Case Studies

When service matters

Emirates Airlines is a regional success story of global proportions. However, its continued success relies on being able to scale adequately across all continents, maintaining a consistent quality level and customer satisfaction. That’s why it has invested in upgrading its customer call centre, Dave Reeder reports.

A quarter century ago, Dubai-based Emirates Airlines was launched with a $10m investment, twoleased planes and a single destination. Last financial year, it posted a profit of $1.69b, served 111 destinations and was the world’s largest customer of the A380.

It’s fair to say that coping with scale successfully has been one of the main components of its growth strategy.

“For a long time, w e grew on a f airly ad hoc basis,” explains Karen Bell-Wright, VP for retail and contact centres at Emirates Airlines. “We started a new route, opened a local sales office and local support, growing as the business in that territory grew.” However, longterm, that was not a strategy that could w ork on a global scale. “Now we have 57,000 employees worldwide – 165 nationalities
– and service is centr al to our business.”

What that means for Emirates is that its call centre business is not seen as a cost centre, but as a high profile element of its success. “That gives us pressure, but we do have full support at board level to make sure we can deliver.”

An example of the problem that Bell-Wright and her team face is this: new routes mean the roll-out of new aircrafts, and each aircraft requires a significant number of new crew members. “That’s the start – then we have to think about customer numbers and the support staff required, plus in-country support.”

The speed of Emirates’ growth meant that the traditional cycle of upgrading regional and local call centres just made no sense any more. The airline opened one of the first call centres in the Middle East and grew that side of its business organically as new destination after new destination was opened up.

“The problem was,” recalls Bell-Wright, “that serving nearly 70 countries posed an accessibility problem. How does a global company stay close to its customers? That’s the dilemma. We also took a more holistic view of our business – a crisis like the tsunami in Japan or volcanic ash in Europe doesn’t just affect our customers in Japan or Europe, but globally as we’re a joined-up business that has to look at the world as a whole”

And growth has been speeding up. Last year, Emirates opened up six new routes and, by mid-2011, it has already announced another five for this year. “We needed a strategy that would allow us to grow globally but with consistency and quality of service.”

The answer? The so-called Global Connect project, developed in conjunction with Genesys and handled as a managed service project by BT. “The idea was simple: virtualise our call centre activity globally,
by linking our five global regional centres (Dubai, Mumbai, Melbourne, Manchester and New York City). We will also be integrating Guangzhou into the project.”

Emirates’ relationship with Genesys started with Skywards, the airline’s frequent flyer programme. Genesys applications allowed the call centre to easily handle the complexity of multiple time zones, and allowed Bell-Wright and her team to work on quality issues across the group. “I won’t say we had problems but we wanted all of our call centres operatives, no matter where they were based, to offer a consistency of service. So we devoted a lot of time to setting base-line standards and so on.”

Although she recalls some managed services problems with the worldwide rollout of Global Connect, she is notably pleased “to have a relationship with a market leader like Genesys”.

Now the global virtualised call centre is working well. “I’m not saying we’re perfect but we’re in a much better position to have customer knowledge, which is critical. A customer’s key concerns are simple and we have to address them: they want instant accessibility and they want the operator to know who they are. To deliver that, we needed to give our operators the best tools – knowledge management is critical.”

Bell-Wright points to the importance of senior management buy-in on projects like this. “We’re lucky that service is seen as central to our business, but we have to work at it.”

What has clearly worked is achieving the airline’s key objective – how to scale without compromising customer service.

And the result? “The outcome has been great. We have a more stable infrastructure. We have better performance management. And our operators have no excuse not to perform to our high standards, because they have every tool they need. Our job now is managing our people. What we’ve achieved is critical to Emirates going forward: we’ve matured our customer contact environment and tools in order to manage our business better.”

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