It’s all about the journey: Four customer experience lessons from airlines

Airline 4
istock
Nicola Millard
Lead Customer Experience Consultant
BT
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When holiday season looms the spotlight often falls on the airline industry, as passenger numbers increase exponentially. Air travel is booming so much that the skies are reportedly running out of space. This brings with it the spectre of more delays in an industry that has already suffered a massive descent in customer service perception over the past year.

Negative press coverage of incidents involving passenger mistreatment, technical glitches, IT failures and employee dissatisfaction have all had a negative impact on customer perceptions.

One big challenge for the industry is that air travel has become a commodity product. The emergence of low cost flights, price comparison engines, tight cost margins, unpredictable fuel costs, and holiday comparison sites is forcing an industry that has traditionally innovated in customer experience to take another look at the customer journey.

As we head up-up-and-away on our summer holidays, what lessons (good and bad) from the airline industry could we all learn from?

1. Customer experience matters more, because prices are easy to compare.

Airlines have been forced to focus on the value of customer experience. This isn’t just because one plane is pretty much identical to any other, but also because it is easy to use comparison engines to compare flight prices – making customers very sensitive to cost. In the customer experience business it is all about balancing the demand delta of cost verses service delivery. It is very difficult to cost cut your way to success if it involves demolishing your brand reputation.

It is also an industry where customer reviews and social media make quality transparent. Videos about broken guitars and, more recently, ugly scenes of passengers being forcibly dragged off overbooked flights have caused significant amounts of reputational head wind.

This means that customer experience can count more than price alone. With many industries becoming more transparent – especially with “open banking” looming in the financial services industry - this is something that we all need to pay attention to.

2. Customised experiences - you get what you pay for (mostly).

More than any other sector, airlines make it very apparent what experience you get for which price. You don’t expect a champagne experience on a lager budget.

“No frills” airlines have disaggregated experiences into basic, customisable components – if you want to put MASSIVE suitcases into the hold, sit anywhere near the rest of your family, or board the plane first, you pay extra.

Premium airlines offer many of these as standard. Although many premium brands are starting to look a lot more like no frills ones. This can be problematic from a brand expectation perspective, especially if you expect a champagne experience, and end up with a lager-shandy one!

For proper champagne experiences – especially First Class – there are many innovative ways to differentiate. Limousine transfers, home baggage pick up, drive through check-ins, vast amounts of leg room, luxurious airport lounges, Cordon Bleu cooking, and private cabins welcome those who can afford to splash the cash.

Could we all learn to deliver well-articulated and differentiated service propositions that add additional value for customers?

3. Self-service rules (but makes front line employees more important).

Airlines were one of the first industries to use the internet as a key tool to sell tickets. They used surge pricing before Uber was even a twinkle in its creator’s eye. They also rapidly rolled out self-service kiosks in airports.

Now, I can check in, choose my seat, and get my boarding card on my smart phone app without having to leave my lounge. Once I’m at the airport, that same app can also tell me my gate number, give me a map of how to get there, and alert me when the plane is boarding.

Some airlines have also deployed chatbots to help customers to book tickets online, and answer basic questions. This frees up human advisors to concentrate on the tough stuff that adds value to the brand experience.

Because customers might not see a single representative of the airline until they board the plane, investing in the front line is increasingly important. This is why customer facing people, from gate staff to flight attendants, need investment, tools, and empowerment because they are the face of the brand. This is the case across many industries – including retail and banking - who have also heavily invested in self-service.

4. Proactive service beats reactive in a crisis.

Air travel is always subject to unexpected delays and disruptions like bad weather, air traffic control delays, and technical hitches. Some airlines have learned that proactively managing expectations can reduce the amount of angry customers at the airport. Notifying customers in advance about major delays, and pushing updates on social media are all commonplace, because there is nothing worse than a grumpy traveller armed with a smartphone and Twitter.

Crisis points are where customers need things to be easy, because anger and frustration mean that only the easiest self-service tools are going to work. The issues are that (a) customers won’t accept “sorry” as an explanation, they want to know how their situation is going to be resolved, (b) up-to-date information isn’t always in the hands of the people on the front line (assuming you can actually find these sometimes very elusive people), and (c) the sudden tsunami of customer demand can mean long waits at the airport service desk, or into the contact centre. This is why cloud contact centres are increasingly popular amongst airlines, as they can rapidly scale up operations in the face of unexpected customer demand.

There is also nothing more frustrating when the rep at the airport says one thing, and the website/chatbot/app/social media feed says something different. Connecting more data sources from the plane, the airline, and the airport would allow customers, and customer service people, to have a single view of the situation.

How they react in a crisis can make the difference between a dream holiday, and a nightmare one. That applies across much of our life.

Airlines may well have a steep climb ahead of them as they attempt to adapt to customer demand, but maybe that’s the holiday inspiration we all need. When it comes to customer experience, it’s all about the journey.

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