Every year, innovations are becoming increasingly important for the business travel industry. Vipservice knows this firsthand. The company is currently hitting the reset button on its processes and introducing new technologies one by one. Irina Solovyova, Executive Director of the Holding, sits down with BBT Russia to discuss advanced technologies, "market hygiene" and client partnerships.
– Irina, Vipservice is the sponsor of the Best Innovative Business Travel Product nomination in the Buying Business Travel Awards Russia & CIS 2018. Before that, you supported Best Airline for two years in a row. What made you switch gears?
– Traditionally, Vipservice has focused on building close and long-term relationships with air carriers: from the moment the company was founded up to today, their products are the most widely presented in our portfolio. However, technologies are a crucial "hygienic" factor for the healthy and competitive business of airlines, as well as TMSs and our holding. We do our best to show our clients we're about innovation as much as we are tickets.
Yet we never focused directly on the fact that Vipservice has been successfully developing its own products for a long time. The fact that Portbilet, our online marketplace for passenger transportation and related services, has been ranked No.1 in users in the Russian market and has had customers in more than 12 countries for many years, just seemed natural to us.
At the same time, the majority of users are in the system for 80% of working hours, which indicates that our platform is already being used as an industry tool. On October 31, we finally transferred 95% of our agents' operational activities to this online platform and proved that Portbilet can be scaled and implemented in neighbouring businesses, where transportation and accommodation are the prevailing services.
After stopping for a moment and breathing a sigh of relief, we realized that investments in automation were the company's second largest expense after payroll. Today, the holding has several developer teams, each with its own specialization: suppliers (transportation and hotel aggregators), customer relations (CRM), processes (OTA, OBT, an automated system for working with apps), and development and control (BI). All these tools are also available to our clients. Small companies often can't afford expensive high-tech solutions, but it is important that all our partners remain competitive in today's market, which requires automation.
– What solutions and technologies do you think will be in the highest demand in the business travel market over the next six months or year?
– Let's use the concept of "market hygiene," or the basic group of technologies, without which a self-respecting player can't provide services. As I see it, this includes an automated system for working with apps in the form of an internal tool that helps effectively manage customer requests, monitor service quality and make managerial decisions based on employee performance.
Another extremely important solution that took the market by storm several years ago is OBT. Other market players may not agree with me, but I'm convinced that a corporate tool for online booking is first and foremost necessary for the agency itself, and only then for the client. It's a must-have internal solution that helps companies operate more efficiently with synthetic requests like business trips. Clients are moving in this direction on the wave of popularity from markets where fees for transactions performed by an agent are traditionally high.
The next step is technologies allowing businesses to forecast the near future. They are already needed right now and include analytical platforms that help more accurately determine business development strategies and achieve the desired results with optimized investment expenses.
There are also a lot of solutions and technologies I would say are trending. For example AI, neural networks and big data. But this is still just in theory, which is where it will stay until our client recognizes their value and agrees to pay for them. By the way, we already use robots that recognize ADMs (Agent Debit Memo) from our suppliers and manage queues, but these are part of our internal processes we don't promote or monetize.
– During the Vipservice Open Door Day, you demonstrated an analytical tool currently under development. How is it different from what the company used before?
– We really want to branch out into consultation from being just an agent for business trip organization. To be a good consultant, you need proven methods that help clients achieve expected results in a particular area.
There are two main sources where you can get these methods. First, from foreign partners or franchise owners. Of course, when we acquired CWT (a Russian company), we got access to their solutions and technologies. We appreciate this partnership. The second method is to formalize your own experience and package it into new solutions for clients. We use both options: the first method helps us sell, inspire and lead by example, and the second allows us to create solutions that are our own intellectual property. For example, the above-mentioned analytical tool is our proprietary solution.
Of course, the holding has long been using an analytical system, we even have two of them: one for our ticketing business, and the second for online sales. The information provided by these systems helps us make better business development decisions. Our corporate section's new product, the pilot version of which we'll be testing together with the first client starting December 1, will allow to not only store data, but also refine and model client travel policies.
When we get the opportunity to share our expert opinion on business travel management strategies, that's a higher level of partnership with our customers. Our goal is to make sure the holding's main corporate business receives 20-25% of its annual income from consulting services. I think this is an attainable goal within the next three or four years.
– What else can help agencies build partnerships with their clients?
– You need a sincere intention to improve the quality of service and steps that are tangible for your clients. Start with small steps and eliminate the little things in the service that irritate clients, then you can move on to more serious tasks that can surprise, delight and inspire. It has to be in this order. With a high attention to detail, you demonstrate your professionalism to the client, which then makes it possible to become a strategic partner and advisor. That is why our corporate section pays close attention to the following three components in its new development strategy: processes, employee behaviour and business model corrections.
By adjusting processes and behaviours, you can eliminate minor flaws in the quality of a service's system. For example, when agents start using Portbilet, it opens up broad prospects for the company. Each of our agents truly becomes a universal professional because now they can arrange comprehensive services without any significant additional training. Plus when some processes are fully automated in the system, energy and attention can be turned to the client and the proactive solution of their tasks. As for the development of an analytical tool and our own consulting methods, they help us in our transition to a new business model. Instead of just an agent, we're now a consultant.
– In the context of such changes in the internal processes of your holding, the Open Door Day project seems like a timely and natural step. Were your expectations of the first meeting met?
– Since 2012, after our rebranding when we made a heart our new logo, the communication strategy of the holding has been reduced to a single goal: to make people choose us by heart. It's more than just a slogan. It is a solid ideological platform for all our processes. Therefore, it was especially important for us to turn Vipservice into a more open, transparent and credible company.
Our holding went about doing this step by step. First, we opened up to players on the ticket sale market. Then, when we launched the Biletix internet service, Vipservice began telling more about itself to representatives of the online travel segment, and in the last few years, our focus shifted to corporate customers.
Of course, intention alone is not enough to make people choose you by heart. During our Open Door Day, we sought to show clients how we fulfill our promises. Our staff showed guests different areas and demonstrated that everything we talked about is already in varying degrees of readiness, and we're definitely hard at work! If our clients are asked "does Vipservice really do what it promises?" we would like them to be able to respond "80% yes." I admit that it's very difficult to provide 100% everywhere at once, but we're doing our best: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
We are very pleased our clients are also inspired. Many of them said they learned a lot about us, and this is essential because the main goal of any Open Door Day is to get to know each other better.
We demonstrated our progress in the development of our analytical system during a group moderated session. In fact, such meetings are also a crucial consulting tool. One valuable result of the event we did not even expect was the consent of one of our largest clients to become a pilot site to test the hypotheses underlying the system. We are very happy and inspired with our pilot project.
– Do you plan to become even more open to your peers in the industry?
– Today, more than ever before, we want to show ourselves to the general public and discuss the ongoing changes in the holding. In this sense, the BBT Awards ceremony is the best platform to unite the industry and give all participants the opportunity to tell the market more about themselves.
We believe this is one event we definitely need to be at!