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Cognizant's Kaden Stays Close To Travelers

May 25, 2012 - 08:25 AM ET

By Jay Campbell

A travel manager's travel manager, Kathy Kaden doesn't get hung up on differences between travel and procurement. She's too busy running the travel operation at fast-growing Cognizant Technology Solutions, attempting to "delight" travelers by dealing with them personally and ensuring that travel and logistics don't interfere with getting the job done.

Kathy Kaden"We have come full-circle," said Kaden, a 20-year industry veteran of four travel manager positions, two stints with travel agencies and one airline job. "It used to be about service, and then it became a financial proposition. How much can you save? Where can you cut? Now we're coming back to providing them a service so they see there's a value in the program. Price is important, but in the end it's what we call 'associate delight.' We want them to be happy and comfortable." Kaden said in some sense she is no longer a travel manager, but rather a manager of expectations, "because that's what I do all day—I let people know what they can expect."

Does this mean cost control isn't a priority? Of course not. But it illustrates that negotiating a deal is only part of the mission, and it may be the less important part.

Cognizant is about 15 years old and yet the IT consulting firm last year racked up more than $6 billion in revenues—one-third higher than the prior year—and $884 million in profits. The company has about 140,000 employees with plans to reach 240,000 by 2015. Cognizant's air volume booked in the United States last year was $25.6 million, and this year it is nearing $30 million, Kaden said. Cognizant also buys nearly as much in air travel out of India, where it is one of the largest employers among tech companies, and counts about another $20 million in roughly 24 other countries.

As of a little more than two years ago, Cognizant's employees—then only 80,000—were provided travel contracts to use but had no real program to guide them and support cost-saving initiatives.

Kaden applies an analytical approach to contracting, using formal processes and KPIs. But the operational side, the "associate-facing piece," is what most interests her, she said. "A contract is only as good as the ability to implement it and drive compliance to it, and you need to look at that from the associate's perspective," said Kaden. "You have two ways to drive compliance: either they're happy with what you have done and they want to be on board, or you do so with a mandate. Different companies have different reasons for doing what they do. At Cognizant, we tend to drive compliance with associate delight."

As an example, Cognizant might save on negotiated contracts by cutting to one from two suppliers in a market, but if that move makes half the travelers unhappy, Kaden questions how successful that contract can be. Yet, there are mandates the company deemed defensible—such as those on purchasing air and car rental through the travel management company.

Shortly after Cognizant launched its preferred travel management company program in 2010, compliance to it was in the low 50s. Now, more than 90 percent of airline passenger name records are booked through preferred TMCs. Car rental is at 98 percent.

While Kaden watches contract performance closely, she only pushes preferred deals in areas where they are effective. Her team has chosen "not even to bother with hotel compliance," and it isn't measured, she said. As a consulting firm, Cognizant's travelers often stay using client rates, which are not available through the corporate booking tool, or find better rates themselves.

"From our perspective, it's a losing battle," Kaden said. "We knew that if we mandated hotel, we wouldn't necessarily be able to compete with a rate our customer gets. To mandate compliance would only create frustration, so our goal is to create value. If we can get the rates into our booking tool so our associates can do air, car and hotel in one booking, then that's a value-add. It's not an easy thing to do.

"We're not just creating a program but creating a program that generates value," she continued. "That's the primary driver to everything I and my team do."

Can't Say Enough About Communications 

On a quarterly basis, Kaden matches expense report data to transactions from her preferred travel management companies to identify those employees booking outside the preferred channel, and then has "one-on-one conversations with associates to explain to them the importance of booking with the preferred agency."

Asked whether she tells travelers not to waste time searching for rates and inventory outside the TMCs, Kaden said pointedly that she "would never tell them that. There's a fundamental credibility issue with that.

"It's saying, 'Don't challenge us,' " she continued. "Frequently they'll check one or two times, and then they'll stop checking. We have taken the approach of, 'go ahead and check.' Our average traveler is younger, very interested in using apps and consistently challenging what they're seeing. It's a lot of work to face them one at a time, but it enables an interaction, and it's good to establish that relationship. Generally, every time they find something, our program still has a better airfare, so we're almost proving the point one by one."

The company has a number of internal blogs and lots of transparency. "It can get a little scary because that openness can create what I call the tornado effect: as one piece of misinformation goes out and spirals, other people climb on to it," said Kaden. "You have to get to shutting it down quickly, and with time differences and global mobility, sometimes it can be 10 hours before you sign on your email and see what's going on. But it's not something we discourage at all—this is what we do.

"I'm a huge believer that communications in all directions, from travelers to suppliers and back through me, is the key to compliance," Kaden said. A daily report on new air, car and hotel bookings and the number of travelers on particular flights helps with that. "It allows us to be ahead of situations," she said. "We can look at a hotel and say, 'We have eight people on a project checking in,' and we'll call the hotel rep and let them know that Cognizant is coming to town." On that or air bookings, she might reach out to the sales contact and request an upgrade, Kaden said.

Cognizant, which on a monthly basis relocates 300 employees and their families, about nine months ago formed a cross-functional team focused on global mobility, with a goal of creating a more transparent and seamless process by integrating visas, travel and relocation needs. The team has created integration between what was traditionally administrative support and travel, "so when Indian agents make domestic reservations, it sends the info downline and triggers a guest house and car service booking in a seamless process. When a person raises a request to travel internationally, it triggers info being sent to the immigration department so they know this person may need a visa and can contact the traveler." The integration includes real-time feeds between the company's admin group and American Express Business Travel, Cognizant's TMC in India.

Cognizant consolidated in the United States with BCD Travel and in India with Amex. Five more countries will join the program during the next six months, Kaden said. A global travel policy also is in the works.

Corporate booking tools in certain markets like Australia, Canada and the United States are delivering adoption rates north of 70 percent. Kaden actually has had to dissuade tech-savvy employees from attempting to book complicated, multi-city trips through the tool.

This report originally was published in the May 14, 2012, issue of Business Travel News. 

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