Paul Writer launches The Rise Of The Modern Marketer,   
Video interview series of CXO’s highlighting best practices and trends in the use of technology for marketing.

Abraham Alapatt

Chief Innovation Officer, Head Marketing & Customer Service

Thomas Cook

Use of customer analytics in driving a better marketing plan

If you look at our business, it’s best described as an aggregation of services that customers need for their travel related needs and demands. So finally unless you get a better sense of what the customer is like in terms of their demography and their specific income needs, interests, etc.  Most importantly, be able to reach them at the right point of time, i.e, when they’re most likely to be receptive. I think that is the fundamental of the business. Very often it’s about getting people to start thinking about their vacation or holiday needs at the right time because otherwise the risk is that they will start doing it at the last minute. And given the nature of our business, we’re trying to get people to plan a vacation earlier so that you’ll be able to book things in time to get the best rates and to get visas on time which has always and increasingly becoming a challenge. It’s actually better to get them to start thinking about it earlier. In many ways analysing data, being able to build the right kind of profile, reach the right set of people at the right time is crucial to actually being able to create the demand that’s integral to us being able to sell finally.

“Service by very nature can only be experienced and therefore in some sense it is opposed to facto realisation. Ours are a high ticket, highly considered and highly involved category for a vacation/ holiday. So advocacy is absolutely critical in service businesses. ”

Role of technology from customer & organization point of view

Technology has absolutely becoming the bedrock of pretty much every business. Probably service businesses more than others, because the customer of today is becoming so impatient. They’re already impatient and they’re getting more and more so. The speed at which they expect services, even if they are as I first described an integration of services. The customer’s patience is getting shorter and shorter. When they come and enquire or want to make a purchase, their expectation of the time they want to make the delivery or quote, for example, is actually getting shorter and shorter. As a result of this, everything has had to depend on technology to be able to deliver- a) information and b) the ability to actually be able to deliver the service in a form of a receipt, conformation or voucher or so on and so forth. So the systems and organizations per se, like us that serve these customers have automatically have had to speed up. Therefore, rely more and more on technology and data driven analytics to be able to provide those services in line with an increasingly short patience customer. I think that’s really in many sense a customer driven phenomenon but I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s only going to get more and more demanding. And each sort of big jump in technology that one player adopts sets the standards then for everybody else to adopt because the expectation is around that benchmark. So I think organizations like us, being as large as we are, we have had to drive the change as well. Internally more processes that were largely manual to largely automate. Besides of course the benefits other than time, of productivity, cost efficiency and so on and so forth. Obviously there are both B2C advantages that are being driven by the customer in many ways as a phenomenon and the B2B advantages itself of technology becoming a way to facilitate faster, more efficient, probably even more effective delivery of products and services.

Social advocacy

Again, I go back to the fundamental thing of product vs service. Service by very nature can only be experienced and therefore in some sense it is opposed to facto realisation. Product to some extent you can look at the features, you know the manufacturers are reputed, etc. You look at the price value proposition and it’s fairly apparent before you even consume it. You can read about it, for example, on a website. But services such as ours is largely really referenced from experience. Now short of you paying for it, experiencing it and then deciding whether you like it or not. The closest you can get is to get a reference point from somebody else who has experienced it. So advocacy is absolutely critical in service businesses. And ours are a high ticket, highly considered and highly involved category for a vacation/ holiday; typically an overseas vacation. Thus, I think advocacy is supremely important.

The rates of advocacy impact on a group or a set of friends or relatives would probably be anywhere between five and six times that of a point of reference that the manufacturer or provider is offering. Let me give you an example, the core business for us is still group travel in terms of volume where people are going in groups and obviously you get the economies of scale in terms of travel accommodation. They do a fixed schedule, departure, itinerary and so on and so forth. That is historically the biggest part of the business. It still is, but what is catching on is what we call Ad hoc groups. They are groups that are being formed by friends, family, extended family and so on and this is really about maybe one or two drivers of the idea of travelling together, reaching out to the friends and family circle and getting them on board to do a trip together. Now this is really fuelled by advocacy because that one or two promoters of that original idea of saying, “Let’s all spend Diwali in Thailand,” for example, is about really either one friend in a group of friends or one family member actually starting the idea, advocating it with that group, getting them all on board, fighting the “I can’t come” and “I’m not sure” which typically happens with friends and family. Getting them all enthused, then doing the homework, reaching out to people, getting quotes, getting the passports and all that organised as a group, coordinating the entire piece, travelling and actually leading that initiative. So advocacy is not just from the point of generating demand but in many cases it’s also about fuelling the supply.

Manage customer feedback on social channels

One is at a process level, I also look after service quality and customer service. ORM as well, i.e, Online Reputation Management. So in many ways, thanks to social media as we referenced in the last question, it’s becoming very easy for customers to give feedback in real time. When I say, real time it’s like somebody is on a tour and not able to see a particular sight-seeing or it’s not up to their expectation, they post and I see it in real time. It might be midnight in India but you can effectively see it right now. What’s happening therefore, is that is in turn giving you an opportunity to listen far more efficiently and be able to address the problem on the ground.

In many ways, we welcome technology, social media and customers. It’s a double edged sword, I admit it, because sometimes it’s far easier to put the company on a defensive if many people, together attack it on social media. But I think, if you were to look at it constructively as we do, it’s the most efficient way of customer service because it’s faster, direct and therefore, most efficient.

The second part is because of this ability to listen to customer feedback is made easier and we do things like mystery calling and stuff like that. We’re also getting a formal structure or feedback. So you get formal feedback on the process, gaps, you’re doing audits of the process and so on. In many ways there is a formal structure to give you a real time listening ability and you’re also doing a direct from the customer, almost word of mouth in some sense feedback which can be good as well. Very often we get social postings of what a great trip they had and pictures of it.

I think technology to the very vein of this conversation is enabling more real time, efficient and more proactive in some sense platforms for us to be able to get the information and deal with it in terms of providing better services. The most passionate critiques, if handled well are your most passionate champions because they’re passionate. The root is that they are passionate. If they are uninterested or neutral, it’s actually very tough because they will not give you feedback but they are still disgruntled. What happens then is that you’ve lost the customer, you don’t know it because they haven’t told you and they’re still telling other people to not travel with Thomas Cook. I would rather they were passionate, had told you that they were not happy with you, gave you an opportunity to fix it where it’s fair in your ability to offer something, accepted it and went passionately back and said that they equally love you now.

Love data /hate data

There’s a famous quote by Vin Scully which says, “Statistics are used much a drunk uses a light post to lean on rather than for illumination.” I think that’s the biggest risk. In a world where there’s too much data and too many people claiming to be able to give you more data. It’s gone from more data to some data to too much data and you don’t know what data is relevant. The risk is also not just getting the right data but also the right interpretation of the right data. And I think that’s becoming very crucial and that’s really where the maturity of the marketer and the organization in seen in many ways, in terms of a) looking at the right data regularly/consistently. You can’t just look at it when it’s convenient to you and b) being able to take the right calls and be willing to accept that you made the wrong call quickly and fix it. This is really becoming, if you will, a root cause analysis of success or failure in my opinion because either there’s a risk of saying, “Listen, there’s so much data being thrown at me, I really don’t know what to respond to because by the time I respond to it, there’s new data anyway” or the other option is to say, “Okay, I’ve got this data and it’s telling me that purely data driven, you should be doing this.” Very often you have to factor in a lot of other things because if you had to go by pure data, this company for example will probably lose what it’s built over 140 years which is we have built a very efficient, hybrid solution for aggregating travel services, i.e, we are equally online, offline and everything in between. Now if you were to go with pure data and depending on the vested interests of the sources of data, you would argue saying that “Listen, you should just be junking the brick business and put everything online.” But guess what, if you actually look at it and at the risk of criticising some of our competitors, there’s very little money to be made increasingly in the pure online businesses because they’re selling tickets that are only top-line. So in many ways, your core competence, you have to value what you’re good at and value it where the value proposition really comes, look at the data and that filter. Then say that, “What are these data points that I can use to build a case, support a case or make the right decision in terms of investment or processes to be able to offer better products and services and be more profitable.”

Sometimes I think too much data can intimidate. You have to be fairly pragmatic and clear about what data matters and be willing to look at data for fairly long term because the other risk is very knee jerk reactions. This month there’s a surge in something so you make a fairly high impact investment on the base of one month. Then you find out that it was an aberration. Next month it goes back but it’s too late because the money has been spent. The thing about money is that once you spend it, you can’t get it back so you have to be willing to determine what is consistent and what’s a trend vs what’s an aberration?



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