelocity

Martin Gurth, Senior Manager of Customer Experience at Travelocity

Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are all owned by the same company now. But they had three distinct brands. Expedia was known for its huge scale — lots of properties, lots of listings — and it had a widely known brand name.

Travelocity had a much smaller, but devoted, following. It’s followers had stuck with it because the customer service had always been great. So after the merger, Gurth and his team decided to go back to their roots: great customer service.

Research showed that their customers were on the go when they had a problem that needed Travelocity’s help, and normally reached out via social media. That meant it was crucial to be there with timely, friendly, and fast service at those times.

“The customer needs to love us … not because of a loyalty program … but because in your time of need we are going to be there.” – Martin Gurth, Travelocity

The way to do this, they decided, was to have an entire social support center staffed with “Tier 3” executive-level support. In other words, with the folks you’d only get to at other companies if you really pushed your way through the first and second support levels. The folks with the power to make decisions on whether or not to give you a refund, with direct access to the airlines’ reservation systems, with the ability to call a hotel and speak to the manager instantly.

How To Afford Widespread Tier 3 Customer Service

You can’t put just anybody into a Tier 3 support role. It takes a lot of skill, knowledge and training.

That all costs money. Gurth and his colleagues decided the way to finance it was through:

  1. Moving the social support center to a lower cost location than the United States.
  2. Taking brand dollars and shifting them from advertising to customer support.

Moving a contact center offshore can work, but, as many companies have found out, there are language and cultural differences, which can lower customer satisfaction. Travelocity realized, soon after setting up a social support center in the Philippines, that it needed to invest heavily in English grammer education, and in training agents how to show empathy in a way that their customers would welcome.

The agents hired to work in that center had already worked with the company for a couple of years, so they knew the organization and its policies. But they also got six weeks of specialized training, followed by four weeks of in-person coaching from top reps who flew from the US to the Philippines.

To provide that level of training meant that the initial costs were high, and it couldn’t be funded out of normal contact center budgets. But, as I’ve argued before in this blog and in my book, PeopleShock: The Path to Profits When Customers Rule, your contact center staff ARE your brand. You can advertise your great customer service all you want, but if that’s not the feeling people get when they try to contact you, those brand dollars are wasted.

In Travelocity’s case, after the merger customer service was still to be the key point of differentiation, so it made sense to allocate brand marketing funds to beefing up the quality of the social media focused contact center. They also used brand funds to market the fact that they had a great social care team, encouraging customers to use that channel.

You Can’t Set & Forget Your Contact Center

In an industry with high turnover it is especially important that there be ongoing monitoring of how well the organization is doing in its customer care, and ongoing training and coaching to keep standards high.

Like many organizations these days, Travelocity sends many post-transaction satisfaction surveys to customers. One way they’ve found helps get greater feedback is to have their agents send a recap email to the customer, no matter which platform the conversation took place on. Only after offering that valuable summary to the customer does it ask them to complete a survey, on which it now typically gets a 10 – 15% response rate.

Also in This Interview

We also talk in the interview about:

  • What questions they ask in the follow-up surveys
  • Avoiding bombarding customers with too many surveys
  • How they penalize poor quality suppliers
  • Metrics for measuring success
  • Experiments with real-time reviews so they can intervene while the customer is still in the unhappy situation
  • Why (apart from cost) Expedia and others can’t simply give all contact center agents Tier 3 level authorization to make customers happy, even though the model has proven to be cost effective for Travelocity.

So listen to the interview (you can also subscribe to it in iTunes, Stitcher, or other podcast players). If you would rather read, the transcript will be up in a day or two.

You might also want to listen to episode 85, where I discussed what other speakers at DCX 2016 had to say.

Want to Improve Customer Experience in Your Organization?

Tema Frank speaks and teaches internationally about how to improve customer experience in the digital era. She’d also be happy to have a free half-hour strategy session with you, to find some quick ways you can be more successful by making your customers more satisfied. Just send her a quick email with your details, and we’ll set up a meeting time.

More October 2016 Talks By Tema Frank

Self-publishing Workshop – October 16 

Co-led with fiction writer, S.G. Wong, they will discuss the learning from the process of putting together and marketing Tema’s new book, PeopleShock: The Path to Profits When Customers Rule, and SG Wong’s experiences with both traditional and self-publishing. Register at

How to Beat The Competition Without Resorting To Rock Bottom Prices – October 26 

Tema Frank will show you how to sidestep the price wars and offer customer experiences people will pay a premium for, at this session hosted by The Promo Syndicate. Register at

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