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Customer experience key to airline profitability

22nd Aug 2017
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The airline industry is facing pressure to innovate and improve profitability.  To address this growth challenge, progressive airlines are implementing different ways to drive ancillary revenue.  This approach has led some to ask whether customer service has a role to play, or is it about price?  For some, a sole focus on price is the differentiator, but for others, the customer experience remains the overriding factor.

While many assume that customer service within the airline sector is based on proactive and pleasant human communication, it is much more than that.  For airlines – and many other sectors too – it’s a case of considering the entire passenger customer journey, and establishing the best approach to communicate with these people, and to then sell relevant goods and services at the appropriate moment.

For human customer service to deliver beyond niceties, airlines need to ensure that the underlying technologies that the business relies upon are capable of meeting modern customer requirements. This means understanding that customers are complex, and that today they expect airlines – or any brand for that matter – to be able to market to them in a personalised way, offering relevant goods and services that add value to the brand engagement.  This raises questions around whether the airline sector is on track to meet these expectations?

What if a customer logged onto a travel website, or visited a travel agent, and purchased their flight or holiday, and the technology systems handling the various purchases communicated with each other? What if the respective brands and their loyalty schemes shared data and cross marketed goods and services to passengers during those moments? Arming sales people – machine or humans – with that information would translate to excellent, relevant and personalised customer service.   You would expect people managing these queries to handle them in a helpful and polite way, but in many situations this approach is not being fully taken advantage of.  Do they care about profits: do they care about customers and do they care enough about the data and potential of cross marketing partnerships that can deliver personalised offers to passengers?  

If we take this thinking to the sky, this means that airlines need to reconsider how they think of themselves too.  Are they just transport vehicles or sophisticated Omni-channel retailers who happen to transport people from point A to point B?   Today it’s a combination of both.  But, it’s only by using data effectively, that airlines will be able to take advantage of the moments that they have with their passengers. What if airlines knew more about the interests and needs of each passenger on a flight, not just dietary requirements but their actual human interests?  They would be able to take advantage of this knowledge and build relevant ancillary offers for people based on these preferences.

What if, for example, an airline knew that a couple was flying to New York and had six nights’ stay in Manhattan – what sort of relevant goods and services could they offer to them during the flight? Perhaps they could offer a tour package while on the flight or destination attraction tickets while inflight.  This is possible and personalisation will define and differentiate the customer experience.

Does the payment strategy support the airline?

After ecommerce, personalisation, analytics and logistics technologies have been installed, airlines and airport terminals must address the role that their payment systems play in this customer experience and business growth picture.  Are systems capable of supporting multiple currency payments, accepting vouchers, airline points and more?  Can inflight mobile point of sale (MPoS) systems support contactless payments? Passengers are experiencing these modern and convenient ways of paying for goods at other retailers, and expect airlines and airports to offer the same.

In the case of MPoS systems, meeting PCI requirements is expected. But, it is increasingly important to meet VISA and MasterCard’s contactless mandate. It states that merchants that accept payments from these global payment networks must establish contactless payments as a standard by the end of 2019.  This means airlines need to streamline their payment procedures for customers so that they can pay for goods and services accordingly.

Many airlines need to question whether the current two or three-piece MPoS systems are still appropriate.  The traditional cumbersome approach of cabin crew carrying three devices – MPoS, card reader and receipt printer – while working on-board is no longer suitable.  These devices suffer poor connectivity (pairing issues), high storage/energy usage needs, and are impractical for cabin crew. This technology combination consumes unnecessary cabin space, whilst older all-in-one devices do not support contactless payments, an option that is fast becoming the norm.  Airlines would be well placed to explore all-in-one, contactless, MPoS technologies to support personalisation, sales and the overall customer experience.

Get On-Board

Airline customer service used to centre on staff politeness and helpfulness.  Times have changed, and technology – data and personalisation – enables the airline sector to build exclusive offers for passengers and to arm staff with the necessary personalised services and offers.   Driving ancillary revenue and airline growth is possible, but airlines need to get on-board, embrace innovation and focus on delivering a superior customer experience, to succeed.

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