By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Snafus over schedules and fares have lost the online travel service customers. If Orbitz can't keep its data straight, it'll never take off.

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Call-Center Chaos

Orbitz also constantly refines how it communicates with customers. The site's grid design, which lays out airlines and their lowest fares across the page so people can drill down for more information, is widely praised. But Ackerman's team found that consumers need help using all the information Orbitz's search engine can provide. So ticket-buyers are now prompted to search a day on either side of their intended trip and to consider alternate flight times and secondary airports to get lower fares.

The layout of the confirmation page also has changed, with times and airport names printed in bold. Such prompts help cut down on errors caused by customers not reading their itineraries carefully, although the prompts don't necessarily help with more complicated problems. For those, customers must call Orbitz's call center.

Call centers, of course, are the ugly stepchild of every online service. After all, online businesses only make sense if you assume that computers are more efficient than people. Orbitz's call center has proven to be a particular trouble spot for the company. After becoming disenchanted with its first call-center provider, Orbitz transferred the contract to UpStream, a division of Rosenbluth International that was recommended to Orbitz by United Airlines, another UpStream customer. UpStream COO Jerry Johnson says the complexity of Orbitz's offerings requires a call center with "very good knowledge" of the travel industry.

"They invested a lot of money in the call-center operation and then had to start all over at zero," says Forrester analyst Henry Harteveldt. "But Orbitz is only as good as its last sale." (Orbitz won't quantify its investment in its call center or otherwise discuss what went wrong with it.)

This article was originally published on 2002-10-06
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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