Virtual Agent Delivers Real Results for Alaska Airlines

Customer Service
Customer Service
Virtual customer service agent Jenn helps thousands of Alaska Airlines customers per day without breaking a sweat.

Frequent fliers and customers of Alaska Airlines are familiar with Jenn. She provides a friendly face, answers customer questions, and directs people to the correct person when necessary. She works 24 hours a day with no breaks, but don't worry about calling the Department of Labor. Jenn is a customer service virtual agent avatar on Alaska Airlines' website.

Mark Guerette, director of e-commerce, says that the company created a virtual online assistant in 2008 to enhance customer service in the critical online channel. Alaska Airlines sells 13,000 tickets per day online and the company has generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue exclusively from the online channel. Customers increasingly use the Web to book tickets and get information. Jenn is designed to provide the friendly customer service that customers experience on the phone and in person. Alaska works with Next IT to run the avatar platform and feed the knowledgebase.

Every page on the site has a link to "ask Jenn for help" next to her image. Clicking on her link opens two windows: one is a text chat screen and next to it is a view of an accompanying part of the airline site. Users type in questions, and Jenn answers via text and audio. The website window changes to reflect the topic being discussed and guide the user's navigation through the site. For example, if a user asks, "Do you fly to New York?" Jenn answers: "Alaska, Horizon, or at least one of our partners has service to that city," and the reservations page pops up. Guerette says the user experience is designed as a simple contact page. "Less is more," he says.

The avatar helps Web visitors, but also diverts calls that would otherwise go to one of AlaskaAir's three call centers. Within a year Jenn answered 4 million questions, Guerette says. During one snow storm in December the avatar deflected more than 34,000 calls. If Jenn can't answer a user's question from information in the airline's knowledgebase, she directs the user to a particular agent or department. Guerette says it's not uncommon for agents to hear that "Jenn told me to call you." Internally, employees access a "Super Jenn" version of the application for the internal company information sharing and training.

With the launch of the avatar, AlaskaAir stopped offering live chat as part of its customer service program. It saved the company $400,000 with no negative reaction from customers. In addition, it has had a trickle effect to the call centers. Call center employees sometimes use the program themselves while on the phone with customers as a resource. As a result call center productivity and first-call resolution have increased, Guerette says.

On the back end, Guerette says the company tracks what questions are being asked and where on the site a user clicks on Jenn. This insight helps to identify website problems or confusing areas for the customer. His goal is to track more metrics and gain more analytics based on visitor behavior and interaction with Jenn.

With all the potential complexity of launching a virtual agent and online customer service program, the hardest part of the undertaking was agreeing on her name and face, Guerette says. After all, she is considered a brand ambassador of the airline. After many discussions with senior management, marketing, customer service, and others, they settled on Jenn. "She is a consistent voice of customer service and of the company," he says.