LifeMiles Overhaul: Major Improvements To Refunds, Call Times, And Customer Service
LifeMiles Overhaul: Major Improvements To Refunds, Call Times, And Customer Service

View from the Wing

I was talking with Matt Vincent, who runs the Star Alliance frequent flyer program Avianca LifeMiles, and we were catching up on some of their projects. Last year I had a call with Matt, along with the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer of LifeMiles.

  • I shared how much value I thought there was in the program – reasonable award prices, no fuel surcharges, and even reducing award costs when a customer accepts a flight segment in coach to go with a long haul business class flight.

  • At the same time, I’ve always written about the program as having something of a niche role despite being a transfer partner of American Express, Citibank, Capital One and Bilt Rewards and despite being probably more aggressive than any other program is selling miles at a reasonable price.

  • That’s because if an award can be booked on their website, and everything goes smoothly, savvy customers can get amazing deals on premium cabin award tickets all over the world – but when things go wrong along the way, their customer service hasn’t been up to par.

I’ve heard recently some several readers that customer service calls have gone much more smoothly in recent months, and I’ve seen discussion of this on Reddit as well, so I asked what changes they’ve made. Vincent put me on the phone with Luis Coreas, their Chief Operating Officer, who walked me through the changes they’ve made and those that they have in process.

Coreas began by reminding me of the three categories of issues I’d flagged for them. Then he described what they’ve done to rectify these things.

  1. refund calls take a long time
  2. schedule changes to award itineraries are hard to resolve
  3. if an error arises while making a booking, service is hard to get

Improved Refund Processing

Calls to handle refunds took a long time because even when everyone was on the same reservation, on the back end it was a separate process for each passenger to return taxes to a customer’s credit card. The telephone agent would have to do one at a time.

So they’ve started to share a “pay by link process,” which validates eligibility for a refund and processes the transaction on the back end, so “instead of holding on the line for 5 processes customers use a pay by link process to reduce call time, and the refund [of miles] is processed in a couple of hours.” This means customers don’t spend as much time on the phone, and agents finish calls more quickly reducing hold times.

Reducing Telephone Wait Times

LifeMiles has been “monitoring calls going way off the average handling time.” The average call takes 7 to 8 minutes, while problem calls should take no more than 20 minutes. When calls take longer they get classified and look into what’s causing the issue.

  • When they started looking at callings taking over 20 minutes they found a number of policies and processes they put into place at launch of the program that “didn’t make sense.” For instance they had a cumbersome security process to change any account information. They need that for someone wanting to change an email address or member name, but a lower threshold is reasonable for some other items.

  • Multifactor authentication actually makes things easier for members compared to what came before which was questions about a member’s relationship with the program (required for a password reset).

  • They’re monitoring call center volumes, and have weekly meetings between the LifeMiles call center team and their center operator. They dive into the percentage o calls lasting half an hour, and they look at outlier calls. They’ve changed how agents are scored from efficiency finishing calls, to whether the agent has solved (or escalated) an issue. Agents with low scores get one-on-one retraining.

  • Better back-end technology to reduce transactions erroring out. There are basically two types of errors when trying to book an award – one where they don’t have a fare on file for the route and can’t price the taxes, they’re doing a better job now routing these to a chat instead of ending the transaction; a second where there’s an unknown error and the customer has to restart the transaction – they’ve improved outdated programming in their Amadeus reservation system queries to reduce this.

We got into some detail on how problems with pricing awards happens, and the errors this throws of. He mentioned a passenger flying from Colombia to Frankfurt then Istanbul and onward to India – and they don’t have a fare to match it in order to quote the tax. They looked at a variety of vendors who could improve their auto-pricing but they don’t believe there’s a better option than they use. So they automate a chat form and route it to agents that know how to price taxes (building the relevant fare out of one-ways). This has improved the percentage of redemptions that get completed.

Fixing Tickets When There’s A Problem

Working on better escalation of ticket problems. The most frustrating thing is making a booking months in advance, and then there’s a schedule change. In one example, the ticket no longer syncs with the reservation, and the unticketed space gets cancelled. Then the agent tells you all they can do is offer you whatever new award space is available (invariably: not much).

With a revenue ticket, if a partner makes a flight changes that disconnects the ticket and itinerary, the issuing airline does an involuntary reissue into any available inventory class to fix the problem. But with an award ticket that’s not available. For Star Alliance, there needs to be:

  • X inventory for economy
  • I inventory for business class
  • O inventory for first class

If that inventory doesn’t exist then the issuing airline needs to ask the operating airline for help re-opening the inventory or rebooking the reservation into the correct award class.

Luis tells me they’ve been “been working with United, Singapore and EVA trying to make a solution that brings the commercial process into redemption tickets” and that they “do have it with Gol” so they can can protect redemption customers in revenue inventory. He’s “hoping to address in Star Alliance generally” since it’s a problem that they all face.

Now, when the customer calls with a problem and there’s no award space available, they “have to go through a process of asking for help” – those “requests are centralized in single department” but the “success rate is low” and the process is slow. This is similar to other airlines. They’ve worked with agents on how to better explain the issue, and what they’ll do to solve it.

Getting The Best Customer Service From LifeMiles

LifeMiles has improved its staffing for problem escalation. Their experienced exceptions agent used to be a single daytime position. Now they have four people on during the day qualified, and two overnight, so that they offer 24 hour solutions. And they manage staffing against planned promotions, because people buy miles and redeem them right away.

And they’ve changed their mindset on call center quality, aiming to get issues resolved rather than calls resolved.

The most senior agents, with the greatest ability to solve problems, are on chat and email. Emails (support -at- generally are responded to within 24 hours. In contrast, when an agent graduates from training they usually first take call center calls before moving to other departments (pricing, chat, security, email, back office) with more experience.

What’s Coming

They’re improving agent workstation capabilities so that requests can be resolved immediately, and without agents having to contact more experienced desks. For instance, if a customer needs to merge two accounts there’s a workflow for that so that the agent enters the accounts and the “system runs the validation, so you always get the same result.” This is coming towards end of the year.

In addition, LifeMiles is working to put refunds online. This was originally targeted for April, but is now slated to have the “first integration launching in the third quarter and then the final solution in the first quarter of next year.” This will support an immediate refund of miles, and taxes returned to customer credit cards within a week.

And they’ll roll out improvements to the way their system searches and books for awards by August. This involves how they’re connected to the Amadeus reservation system. Their booking engine is a custom tool, and they found that many queries to the system are outdated producing errors. They expect this to make it easier to find and ticket the awards customers want.

Gary Leff

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