The travel sector’s recovery from the pandemic will be hampered by the continuing problem of long call wait times for agents to get through to suppliers, the Future of Travel conference was told.
Speaking during a panel debate, The Travel Network Group chief executive Gary Lewis said the problem remained a “massive issue” for travel agents and warned it could also have a damaging impact on customer service levels in the trade.
He described long telephone wait times – blamed on staff shortages at supplier call centres – as “beyond crackers”, with agents were on hold for two to three hours on average when trying to speak to operators to make bookings or amendments.
He said: “This is a massive issue now for travel businesses in the part of the market that serve these suppliers. The suppliers simply cannot answer the phones; they have not got the resources to deal with all the calls.
“These suppliers recognise the needs of the travel agent but their [in]ability to get through will be one of the things that will hamper the recovery and customer service.”
If agents have to tell customers they cannot reply straight away or that it may even take days to come back to them on booking queries, it could have “an immediate impact” on service and potentially even result in the loss of that customer, he stressed.
Similarly, current problems caused by airline cancellations could also impact the way agents are able to service clients, he said.
“The risk is that people will go and book direct. That relationship [between the agent and the customer] is based on professionalism and timing. If the timing is not there it will be a challenge.”
Suppliers on the panel insisted their companies’ call wait times were “seconds”.
Eamonn Ferrin, vice president, international business, Norwegian Cruise Line, said the company had invested heavily in service personnel with “literally hundreds” more staff.
“Calls wait times on average are seconds,” he said.
Kuoni product director Claire Ross said the operator had enjoyed new trade business on the back of its reputation “because we do answer the phones”, adding: “We have kept in place the people who support our partners.
“There is no doubt it has been tough but we prioritised it. We have seen some of our biggest bookings coming through the trade.”