Smiles + Zendesk: Conversational support boosts retention
Smiles scales and powers its loyalty program by enabling agents to respond to omnichannel requests using Zendesk’s single, unified platform. After seeing call volumes fall with chat, Smiles invested in more conversational support experiences, including offering Facebook Messenger as a channel.
“Even with service peaks, we were able to handle large volumes of incoming requests extremely well; there was no instability with the Zendesk platform.”
Product Manager at Smiles
“As the migration of telephone voice support to digital service channels like chat and WhatsApp increases, our aim is to continue to extend Zendesk across our entire call center.”
Head of Products, Customer Service and Quality at Smiles
Zendesk Start Date
Facebook Messenger productivity boost
Call volume, post-Chat implementation
Requests solved via self-service
More than 17 millions travelers have joined Smiles’ loyalty program since it launched in 1994, with members being rewarded for flying with dozens of operators to hundreds of destinations all around the world. But as Smiles’ membership grew, the company discovered that it needed a more advanced customer service solution to retain and grow its customer base.
In 2019, Smiles started looking for a platform that would enable agents to support multiple channels, including chat and social media, from a single screen. It aimed to improve ticket routing to reduce customer wait times, increase agents’ agility, and enhance agents’ ability to solve more kinds of inquiries. Finally, Smiles was determined to boost customer retention by pioneering new support channels like Facebook Messenger.
Smiles identified Zendesk as the best fit for its goals and ambitions. It relies on Sunshine Conversations, Support, Guide, and Explore to meet and exceed customer expectations.
Facebook Messenger: Quick adoption, high retention
Smiles partnered with Zendesk to develop a two-year roadmap for its customer experience evolution. Its two initial goals were to simplify the agent experience and implement new conversational experiences to properly route requests and improve agent efficiency.
Smiles worked on cleaning up the agent interface, ridding it of the performance limitations that caused instability with the company’s previous support tool; it was intent on identifying and solving technical issues that could harm customer retention.
In order to engage with those customers in innovative ways, Smiles rolled out a pilot program to support Messenger. Smiles’ support team used the pilot as a way to slowly scale support for the channel while testing new workflows.
That pilot program helped the Messenger channel quickly gain traction—conversation volumes skyrocketed tenfold, going from 100 to 1,000 contacts a month on average. Furthermore, the first month the channel went live, 50 percent of customers who used Messenger stayed with Smiles.
The road to self-service, chatbots, and personalization
After this roaring success, the team started to work on the next part of its roadmap–exploring how it could use Zendesk to solve customers’ biggest pain points, thereby establishing customer service as a strategic business operation, capable of increasing customer satisfaction and retention.
That search led the company to embrace self-service. The Smiles team worked with Zendesk to launch a new knowledge base built with Zendesk Guide in the second half of 2019. As a result, customers can now access hundreds of up-to-date articles and take advantage of simplified navigation to quickly find answers to common questions.
Next came the task of reducing call volume by adopting a chatbot. That effort required optimizing the virtual customer service line and finding the best way to identify callers. The chatbot came online in early 2020, and now about 50 Smiles agents serve customers on this increasingly popular channel.
Smiles has also worked on streamlining and personalizing its customer service experiences, largely driven by setting goals such as answering Messenger requests in less than 20 minutes.
It also has customers authenticate when they reach out for help so agents have each requestor’s customer service history and preferences; by enabling agents to promptly identify each customer, agents don’t need to repeat questions. They have the context they need to confidently answer calls. On chat and Messenger, the Smiles support team can also proactively communicate with customers about points transfers and other transactions.
An unprecedented challenge: COVID-19
The whole support operation was tested when COVID-19 sent request volumes soaring at the start of March 2020. The Smiles team received approximately the same volume of calls in a single day as it usually receives in a whole month.
The added efficiency and flexibility that Smiles gained with Zendesk helped it meet the challenge. Every call is quickly filtered, making it easier to direct demands to other teams within the company. Agents divided into specialized groups are able to respond to several tickets at once; that segmentation also helps reduce call resolution time.
“Even with service peaks, we were able to handle large volumes of incoming requests extremely well,” said Vanessa Tannuz, Smiles product manager. “There was no instability with the Zendesk platform.”
Smiles’ earlier investment in self-service proved timely, as well. An eye-popping 79 percent of customers are able to solve their requests using the knowledge base, an incredibly valuable tool for blunting a surge in support requests.
That knowledge base covers a significant range of common questions related to flights, such as cancellations, rebookings, password resets, recent account changes, and crediting earned miles. Members of the Smiles Club can find answers about setting alerts, account status and balance, reservations, membership, upgrades, regulations, benefits by category, and expiring miles. Requests related to Smile’s Easy Travel product—which allows plane tickets to be reserved in advance, with payment up to 60 days before the flight—are also covered.
Moving from voice-based to messaging support
The Smiles team observed a steady and significant trend in its channel composition around the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic struck: customers started messaging instead of calling for support.
At the beginning of 2020, 73 percent of its contacts came in through the voice channel. That percentage dropped to 38 percent after Smiles launched chat in March 2020. Smiles was able to easily pivot 30 voice agents to help with the rising chat volume.
Smiles quickly adapted to 2020’s fast-paced changes thanks to the previous investments it made with Zendesk. As well as the benefits mentioned above, Zendesk gives Smiles greater control and visibility over its operations, including agent performance. For example, it can see when and why customers have to keep reaching out to solve problems; it also reviews what makes customers give good feedback. Smiles relies on these and other performance indicators to find ways to continuously improve and enhance the quality of its customer service.
Smile’s Messenger channel, powered by Sunshine Conversations, enables the company to scale its support to meet peaks in demand without lowering the quality of its customer service. And as Smiles moves forward with Zendesk as its partner, it intends to offer customers more channels, including WhatsApp for time-sensitive requests and adding a chatbot to the Smiles mobile app.