Interview: Elizabeth Peaslee, VP, Customer Experience, Travelocity
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
by Mark Hurst
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I recently interviewed Elizabeth Peaslee, Travelocity's VP of
Q: What's your background at Travelocity?
I started working at Sabre in 1995 and moved over to Travelocity in
early 1998. When I came to Travelocity, there was no product
marketing. The site had been up for two years, and the technology
team was deciding what enhancements we'd make to the site. As long
as the site was up and fast, that's all that mattered.
My background was in product marketing, so I approached the person
who was running product marketing at the time. I said, look, it's
great that the tech team is creating these new features, but there
isn't a discipline for collecting customer input to help drive the
direction the site is going in. We knew that while tech enhancements
would drive success for awhile, with faster and cooler features,
there would be a point where technology for its own sake wouldn't
keep us successful. We'd have to listen to customers and make
enhancements based on what they wanted us to do.
Our first effort was to change the way people shopped for hotels.
Traditionally, the only way to shop for hotels was via an airport
code, which to a customer makes no sense. I'm driving 50 miles from
the airport to the hotel, so why do I need the airport code? We
thought about how to allow customers to shop based on the hotel's
location. That was our first product marketing effort: we took
customer input about how they wanted to shop for hotels, and we
changed how the shopping tool worked.
The project was very successful. We grew hotel bookings by 25% in
one month - radical growth. People said, "Wow, it's amazing how
successful you can be by listening to customers and implementing
what they want." Then we did that for the air booking and car
Overall, my role is to be an advocate for the customer, and to make
it insanely easy to buy on Travelocity.
Q: How did Travelocity decide to create the customer experience
team, and the VP position?
It was a fairly long process, evolving over the past year or year
and a half. Along the way we've used data from our own internal
successes, and from successes at other sites, to help sell the idea
that focusing on customer experience can have an impact on the
For example, we used to only sporadically do user testing. But when
we did, we always learned valuable things that made our projects
more successful. So I collected data on conversion rate
improvements. The hotel story was the earliest we had. The 25%
increase in hotel bookings was a huge deal. I also had examples
where we hadn't done testing and we hadn't been successful.
I also started collecting information from people who run
non-competitive websites. I asked how they did their testing, and
started learning how they were implementing a discipline of user
testing that could make us more successful over time.
Because of that data, it's been easier to sell the idea of the
customer experience team. It's one thing to say, "Here's a great
idea, but I have no numbers to prove it," and another to say, "I
think it's a good idea, and here's the success we've seen and what
other sites have seen." With the numbers, management is much more
likely to make an investment in building a team.
We have grown the team incrementally. I'd rather build slowly than
walk into a meeting and ask for 400 people. Instead, I'd ask to add
one person to do usability testing. Then I'd add an IA [information
architect] as a contractor for one project, and see if that cut down
on development time. Then later I'd ask if we could have that IA
full-time. That's different from selling a full-blown new
department, which in a small organization like Travelocity would be
a hard sell.
Q: How is the customer experience team organized?
Today, customer experience is comprised of four groups. The
day-to-day site production/promotion group does high-volume,
quick-turnover promotions on the site - home page stuff. Then
there's a market research group, which handles usability tests and
third-party research. Third, the site design group focuses on
longer-term projects: templates for the site, the style guide, the
overall "look" of the site - it works closely with our tech team.
Lastly, there's a group that handles IA and site-wide functionality
like registration, login, profile, account management, looking up
trips you've booked, and other stuff that crosses different business
lines. Those are the four main groups.
The IA team is a new role for us. We added it because it was
becoming more difficult to write new requirements that take into
account all the complexities of the site. The IA role has helped
business owners write better requirements that handle all the
scenarios, not just the customer going down the correct booking
path. All deviations - like if a user clicks on the help link, or if
they want to go back and modify something, or any sort of error
message - used to get pushed out to developers. That was extending
the timeline for projects.
So we brought in people whose expertise is use case scenarios, and
site mapping, and that helped shorten the end-to-end development
time of projects. It's been very successful, and it makes everyone
happy. The tech team gets requirements where all of those other
scenarios are already thought through, and they can deliver the
project faster. And business owners avoid getting bogged down in
figuring out all the different paths a user could take.
Q: Your team handles a variety of issues. Do people "get it" that
customer experience is a holistic process, not just tactical
usability or IA?
Overall, customer experience is recognized as being important.
Though sometimes I worry that "customer experience" will become a
horrendously overused buzzword, a catch-all. We have worked very
hard to educate the organization on what the customer experience
One reason people "get it" is that everyone here uses the
Travelocity site. Everyone can remember a time before we fixed
project X: there was something that bugged me, and I'm so glad we
fixed that. Because people can personally identify with the
frustration of a customer, it's much easier to internalize the value
of people focused on customer experience.
As I tell people, our team fixes things that are broken, and then
there are things on the site where we wonder, why did we do that? Or
maybe it worked a couple of years ago, but not any more, because our
users have gotten smarter and more comfortable with the Web. Users
now are much more savvy in how travel works. Their needs for
functionality have evolved and increased.
Q: What change to the customer experience did you make in 2002 that
had the biggest impact?
I'm not sure it's a change to the site, but for us, it's been the
implementation of this idea of the customer experience discipline.
Whereas before, we'd think about doing user testing, or taking
learnings from past projects, if we had the time. Now with this
discipline, we WILL test: prior to development, in design, and then
after launch. That approach affects all the projects we do, and
they've all benefited.
We never want to skip any steps. In the past the business owner may
have said, "Let's skip design, I'll just give my Powerpoint to the
developer." By getting more disciplined about steps 1 and 2, all the
other steps go faster, and what we deliver in the end is so much
Q: What are the steps in a project?
A business owner has a concept. We like to get involved early, to
help them look at at the scenarios, the impact to navigation, and
whether it actually makes it easier and faster to buy the product.
We then help deliver things like wireframes and use case scenarios.
Who is it geared toward? Why would someone use it?
And then once we have a pretty good idea of how this will meet the
needs of customers and the business, we can start design, conduct
testing, modify the design based on testing, and then hand it off to
our tech team, where it goes through scoping, development, QA, and
then it launches.
Q: How does Travelocity monitor the customer experience day-to-day?
We have an enterprise business intelligence group responsible for
the dashboard, a set of metrics that the business wants to keep an
eye on. They monitor and report the metrics to the organization.
There are also some metrics within the customer experience
organization that we watch - the error page rate, conversion rate,
things like that.
Equally important to the customer experience group are the less
frequent and more subjective metrics that we get through user tests.
The success rates in those tests show what people are struggling
with and succeeding at. We do several user tests every month.
Q: What will you be working on this year at Travelocity?
We'll continue to grow this idea of discipline. Now that we've
proven to the organization that there's value in user testing and
upfront planning, we'll be doing more of it and getting better at
it. The big challenge of the past two years was selling the
organization on this whole idea. Now we have to deliver on
everything we said we'd deliver by having a focus on customer
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