Airlines working on CRM systems to pamper the elites

U.S. airlines are taking some fledgling steps towards (gasp!) more personalized customer service using CRM systems -- but they're hampered by silos of un-integrated data.

That's the message of a recent Wall Street Journal column, which says airlines are starting to see CRM as a way to retain customers during a declining economy, with the side benefit of differentiating themselves from competitors.

The columnist was only able to come up with one tiny, concrete example: Alaska Airlines can deliver favorite drinks to elite-level customers, and thank them by name. (Not exactly the Ritz, but it's a start.)

But the article says the airlines are interested in experimenting some more:

Airlines are getting closer to rolling out new technology that tells airport agents your ticket-buying and travel history, flags key customers to flight attendants and instructs them to offer personalized apologies, or sends you sales targeted to your vacation patterns.

But that brings us to the No.1 obstacle: Lack of data integration. "Alaska [Airlines] has at least six different data systems housing customer information," the article notes.

At airports today, airline agents can call up a traveler's itinerary and frequent-flier status. But information about past complaints, delays, baggage problems, canceled flights or missed connections isn't available. Neither is, in most cases, how much money you spend with the airline.

Airlines are using new systems to better calculate the value of each customer -- how much you spend per miles flown each year, for example. But they haven't yet found ways to customize service at ticket counters and gates based on that information.

 But apparently they're working on it.

Some major airlines say they have spent years trying to get different computer systems to work together. Most say they have CRM projects in the works, and a few hope to roll out innovations out this year.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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