How a New Airline, and a New Customer Service Model, Took Flight

Customer Service
Customer Service

ExpressJet's marketing function took a leap of faith to its new regional airline off the ground.

"Initially, I was not an advocate of outsourcing our call center," says ExpressJet Airlines Vice President of Marketing Trish Winebrenner, who admits that her 25 years in the industry favors an "old-school" perspective. "I've always used brick and mortar call centers where I had the ability to motivate, train and speak to my agents in person. I was concerned that the virtual model would not give me the ability to motivate my agents Yet, I also needed to be quick to the market."

That need for speed along with a secondary desire to control costs lead the industry veteran to a decidedly new-school decision: ExpressJet chose to outsource its reservations and customer service call center to a third party, Alpine Access.

The decision marked on of three major components of the marketing strategy the 20-plus year-old company executed last year when it launched non-stop regional flight service in 24 U.S. cities. Until then the company, which was known as one of the country's best regional carriers in the aviation and investment communities, was relatively unknown to air travelers. That's because ExpressJet flew under other airlines' brands, including Continental.

ExpressJet knew it could handle the operational and maintenance demands of operating a commercial airline, but it confronted a major brand-awareness issue. "I couldn't sell our new service strictly on our product or the great experience, reliability and operational maintenance we've been providing to our customers for past 20 years because our new customers, the general traveling public, would not connect our name to those qualities," Winebrenner notes.

So, her function's early marketing efforts, including the initial announcements and the communications between new customers and reservations agents, would be crucial. The marketing function educated senior managers about the new brand and dispensed pairs of them to conduct press conferences 24 cities so that they - and not public relations spokespeople - could establish a direct dialogue with their customers.

To decision to outsource the call center was made based on the need to go to market quickly, manage costs and maintain flexible scheduling. While Winebrenner and her team developed forecasts of what they thought demand would be in each market, there was no way of knowing what call volumes would actually be until the fleet was in service for several months.

Once the decision to use third-party provider was reached, Winebrenner set criteria for selecting among those vendors. First, she wanted as much contact with agents and control over the outsourced call center as possible. For that reason ExpressJet to favored outsourcers with an employee model over vendors with a contractor model. Second, Winebrenner avoided vendors who currently or previously served the airlines industry, which is not well-known for excellent customer service. "I wanted a company with experience in industries that were better known for providing excellent customer service," she says. Third, Winebrenner wanted the vendor's agents to be able to relate as honestly and openly as possible to customers.

Alpine Access, the provider ExpressJet selected, addressed each of those needs. By design, its home-based agents, who are full-time employees, live and work in many of the communities that ExpressJet serves.

"I've been absolutely thrilled from day one," says Winebrenner, who say that Alpine Access also demonstrated it was the right decision when something went wrong.

In mid-May 2007, about a month after flights started, call center agents and managers noticed a massive spike in calls. The excessive volume caused hold times to soar to 45 minutes for some customers during a brief period. Alpine's managers immediately investigated the issue and discovered that the calls were coming from travel agents. A glitch in ExpressJet's reservation system prevented travel agents from making changes to their customer's flights. The problem was relayed to ExpressJet, which corrected the software problem. Hold times in the contact centers returned to less than five minutes in less than two weeks and to a matter of seconds thereafter, Winebrenner reports.

"Had we not been using the outsourced model," she notes, "I would have had to work with three or four departments within the company. In this case, we resolved the problem with one point of contact. It was phenomenal."