Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bon voyage

The travel and hospitality industry, perhaps more than any other, depends on strong and positive customer relationships. For the Carlson Leisure Group, an operating group within Carlson Companies, maintaining those relationships is job number one. In fact, our mission is to “build better relationships” with customers, suppliers, and franchisees.

Carlson Leisure Group comprises several divisions. One of the largest is the Carlson Travel Franchise Group, which encompasses Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, our network of 900 full-service, franchised travel agencies; Cruise Holidays, our cruise-specialty, franchised travel agencies; Results Travel, a franchise brand of more than 700 independent travel agencies; and SeaMaster Cruises, a new franchise brand for home-based cruise-specialty travel agents. Carlson Leisure Group also includes a division of travel agencies that are wholly owned by Carlson rather than franchised out.

Our travel agencies know that building and maintaining a strong relationship with a customer can reap huge rewards in repeat business. And to do that, we must provide great service. After all, it’s a well-known maxim that a person will talk to friends and family far more about a bad service experience than they will a good one. Bottom line: Anything we can do to improve customer service is important to helping franchisees grow their businesses. These days, more than ever before, enterprises need to delight the customer—and that’s what we aim to do, with the help of technology.

How it works
About three years ago, we built a custom, proprietary customer-relationship management (CRM) system called Q3 for the Carlson Travel Franchise Group. It’s specifically used for Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, while a more limited version has been provided to our Results Travel members.

For us, the ability to collect permission-based customer data in a central database that’s accessed via the Internet had some powerful possibilities. First of all, each individual agency would not have to start with a fresh passenger name request (PNR) every time a repeat customer needed to travel. PNRs are the records used to purchase travel via reservation systems such as Sabre, Worldspan, and Galileo. Q3 is integrated with three of these systems, meaning that PNRs can be populated from Q3 to the reservation systems (and vice versa) seamlessly. Agents thus cut precious minutes off the reservation process, making it a simpler matter for the customer to plan travel.

Q3 has another important characteristic: It allows us to examine the aggregated data collected across the entire network, enabling us to better negotiate discounted travel or promote key suppliers to select customers with targeted offerings. For example, if a cruise line wants 40,000 names of people interested in cruises, we can go into the database and get a list of people who’ve agreed to be contacted and who have expressed interest in cruises. The supplier sends out the promotional mail or e-mail, giving customers access to discounted travel or unique offerings they otherwise couldn’t access. The return address for the message is database-generated as well, to include the local travel agency with which each customer generally works. It’s a winning solution for us, our customers, and suppliers.

For Q3 to work, it needs to be reliable and fast. Early on, we encountered some problems with performance and availability that led to a rewrite of the software.

One of the biggest changes was to move Q3 to a Microsoft SQL Server platform from a Sun/Oracle platform. This was not a decision made lightly, as it involved moving more than one million lines of code, but we felt that if we could achieve increased performance, this was the way to go. Ultimately, if our travel agents find Q3 burdensome or slow to use, they’re going to stop using it, and we won’t be able to provide service to our customers the way we want to.

The move to the new platform was hardly plug-and-play; it took six months of planning and hard work. We’re still switching some travel agents over, which involves converting their old data and training them on the new system.

But already it’s safe to call the new Q3 on its new platform a smashing success. Performance has increased by more than 100%, and we now have a waiting list of travel agents eager to get onto Q3. We’ve gone from people giving us, shall we say, “constructive feedback” to people giving us high praise. With the increased responsiveness, uptime, and reliability, we’re able to be there and serve customers better. In fact, more than two million customers have given us permission to include them in our Q3 database.

In the end, Q3 is undoubtedly the industry’s most sophisticated and effective CRM solution for selling travel—which greatly enhances our customer service abilities. As a business tool, it’s also making an impact on our overall health as a franchise organization. We’re the only growing travel franchise in the country, and Q3 is one factor that has contributed to that growth.

Leading agencies that have recently joined our Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates network have cited Q3 as an important factor in their decision; our competitors simply offer nothing like it. In July 2003, for example, Indiana’s largest travel agency, Ross & Babcock Travel, joined Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, adding its annual sales volume of $65.3 million to our network. In August 2003, we welcomed Utah travel powerhouse Morris Murdock Travel, which contributes an annual sales volume of $110 million. Both agencies mentioned Q3 as a specific reason for their attraction to Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates.

This kind of increase in overall network sales volume translates to better relationships with travel suppliers, reduced overhead costs, and, in the end, better business—benefits that are passed on to customers in the form of savings and special negotiated rates.