Q&A: Lyft’s Omar Ghani on Creating Smarter Travel Policies for a Culture-First Company with TripActions
December 6, 2018

For most companies, figuring out which business travel solution will meet their needs is a costly, complicated decision. Questions about technology, budgets, employee satisfaction, and legal issues all weigh on the policies, platforms, and tools organizations provide to their employees. And among businesses that have outgrown the unmanaged (or “DIY”) model of corporate travel booking, this question is even more fraught. How can they find a travel management solution that satisfies their business goals while helping reinforce their company culture?

It was this same set of questions and challenges that ground transportation giant Lyft was facing in early 2018. As the company experienced a period of rapid growth, the Lyft team struggled to evolve their existing travel policy to deliver better customer service, happier employees, and higher user adoption rates.

Ultimately, after considering a variety of solutions, the company settled on TripActions, a technology-enabled corporate travel management platform that combines data science, user-friendly design, and world-class service to bring businesses and their employees the most rewarding business travel experiences possible. Skift recently spoke with Omar Ghani, Strategic Sourcing Manager at Lyft, about the company’s selection of TripActions, and how the new partnership is helping them tackle the organization’s rapidly changing corporate travel needs. A lightly edited transcript of the conversation is below.

Skift: Give us some context for Lyft’s business travel situation in 2018. What were the primary reasons that Lyft decided to look for a new business travel solution?

Omar Ghani: Lyft, like many startup companies, is in a state of hyper growth. We have a mission of improving people’s lives with the world’s best transportation. But we were also wondering how to best improve transportation in an area that was not our core competency –– business travel as it relates to flights and hotels.

In order to be successful, we also needed happy employees and happy team members which, for the most part, we had. And we wanted to identify any gaps in how we were taking care of our business travelers. Some of the gaps were just due to the nature of our growth; we had grown from a couple hundred employees to thousands.

We previously used another “startup” business travel company, and they were good partners, but the challenge there was the gap in customer service. There was no 24/7 support, and no integrated app that handled [problems] beyond the traditional customer service route.

So we selected TripActions for several reasons: customer service capabilities, flexible accommodations for an organization’s unique set of travel policies, and its user-first experience, which leads to high adoption rates (and savings!).

First, customer service. Let’s say that your employee’s flight gets cancelled. Common problem without many solutions. There’s the issue of last-minute notifications for your cancelled flight. Then there’s [lack of] “time coverage”. Most people travel during off-business hours (prior to 9:00AM or after 6:00PM), but customer service agents aren’t typically available until working hours. So who is there to help your employees when they need it most? TripActions’ in-house agents are available 24/7 –– and they even proactively let you know whether your flight is cancelled –– and can re-book you to your destination right away.

The second benefit is tying travel into the organization’s policies. Each company has their own unique guidelines for travel and how much employees are authorized to spend. TripActions has the ability to configure those guidelines for the client. They offer a clean data format with rich insights, which allows us to study spending trends, where we’re going, and how much we can optimize efficiencies and partnerships.

The final thing that distinguishes [TripActions] is the user adoption rate. We saw user adoption rates in just the first two weeks going above 85 or 90 percent.

How are the business travel needs of Lyft and its employees different now in 2018 than they were five years ago? Are there key differences?

A key theme of our industry is “on-demand” requests, so we constantly look for more intimate touch points. When you’re requesting to go from Point A to Point B you want to know when you’re going to [leave to and arrive at your destination], you want to know that there won’t be any surprises, and you want to be taken care of. I think that, like how Lyft has achieved this, TripActions has also bridged that gap in corporate travel.

Let’s say you make a last-minute travel change and you have to cancel your trip. But instead of you having to go into a travel management platform to express your grievances, they recognize issues quickly using tech solutions and solve them through their customer service. You get the feeling that your voice is being heard. The world of transportation moves fast, so we need a fast business travel platform to help us make fast decisions without sacrificing customer service. This is key.

In addition, indirect procurement [meaning business purchases of services like travel] is becoming a hot topic. A big goal of indirect procurement is to save money and optimize spend related to travel expenditures. So when a company does grow, you really have to take a step back and decide if your current way of working should change.

There have been these very big companies that have not necessarily listened to the needs of corporate travelers. And now that’s being challenged by more innovative companies. When TripActions can pull in a variety of inventories and show a company that they are getting 20, 40, or even 70 percent hotel rate savings, and in real time, it’s a big selling point.

I think it’s a really exciting time for creative destruction in the business travel industry. And because I’m a procurement professional, I want to pay very close attention to the changes: how is direct competition going to be able to adapt to these types of challenges?

Are the corporate travel needs of a company like Lyft different than those of your typical Fortune 500 organization? Why or why not?

In general, the core needs are the same. But one area of difference relates to this idea of innovation that Lyft really embraces. One of the things that encourages a lot of tech firms and new innovative companies to want to adopt new challenging ideas is what I’d like to call the WOW factor. [This means] thinking about why you might partner with a certain type of business, what excites people to adopt that sort of behavior, and what would also incentivize people to do that.

So we try to incorporate the WOW factor into everything we implement, including the corporate travel platform we choose to work with. Trying to convince employees to get excited about a business service [like a corporate travel platform] is a very hard thing to do. So when you finally see that type of behavior, where employees get excited about the unique benefits that an organization such as TripActions is able to offer, I think it’s very important.

Lyft’s own product is all about seamless, convenient, mobility for consumers. In your opinion, do the majority of today’s products designed for corporate travelers offer a similar level of functionality and service?

I can only comment a little on this, just because we’re still early in our relationship with TripActions. But one example I can give you comes from the team of [Lyft's] corporate recruiters that help [interview] candidates to book their travel. We are utilizing TripActions’ Guest Invite tool to handle that process –– especially with booking (or changing flights for) candidate interviews. And I can tell you that based on feedback from the corporate recruiters that are assisting our candidates with their travel, it’s so much easier.

What role should technology play in the business travel experience? Should automated technology be the primary tool for helping corporate travelers and solving problems? Or do humans need to play a bigger role in the process?

I want to take a step back and talk about something high-level, which is an organization’s “north star.” And I think defining that is important for my answer, because without having a proper north star, your organization doesn’t have anything to focus on. In this case [for Lyft], the focus is on the human element on people, and servicing others.

That’s so critical, because I feel like today, technology is a given. Of course, in order to compete in today’s industry, you have to be an innovator…But it’s also more than that: how are we going to uniquely position ourselves with customer service and being the ambassador, or being the voice for the customer? That’s huge. And I think that’s something that Lyft is very focused on. And I think that TripActions is definitely trying to [promote this same concept].

I had a great opportunity to speak with the CEO of TripActions, Ariel Cohen. One of the things that really stood out when I spoke to him was that before we talked about strategic objectives and how I’ve reconfigured my management, he said, “You have to ask yourself: am I sticking to customer service principles?” Am I giving [our business] a more intimate approach versus a [generic] approach? Because that’s what technology can do.”

And at least from what I’ve seen, TripActions is doing a good job of bringing together technology and humans and having them run harmoniously. Because they have [tools like] chatbots that can say, “Hey I noticed that something changed with your trip,” and they have the instant messages and so forth. But then, very quickly, in a matter of seconds up to a few minutes, a real human being will be able to connect to the end user. Not just from a corporate administrator such as myself, but even to the end user.

How does Lyft think about the idea of business traveler friction? Do you take any specific steps to try and remove friction from employees’ trips?

Absolutely. TripActions can definitely do it from a product point of view, in terms of building the right inventory. And I think ultimately, it is the responsibility of the company as to how much they are willing to do that. Many corporate clients have travel policies that their employees have been forced into. Rules defining what trips are eligible for economy class, economy plus, business, all those sort of criteria. It has to be done in both.

And what I say with picking hotels, is that as long as it adheres to our policies, you can go through any channel. Or you can go to Airbnb which we allow our companies to do. It’s about having employees feel comfortable that we’re giving you the tools and just follow our policy. But we’re letting you make the decision.

We’ve tried as an organization to stay a little more open in that regard. We’re trying to empower our employees with more booking freedom, but at the same time to also make smart decisions through our policy.

This article was originally published on Skift.com.