Priceline makes technology changes in effort to improve service

Struggling online discounter Inc. yesterday said the technology that runs its name-your-own-price Web site has been beefed up in an attempt to improve online customer service and shorten the amount of time that people buying airline tickets through the site have to wait for connecting flights.

The changes come at a time when Priceline's financial challenges have forced it to go through two rounds of layoffs and to cut back on plans for adding new pricing services and expanding into other countries. For example, Priceline dropped plans to set up name-your-own-price Web sites in Australia and Japan through joint ventures that had been set up last year.

Priceline, which ran into financial problems last fall after a drop in its sales of airline tickets, said its order processing system has been upgraded in order to speed up response times to Web site users who submit price bids. The company said it should now be able to respond to bids within 15 minutes "in almost all cases."

Norwalk, Connecticut-based Priceline also said its online order form has been shortened by 20 percent and equipped with new "graphically enhanced instructions" that should make it possible to submit bids "in minutes." In addition, its ticketing system has been changed in an effort to ensure that the maximum scheduled connection time for domestic flights is three hours.

The technology revamp follows steps taken last fall to improve customer service in the wake of complaints from numerous users of Priceline's Web site. Those complaints, and a failure to respond quickly to them, resulted in Priceline temporarily being expelled from the Connecticut Better Business Bureau.

The company was reinstated by the Better Business Bureau in December after its Web site was upgraded to include listings of all taxes and fuel surcharges that would be applied to airline ticket sales, which are its mainstay business. Priceline also said at the time that it had devoted more internal resources to handling customer service issues.

In a statement issued as part of yesterday's announcement, Daniel Schulman, Priceline's president and CEO, said the company is trying "to make meaningful improvements" to its Web site. "Our customers have told us they want our travel service to be faster and more convenient," he said. "We listened."