Expedia Has Technology to Thank For Its Five Star Service

Expedia moves millions of people around the world. It supports a multitude of languages, geographies and brands in more than 20 countries. And yet despite its scale, the company excels at making its customers feel like they know them personally. How do they do it? With their technology.

Mikko Ollila is Senior Project Manager at Expedia.
Mikko Ollila is Senior Project Manager at Expedia.
In this interview, Mikko Ollila, Senior Project Manager at Expedia, explains how they empower agents to meaningfully relate to customers.
By Hannah Hager

In an organization that handles millions of calls annually, the task of ensuring agents are effective, efficient and operating in a meaningful way can feel cumbersome. Agents need to be empowered to relate to customers. The key challenge is to have a scaled operation that can quickly ramp up or down agents based on their peak seasons. To address this issue, Expedia relies on its technology suite.

Mikko Ollila is the Senior Project Manager at Expedia. He manages more than 30 call centers supporting 9,000 agents that field customer service and sales calls who handle roughly up to five million calls per month. Not only do his agents take a lot of calls, but they may struggle with relating to what the caller is experiencing.
Travel is highly stressful. The stakes are really high — Expedia’s customers are often celebrating important life events such as honeymoons, anniversaries, reunions or visiting dear friends. If the company drops the ball, it leaves a negative imprint on the customer that is going to stick around, Mikko says.

Reliance on the correct technology is paramount. It allows agents to see a full picture of what happened and take that context to have an idea of what a customer may be calling about. In essence, it enables them to get to the heart of the matter at a faster rate.

“We have a lot of context about you. We know your itinerary; we know what’s happening to your flight or your hotel reservations. You might be flying into some weather and you don’t yet know it yet, but we do,” he says.

In the future, conversations will continue to swirl around multichannel, Mikkos says. Expedia currently has the ability to see what the customer did on their website, on their mobile and what happened if they called or used the IBR. “That tells a complete, almost like a movie, sort of frame by frame of why you are now on the phone with us and how we can best help you,” he says.

An effective technology suite translates to a competitive advantage, Mikko says. Expedia utilizes a broad stack of technologies to store and understand data from various sources. Expedia is building things on Hadoop, which is the open source data source system, and they’re also using external third-party packages, such as Pegasystems for case management. It also does a lot of its own Java-based development.

But, not all call centers have these luxuries. They may lack time, budget, the back-end ability or support from their executive suite.

“The advice from our experience is; ‘Be nimble, be opportunistic, because you have to be, but also keep it in the back of your mind that there will be a day when you might have to pay a price for if you don’t keep yourself in check, and allow your tools to proliferate in an uncontrolled fashion,” he says.
In the future, technology should continue to allow for better one-on-one communication with the customer. Times have changed. Today’s customer expects their brands to know them from all of the different ways they’ve conversed with the company. Every customer wants to feel special and none want to be treated like the next person.

“That change in customer mindset over the past couple years and going into the future has a huge impact on how we’re allowing ourselves to interact with the customers and make those interactions truly more specialized and tailored,” even while they’re dealing with millions and millions of customers, Mikko says. “All this technology that we’ve been talking about really gives us the capability to do [that].”

“Real Help” 211 LA County’s Motto, Is a Model for Customer Experience Success

The theory behind excellent Customer Service isn’t complex: Do everything in your power to assist caller inquiries in a timely manner and do so with a smile. Simple, right? Not so fast. Support environments are complicated and mired with numerous hiccups.

Amy Latzer and her team at LA County's 211 offer "Real Help" to their in-need callers.
Amy Latzer and her team at LA County’s 211 offer “Real Help” to their in-need callers.
Amy Latzer, Chief Operating Officer at 211 LA County, says providing excellent Customer Experience starts with proper training. In this interview, she answers the question, “How do you train and develop a staff that is able to possess a skillset that goes above and beyond the caller’s expectations?”
By Hannah Hager

What is it that your customer wants? This seems to be a simple question, yet the end goal of customer happiness often gets lost in support environments that are mired by multiple transfers, dead-end calls, impersonal agent interactions and disjointed communication across channels. These poor practices damage customer loyalty and, in turn, deliver your clients straight into the hands of your competitors. So how do you temper the issue of when a call center unintentionally loses sight of the end goal: a successful interaction — from the customer’s viewpoint?

An excellent customer experience is always front of mind for Amy Latzer, Chief Operating Officer at 211 LA County. 211 LA County is a private, nonprofit organization based in San Gabriel, CA. Its 60 agents serve all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County, fielding nearly half a million calls per year.  The center, which has been in business for around 35 years, will soon celebrate its 10 year anniversary of receiving the 211 designation.

She and her team are in a unique position when it comes to implementing an effective Customer Experience strategy – 211 callers are most often in a state of mental or physical distress. Therefore, her team must respond in an especially caring and compassionate way from the get-go.

How do you train and develop a staff that is able to possess a skillset that goes above and beyond the caller’s expectations? Amy says it starts with training.

“It starts with the hiring selection.  It really, really requires a very specific skill set and personality type.  These are not easy calls.  We’re handling calls from some of the most vulnerable, at-risk population in LA County,” she says.

Unlike many call centers that field requests that can be mitigated with the click of a few buttons, 211 LA County callers sometimes cannot comprehend or express the root issue of their problem. Further, not only do they not know what they need, they don’t know what to ask for or what resources are available to them. This has potential to significantly dilute the Customer Experience process and underlines the importance of hiring quality from the beginning.

Issues with Customer Experience arise when agents are devoid of training and instead are given checkboxes on a Quality Assessment scorecard. What happens then is that an agent will plug in an empathetic or validating statement somewhere in the call that doesn’t sound natural or make sense. This is not the kind of experience 211 LA County expects from its agents.

To deliver truly exceptional customer service, you have to impress a sense of humanity within your agents, Amy suggests. She trains her agents to be curious, sensitive and possess the natural ability to be and sound empathetic in order to offer the caller validation.

“Real Help” 211 LA County’s service delivery motto, means to impress that the call line is more than just a number and the agents are going to give more than just a number for another service.

Lastly, after the call is concluded, she and her team collect the information from each call in order to analyze the reason behind the call and determine the effectiveness of the service rendered. They couple this with the gathered demographic information, which helps tell the full story of who is really calling. In the end, these steps lead to better referrals and better service.

“Understanding our caller population helps us really paint a picture of our community, so that people are going to have a healthier life and families and individuals will thrive,” Amy says.  “If we do not do a good job, if we do not create a good experience, those opportunities are going to go somewhere else.  So it’s really important that we deliver on that promise.”

Its versus It’s and Their, There, They’re

Here’s a little grammar lesson for the day:

Okkkkkkkkkkkkkk. So. Let’s talk about these little guys. Put simply:

Its – no apostrophe – shows possession

It’s – with apostrophe – is a contraction of it is or it has

 A contraction literally means to make smaller, therefore the apostrophe is replacing letters. This also applies to they’re:

They’re = they are

Their = shows possession (consider the “I” is a pronoun and only a person can own something)

There = defining a location.

Let’s (let’s is a contraction of “let us,” see what I’ve done here) delve deeper:

Its vs. It’s

Rule 1: When you mean it is or it has, use an apostrophe

It’s a beautiful day.
It’s got to get warmer outside.
It’s so nice to meet you.

Rule 2: When you are using its as a possessive, don’t use the apostrophe.

The dog is eating its bone.
The jewelry store celebrated its ninth anniversary.

Note: Apparently the possessive was also written it’s until modern times, quite possibly dropping the apostrophe in order to parallel possessive personal pronouns like hers, theirs, yours, ours, etc.”

Their, There, They’re


Use “their” to indicate possession. It is a possessive adjective and indicates that a particular noun belongs to them.

  • My friends have lost their tickets.
  • Their things were thrown around the apartment.


Use there when referring to a location or place, whether concrete (“over there by the building”) or more abstract (“it must be difficult to live there”).

Also use there with the verb BE (is, am, are, was, were) to indicate the existence of something, or to mention something for the first time.

  •     There is an antique store on Madison Avenue.
  •     There are many documents that are used in investigations.


Remember that they’re is a contraction of they and are. It can never be used as a modifier, only as a subject (who or what does the action) and verb (the action itself).

They’re always late to meetings.

They’re going to Dishes for lunch.

They’re going to the baseball game over there to celebrate their birthdays…. Whew

Lastly, the best way to remember these things is to do some swapping.

If you wrote there, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with here? If so, you’re using it correctly.

If you chose their, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with our? If so, you’ve chosen the correct word.

If you used they’re, will the sentence still make sense if you replace it with they are? If so, correctomundo


Happy Weekend!


The Owner’s Perspective on Modular Construction Implementation

houston - 2

Martin Clutterbuck, Manager of Fabrication & Modularization at Devon Energy Canada has a unique perspective as an Oil & Gas Industry Owner. It enables him and his team to have a birds-eye view of the entire modular construction process from feasibility through to operations. In this interview, he discusses the benefits and inhibitors to this ability, and more.

In what ways do you believe your perspective as an Owner enables you to have a birds-eye view of the entire modular construction process from feasibility through to operations? What are the benefits and inhibitors of this ability?

You’re correct that we do have that bird’s eye view as owners, so we get the whole picture. We get to see from early development into what sort of projects we’re looking at and then we can develop and see what the modularization and fabrication plan is for the project. We do that early so we’re there prior to us really getting into the engineering stage and that discussion happens as a group within our organization a lot earlier than would normally happen if we came in later during an engineering phase.

Where, in your opinion, do organizations fall short with their modular and prefabrication implementation plan? Which factors are often overlooked and therefore inhibit success?

I think part of that is we have the opportunity to have some input and support the design and we can really get what we want. We can really focus on the requirements of our modularization plan. We typically know the list of fabricators we want to go to. We have the opportunity to really support the construction execution plan build. We understand what the start up and the commission criteria is and obviously, ultimately it’s operations and their need to maintain an operating facility.

One of the things where some people may fall short is the discipline to wait long enough for the design. Modularization projects tend to take more work and effort upfront and you have to have the discipline to wait until you have all the information, and the correct information, to go into fabrication and modularization. What you can’t do is continually change your mind and I know as owners sometimes we have that thing where we change our minds but we need to make sure we have that level of detail and information we need to have before getting into fabrication.

How do you determine which prefabricated modules are best suited for your construction plan?

I think ultimately you have to have a philosophy within your organization of what you want to modularize. You have to make a decision early and upfront of what that is, so you should have an idea of what your modularization goals are. For example, you may want to look at what percentage of the plant you want modularized or what can be modularized within the facility. You want to look at where the facility is located, what resources are available to you to build it and, lastly, whether you need to build it offshore or locally or wherever possible reducing your risks out in the field.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: The Transferability of Safety Lessons From the Aviation Industry


Collaboration is the key to safety says Christopher Hart, Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board appointed by President Obama.

In this exclusive interview, Hart insists alternate modes of transportation needs to take a page out of the book of the aviation industry, which managed to increase productivity while maintaining a high safety rate.

The Honorable Christopher Hart is the Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Honorable Christopher Hart is the Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

CH: I’ve been in transportation and safety issues for quite a few years. I first started at the NTSB in 1990 when I was appointed by President George H. Bush to be a member of the board. I did that from 1990-1993 and then returned in 2009 when I was appointed Vice Chairman by President Obama. So, I’ve been in transportation safety for a long time. I thoroughly enjoy it and it’s very gratifying to see an enormous number of safety improvements because of the NTSB.

HH: What collaborative transportation safety and productivity lessons can the oil and gas industry learn from the commercial aviation industry, which underwent an industry-side, collaborative process to identify, prioritize and address potential safety issues?

Well the aviation industry has done something I have not seen at such a level before or since. It was in the mid-90s when they were concerned that their accident rate, which had been coming down for a number of years, had become stuck at a plateau. They were concerned about that because they knew that the volume was going to increase and, unfortunately, what the public sees is not the rate of the accidents, but the number, or the volume, of accidents they see. So, when the aviation industry looked at the volume rate they were very concerned and that’s when they decided to do something that was out of the box. The out of the box thing they did was to collaborate. It’s been an enormous success story in a lot of ways. In only 10 years they went from this stuck, flat accident rate to reducing that rate by more than 80 percent. In so doing, they also improved their productivity, which flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Usually, when you improve productivity you hurt safety and vice versa. They did it without the process creating any new regulations and they also did it in a way of collaboration that resulted in minimal unexpected consequences. That’s always the big problem in any complex system; when you make changes in one part of a complex system you often get unintended consequences.

Since safety is front of mind for both industries, will you explain how collaboration from key participants in the industry – the manufacturers, employees, vendors and regulators – led to a safer transportation and logistics operation without sacrificing performance and productivity?

Not only did it not sacrifice it, it improved it. My theory on that is, unlike the usual process of improving safety in a regulated industry, which is where the regulator says, “I see a problem and here’s the solution. Here’s the solution that you guys need to implement,” this is a very different process because by collaborating all of the members who have a stake in the fight – all of the ones who have a dog in the fight – are present at the table. So, in the case of aviation it was the manufacturers and the airlines and the pilots and the air traffic controllers and the regulator all have a seat at the table. All those players at the table, while they’re there to talk about safety, they’re thinking about their own productivity. So, what that means is that in the real world they’re not going to put an idea on the table if it’s going to hurt their own productivity.

Would you share some tips for managing the expectations of key stakeholders? Those who have a vested interest in streamlining transportation and logistics issues may have different interests than those executing the plan. How do you ensure everyone who is involved in the problem is also involved in the solution?

The way to get collaboration started is difficult to be sure and I think that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t seen it more. When people see that it’s beneficial to everyone at the table it’s a huge win-win for everybody that participates the snowball starts rolling and it builds up momentum. So, once the process is started, once you have some progressive leadership, that’s when the players fall in line because they too can benefit from this collaborative process.

Will you briefly touch on the transferability across modes? You were mentioning mobile and automation …

The NTSB is looking at all the modes of transportation and we’re finding that a lot of issues that we see in one mode are actually common in other modes. Take, for example, fatigue. Most commercial transportation is 24/7 and humans are not, which means we see fatigue in all commercial transportation. There are lots of lessons to be learned from one mode that’s transferable to another mode. We’re seeing unfortunate use of personal electronic devices in all the modes and one of the lessons learned regarding portable electronics devices is very transferable.

What does the future of transportation security and safety look like to you?

I’m very optimistic about the future because of the collaborative process. Collaboration has a huge opportunity to promote productivity and safety – not only in transportation, but in a lot of industries. There’s enormous applicability of this very powerful tool across the modes.

Ready, Set, Engage: Adult Students Need the Same Love

First engage adult students; then you'll keep them.
First engage adult students; then you’ll keep them.

We’re all busy. In addition to work and family responsibilities, adult students must also carve out time for their courses from their hectic schedules. But, some students don’t have the discipline or loyalty to do so.

In this interview, Amy Stevens, Associate Vice President, eLearning at Southern New Hampshire University, shares how she keeps the university’s adult students engaged and active even when they’re faced with other distractions.

What are the biggest extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to retaining adult students who may have full-time jobs and other obligations that make it difficult to stick to their online learning courses? How can these barriers be abated?

One of the greatest things about higher education today is the diversity of our student body, while there is no one set of demographics that describe them; there are some commonalities we see among our students. Online Masters Students are, for the most part, career driven, focused and able to leverage the success they had in completing their undergraduate experience and apply some of those lessons learned to success at the graduate level. Students who are career changers and who may be transitioning into growth fields like Health Professions and STEM face additional challenges because they most likely didn’t have any of the more demanding science or math experience that would make them fully prepared for the rigors of the field. We know these students will be more successful, for example, if we can get them into foundations courses that will help them meet the competencies demanded for the core courses in their new programs. However, those courses add to the overall time and cost.

Again, there is tremendous diversity among undergraduate students, many of whom had really negative educational experiences along the way. Being really clear in the admissions process, understanding the student’s goals and then constantly making that alignment clear to the students can prevent/situate some of the challenges that students are likely to encounter. The other challenge is that those negative educational experiences have a tendency to make students resistant to taking risks in the classroom. It is essential to create an environment where they feel safe to make some mistakes, and not do so in front of their classmates.

How do you engage a typically diverse and sometimes disloyal online student body?

First and foremost, the educational experience must feel relevant to them and align with their goals. If a student feels like the work they are being asked to do doesn’t have real world applications, or won’t help them get ahead, they will not benefit from the experience. So even when we are dealing with things like General Education requirements, we really try to make sure our students understand that while this may not have immediate ties to their chosen profession, employers tell us that they want graduates who are critical thinkers, great communicators and confident problem solvers and these courses are a way to gain those competencies.  It also helps if the student feels you are invested in their success and that is a message that can’t just be delivered from their faculty members, but needs to be consistent across their entire experience.

What can faculty do to create a culture of engagement with their distance learning students?

Engagement is essential; students need to feel part of the process. For example, they really appreciate high levels of individualized feedback, and they appreciate when faculty bring their real world experiences into the course to illustrate concepts and bring theory to life.

Product Development in the Digital Age: How to Influence Millennials

Christie is the Founder & CEO of UChic. She's also a Millennial, the market her company targets.
Christie is the Founder & CEO of UChic. She’s also a Millennial, the market her company targets.

UChic is a mission-driven lifestyle brand whose products sales empower our teen girl consumers through scholarships. Our research found that 95% of young women in the U.S. lack the funding to pursue their dreams outside of the classroom. Knowing that these extracurricular experiences can change lives, we launched our company and foundation in 2013, and are getting set to launch our first product — the “Gracie,” a fashionable computer case for the classroom and beyond. The case, available right now through Indiegogo, will help fund the dreams of over 10 deserving young women with $1000 scholarships, kicking off the company’s on-going commitment to funding the dreams of young women through our product sales.

I was inspired to start UChic based on the success we’ve had in creating the best-selling guidebook to college written “for and by” young women — U Chic: The College Girl’s Guide to Everything (Sourcebooks 2013). Over 100,000 book copies have been sold since, and a fourth edition is in the works. Call me a Millennial, but I wanted to do more to empower our consumers.

What are the benefits of the Millennial consumer market when considering a new product launch? How does their involvement with brands influence their peers’ power to purchase as well as to the co-creation of products?

As a Millennial, I know first-hand how much our generation desires to have a “voice” in the world (that’s partly why I created UChic — to give my generation and younger a platform) and thanks to the technological advances we’ve seen happen over the past decade, we have more power than generations that came before us. From presidential campaigns to regime changes in the Middle East to new product design, Millennials are changing the course of “business as usual.”

From the research, we know that compared to older generations, Millennials have 200 more friends on Facebook and are more likely to use social media to express their feelings and opinions, which makes them more influential in their ability to spread the word farther and faster. As consumers, Millennials’ purchasing decisions are also more likely to be influenced by what their peers have to say, so it is critical for companies to figure out how to be a part of these conversations. One way to do it is to ask Millennials to help “co-create” the products they want.

What are the disadvantages of managing the expectations of Millennials when it comes to product development?

The desire for instant gratification in the digital age can make the millennial consumers’ expectation quite high when it comes to product development. If something goes wrong — and yes, even Facebook can get it wrong at times — Millennials are more likely to share their angst on social media. And because of their larger and stronger social networks, such despair can travel far and wide, becoming viral within a few hours of the first unhappy Tweet. Companies can manage these higher expectations by being transparent from the start on the product development process.

What are some of the latest tools and techniques for conducting cost-effective market research with Millennials?

Online surveys and community engagement strategies (i.e., posting questions on FB or Twitter) are some the best and most cost-effective tools around when it comes to conducting market research with Millennial consumers. From my research, Millennials like to weigh-in on the market research process; it gets back to that desire to have a voice or say in the world.

Whether it’s simply positioned as an “exclusive opportunity” to take part in a new product launch or tied to an incentive like a gift card, Millennials are open to being engaged in this manner. And better yet, figure out a way to follow up with them once the product has launched for additional feedback. Couched within a question of “Did we get it right?” should open the door for additional engagement and feedback that can be good for the bottom line.

Listen. Learn. Love. Write.


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