When you think about groundbreaking technology in the travel industry, your thoughts probably don't turn to a 125-year-old company. But NCR Corp., founded to market the first mechanical cash register, has over the last century been a leader in areas as diverse as automated credit systems (1914) and digital computers for aviation (1952). It invented liquid crystal displays (1968) and marketed the first bar-code scanners (1974).
Some of its achievements have been homegrown; others, such as its foray into the self-service trend in travel, came about through acquisitions. Six years ago, NCR acquired Kinetics, a company that realized that airlines could make strides in customer service at the airport only through automation. By supplying the airlines with "virtual bodies"--kiosks that would enable passengers to check themselves in--lines could be shortened without adding staff. At the same time, travelers would feel that they were in greater control of their destinies.
The Kinetics acquisition was the cornerstone of NCR's travel division. And while everyone is familiar with the company's hardware, they may not be aware of NCR's role in developing software that enables self-service at a number of "touch points" in the trip cycle, including those that offer "upsell" opportunities.
Owen Wild, vice president of solutions marketing for travel and gaming, said the key is to find ways to use the upsell in a manner that empowers the traveler, rather than making her feel nickel-and-dimed. In this day and age, he said, "It takes imagination and creativity to keep the customer feeling OK about the travel experience."
Check-in, whether at a PC or a kiosk, already offers some good examples. "I was booked on a flight the other day on an airline where I'm not at elite level, and the seat was not one of my favorites," Wild said. "When I checked in online, I was offered a premium seat at a very reasonable amount of money." Even if a customer is paying out of his own pocket, the price is low enough to make the investment in comfort, he said. He noted that consumers are becoming accustomed to "dynamic pricing;" sports teams, for example, sell the same seats at different prices depending on which team is in town.
And at the moment of truth, when a passenger is checking in at a kiosk, a cabin upgrade for a reasonable amount of money can be very enticing. If a traveler is facing a long delay, a day pass to the airline club can make allow him to make productive use of his time. The mobile channel will make it easier for airlines to take a more active role in heading off passenger discontent, Wild said. Airlines already send out text messages when a flight is delayed; why not also send a message saying, "Your flight is delayed, so here is a 2D barcode 'coupon' for a free coffee"? That would take a bit of the sting out of an unfortunate situation.
"I believe the mobile device will become much more pervasive," Wild said. "Brand loyalty is at a three-year low, and dissatisfaction levels are at an all-time high. Airlines need to be more proactive to avoid losing customers." There are still technical limitations that need to be overcome. Once a passenger has a boarding pass, interaction becomes "a little more challenging," Wild said. "But we're looking at bridging that." Once that gap is closed, airlines' customer outreach will be limited "only by their imaginations," he said. "We can forge unprecedented opportunities. Technology can make this all come together."