Perk it up: Air Transat

Air Transat needs to keep it positive.

Sometimes, it's not what you say — it's how you say it. That's the lesson to be learned from our experience with Air Transat, which rated lowest among airlines surveyed in our recent test of customer phone service in that sector.

To be fair, Air Transat does not offer the type of flight that our researchers called to request. Primarily a holiday airline, the Montreal-based carrier flies only once a week to certain destinations, according to the customer-service representative, and so they can't schedule round trips that last only two days. She directed us to call another number. “I'd have to call about that,” said a second rep when asked about booking the flight.

Analyzing the Air Transat call, however, Barbara Bradbury, vice-president of major accounts at Toronto-based contract call centre AnswerPlus, says that she found the rep “very clinical. She was abrupt in asking questions. And she said, 'We don't fly for two days.' There was no attempt to soften that information.” Bradbury says that even when call-centre reps have to deliver bad news — that they don't offer the type of flight the caller needs, for example — they should still frame it as a positive. The softer alternative, she says, would be: “I'm sorry, but all our flights are booked for one week or longer. Are you sure you couldn't extend your stay?” Or: “Another airline is able to meet your needs, and here's their phone number.” The point, Bradbury says, is to make sure the call becomes a helpful service instead of a brush-off.

“I must say I'm a little surprised by what I'm hearing,” said Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins of Air Transat when confronted with his company's poor results. Desjardins said Air Transat has a good reputation with its customers, “who call to laud our staff, or actually write in.” (He did acknowledge “there's always room for improvement.”) Desjardins said Transat's training program for new call-centre recruits lasts four weeks, including one week of classroom training, one week observing mentor reps handling live calls and two weeks taking calls with their mentor listening in and coaching. The company also reviews recorded calls on a weekly basis to ensure reps are handling calls properly.

Air Transat sells its flights primarily through a network of more than 400 travel agents and several websites. Its Montreal call centre, staffed by about two dozen employees, doesn't actually make bookings over the phone. That may be why one of the first questions the rep asked was, “Have you checked our website?”

Bradbury says sending customers to a website is an increasingly frequent practice, but it's irritating to customers who have decided to use the phone. Rushing the customer off the phone is another gaffe. Air Transat made what Bradbury calls a “very poor close,” hanging up too quickly after a hasty goodbye. High-volume call centres often find their caller queue backed up and need to speed things along. But Bradbury says that's little excuse. “Even when a rep is in a rush, the caller should never pick up on that,” she says.

Call-centre employees are often the first interaction customers will have with a company, especially service companies like airlines. Getting that first impression right is crucial; a friendly rep can go a long way toward making a sale. Should Air Transat ever decide to expand their route offerings, they might want to keep such salesmanship-friendly ideas in mind.