If you’re looking for your dream vacation at a great price, Travelzoo Inc. has some answers. However, until late 2010, the business of this highly successful global Internet-media company was delivered on an advertising model: Travelzoo gave the biggest names in travel access to its database of qualified travelers, all of whom were inspired by its products. Then, in August 2010, Travelzoo introduced a new vertical, selling local experiences to customers, which created a unifying concept across all the company’s products.
“In the past, it was the advertiser who owned the relationship with the customer,” says Lisa Oswald, Travelzoo’s senior vice president of customer service. “The concept of standing behind our products and being trusted deal experts is in our DNA; however, the concept of owning a customer was new.”
What I’ve Learned
Lessons in Customer Service
From Lisa Oswald
“Be the first person in the room to listen and the last person to speak. It’s an essential habit in order to understand what’s important to others and to present a more fully considered response.”
“What you do must be, and be seen as, right. It’s not enough to do the right thing—it must be perceived as right by everyone else in the organization, too. Especially in a public-facing role managing customer interactions, whether it is one to one or one to many, doing the right thing is integral to our company’s brand promise.”
“To be outstanding, you have to stand out. Be bold, stand for something—how do you rise to the top if you’re buried in the background?”
Helping the organization to understand what this all means has become Oswald’s strategic role at Travelzoo since she joined in 2011. Unfazed and enthusiastic, Oswald is busy guiding the organization on how this concept fundamentally changes the company’s approach and its sourcing and distribution of product, with the ultimate aim of making it simpler for customers to interact with the product.
“Living through the explosive growth at Priceline, and [subsequently] walking out the door of one of the biggest e-commerce businesses in the world 11 years later to join Travelzoo, was very comfortable and familiar,” Oswald says. “I know how to navigate change, adapt to volatility, operate on a long-term horizon, and manage daily hands-on priorities. Travelzoo was second nature.”
Oswald calls her strategic road map for customer success “Five Miles to Wow.” It started simply enough; Oswald and her team built all the basic components necessary to operate a customer-service organization. Mile two was all about optimization, Oswald explains—how do you take the insights you have and improve your capacity, manage your unit costs, and find ways to effectively scale the operation to do more at a lower cost? At this stage, many technological solutions and process innovations came into play.
What Oswald sought was to engineer a system that made it simpler for a subscriber to do business with Travelzoo, thereby eliminating the phone call. “No one wants to call or send an e-mail to a company anymore,” she says.
The decision to move self-service onto the Travelzoo site turned out to be a major win. “Our first self-service initiative deflected 10–12 percent of our overall contact value in North America and Europe,” Oswald says. “In the course of a year, we lowered our contact ratio by 40 percent and significantly lowered our operating costs. Driving up efficiency and lowering costs—that’s what everyone is looking for. It’s not out-of-the-box thinking, but it’s a fundamental business need.”
Heading into mile three, Oswald turned her focus to service quality and customer satisfaction. “How do we know we are doing the right things?” she wanted to know. The answer was provided by putting internal and external customer-feedback systems into place. The result, Oswald is very happy to say, has been overwhelmingly positive. In just a year and a half, Travelzoo earned a 99 percent customer-feedback rating and a five-star Google rating for service.
Mile four is the next natural step for Oswald. “We know how to operate an efficient customer-service organization,” she says. “Now, how do we take that across all of the verticals and replicate that success within the rest of the organization? Once we have that in place, mile five is service as a competitive advantage—the systems are in place, the mind-set is in place, so how do we differentiate our business and deliver an above-and-beyond customer experience? How do we use service excellence as a growth driver and marketing platform?”
But while Oswald is devising the future stages of her project at Travelzoo, she’s also contemplating her art projects. What some of her colleagues in the corporate world may not know is that Oswald also puts energy into her work as an award-winning monotype artist. She has studied both art and printmaking, and has exhibited throughout New England over the past 10 years.
Oswald believes that her creativity as an artist is a guiding force in her work in customer service, and implementing Travelzoo’s customer-service operation from scratch is an evolving work of corporate art, as much as it is a science.
These days, Oswald doesn’t make it to the studio as often as she’d like, but “the constant living on the left and right side of my brain has helped me in both the studio and the office,” she says. “I have a very operations-driven career that often requires lots of creativity. That’s helped me do what I do and have fun doing it.”
Oswald first learned how to create monotypes in a two-week intensive program back in 1999, and it was love at first print. The blooming artist and burgeoning career woman decided to seriously pursue art, and was invited in 2003 to study printmaking in Florence, Italy, for the summer, an experience that inspired her to carve out “the other half” of her life to make and sell art.
“Everybody’s got a secret life,” Oswald says. “I’m always trying to balance my professional life with my personal life.”