Online travel firms still treating visitors badly, study warns

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on February 14, 2005

In the airline and travel industry there are some worrying trends emerging, with 28% of firms still sharing customer data without permission, and 57% of online enquiries not being answered on time, according to the Q1 2005 Online Customer Respect Study from the Customer Respect Group.

According to the study, the airline and travel sector is very important as 2004 online travel bookings reached US$50 billion, and are expected to grow to some US$90 billion by 2009.

Overall, US Airways came out top among the airlines, Marriott International topped the hotels and resorts list, Amtrak scored best among passenger transportation companies, and Orbitz fared best among web-based resellers (and was also the best performer overall).

Respect index
The study provides objective measurement and analysis of corporate performance from an online customer's perspective, assigning a Customer Respect Index (CRI) rating to each company. The CRI is a qualitative and quantitative measure of the customer's online experience with each company. The various attributes measured have been grouped and measured as indicators of Simplicity (ease of navigation), Responsiveness (quick and helpful responses to enquiries), Privacy (respect for the privacy of the customer), Attitude (customer-focus of site), Transparency (open and honest policies) and Principles (values and respects customer data).

Sector performances
Although a direct comparison is difficult because of the inclusion of industry-specific questions, the average CRI based on 595 surveys of corporate web sites in various industries throughout 2004 was 5.9. Meanwhile, the travel sector firms in this study scored 6.8. Broken down by category, ratings for Airlines were 6.6; Hotels and Resorts scored 6.6; Web-based Travel Resellers scored 7.3; and Passenger Transportation scored 6.8. Overall, four of the top six rated firms in the survey were web-based resellers.

The travel industry did worst in the area of Responsiveness. Users consistently state that receiving timely responses is a critical aspect of site and vendor selection. Across the industry, 24% of inquiries were never returned and a further 33% were delivered back more than a day later - the threshold of timeliness according to recent research. On the positive side, 30% of enquiries were responded to within four hours, illustrating that some forward-thinking companies have built online inquiries as a component of the back office process.

Privacy issues
In the category of Privacy, the top performer was Expedia with an excellent 9.5 score, which tied the best score of any company in the past 12 months. Other notables included Marriott, Hotwire and Orbitz. At the other end of the privacy table, Trump Hotels and Casinos at 3.4 fell into the bottom 10% of those companies studied in 2004. Some 62% of companies have updated business practices and do not share personal data without permission. This does, however, leave 28% that share or sell personal data without permission and another 10% that aren't explicit about what they do with it.

Since travel firms collect detailed personal information (credit card, phone numbers, addresses, travel dates, as well as number, names and ages of family members.) users often hesitate about booking trips if they believe that information may be shared. In fact, 20% of respondents surveyed in a separate study said exactly that. This suggests that some US$10 billion may be in play for companies that can demonstrate respect for customers and their information.

Market booming
"The online travel industry is the biggest B2C market and is growing massively," explained Terry Golesworthy, president for The Customer Respect Group. "The Travel Industry Association (TIA) recently said that 45 million customers made a purchase online in the last 12 months. Where they spend their dollars will depend on the level of trust they feel with individual Web sites."

Golesworthy warned that those companies that fail to respect the customer will lose potential revenue which - given the industry's overall financial malaise - may could even the difference between success and going out of business.

Key findings
Overall findings for all surveyed firms included the following:

  • Surveyed firms receive the best overall rating (CRI: 7.8) for Attitude and the worst (CRI: 4.9) for Responsiveness.
  • Some 51% of all sector firms use Autoresponder technology, in which emails are automatically sent to users to confirm the receipt of their enquiry and let them know when they should expect a response. Of these, 52% included detail on how quickly they would follow up but only 62% followed up in the timeframe promised.
  • Only 25% of surveyed firms provide an acknowledgement to an online enquiry, in which they provide a timeframe to expect a response and successfully made that timeframe.
  • 98% of sector firms have privacy policies on their sites explaining how customers' personal data is being used. 10% need to be more explicit about how they use personal data, 62% do not collect data or use collected data only for internal purposes, 19% share data with business partners and 7% share data with unrelated businesses without permission from users.
  • Some 95% of surveyed firms use cookie technology. Of these, 20% provide a full explanation about what advantage they provide the user and what data they hold, while 12% provide a full explanation on how to disable them.
  • After personal data is collected, only 38% of sites use an "opt-in" default where the customer chooses to have their data included in later marketing programmes. An additional 38% require the customer to send an email, contact the company offline or provide no ability to be excluded from future reuse of their data.
  • Just 25% of firms always use SSL or Https forms to provide security when collecting personal data. Increasingly, web users look to resolve online issues with self-serve capabilities, which would include Frequently Asked Question sections (FAQs), site search and site maps. In the travel industry, only 26% of sites provided all three capabilities. Airlines did best with 44% of sites providing all three.
  • 85% of the sites reviewed provide forms that would be difficult to use by those with disabilities including every airline reviewed.

Obtaining the report
Subscriptions to the Customer Respect Online service, which analyses each company and industry twice each year, can be purchased directly from the Customer Respect Group. The subscription includes industry-specific findings, analysis and editorials, dynamic league tables for CRI (and each CRI sub-index) scoring for all companies, CRI report cards for each company covered, an own-company report including actionable recommendations, best practice guidelines, customer respect examples, analysis tools for head-to-head and multi-company comparisons, and annual cross-industry reports including the Fortune 100 CRI report.

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