Hey Airline Exec – Put your bum in my seat!
There is a lot of talk about customer experience, customer centricity, net promotor scores and the like amongst the airlines. Seemingly more now than ever before. But where and when does customer centricity come into play? And more crucially, why is it not working – or at least, not the way the customer feels it should?
What is Customer Experience?
To get us all on the same page, we should define what we mean by the term “customer experience”. Basically, we are talking about how an airline engages with customers in any form – through personal contacts at a counter or on board a flight, through digital means such as an airline website or mobile app, through visual means such as airport signage and onboard materials or through communication such as emails, phone calls, chats, and others.
A good customer experience instils trust, is easy and quick, provides clarity, and focuses on the customer’s need and should be (where possible and feasible), in the customer’s interest even if that clashes with the airline’s. Now, that doesn’t mean that a good customer experience results in an airline always giving in, but it does mean the airline finds a solution.
Also, what may be perceived as a great customer experience for me because it is all digital and self-service does not mean it is a good customer experience for my grandmother.
Let’s start with the customer journey to get a better understanding of where and when the customer experience really comes into play. This is fairly simple: the experience encompasses everything from the first interaction with an airline until well after any trip I take. That was easy, wasn’t it? Well, perhaps we can break it down a bit more to get a little more insight.
First, let’s consider the inspiration phase where the airline is sending promotional mails, or a customer is hunting for prices and destinations on an airline website. In this phase, the airline should focus on an initial understanding of the customer – who is asking, and why? Sometimes the airline will know quite a bit about certain customers, in others they know very little. In such cases, creating a meaningful mail or putting the right products and destinations on the website can be done by applying segmentation and sampling logic.
During the shopping phase, very much like in the inspiration, the airline may or may not know the customer. However, the contents of the shopping request and the meta-information related to the request (e.g., what time and which weekday was it made, which channel etc.) can help in figuring out the intent of the customer and give some context. And in the cases a customer is known, previous behaviour and purchases (or the lack thereof) can help.
In the pre-travel phase, which are the days and hours leading up to the event and can be somewhat emotional, and stressful, for many who do not travel often, some guidance can help. While many airlines send emails, these are seldom helpful or focused on a specific customer or journey. But hey, it really isn’t that hard to get the context and content right. I don’t need the weather for 10 days if my return flight is two days later. Or instead of a generic, text-only email which is nearly two pages long, how about a mail which is simple to understand, focused on my journey and my travel class, and has links if I need to know more? Has anyone ever asked the customers what they want to know?
At the airport, the biggest challenges are often the signage, and the lack of control over many processes such as security and managing crowds. However, where an airline should be able to take influence is in their staff, or the representation through the ground handlers. The often-heard stories of customers who know more about flight delays than staff should be long gone and shows the lack of a communication strategy within the airline. Better pre-flight information via email or the app can help and simplifying the search for relevant information through enhanced chat and FAQs would serve customers well.
Each flight experience and airline is different. In flight, there are of course many aspects of customer experience we could talk about, from levels of service to staff friendliness and onboard facilities, however this would be enough to cover a blog post itself. Most airlines do a really good job and hats off to them.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas in which improvements can be made is when the need for changing travel plans arises, be that willingly or not. Or, when during a journey, unexpected things happen – because they inevitably do. How do we communicate and interact with the customer? How much information do we share? Can we be proactive in suggesting smart alternatives and solutions?
After the journey, a simple follow-up mail with a thank you would work wonders. I have rarely received one. And when things didn’t go to plan, how about an apology mail? I have never received one of those either. I don’t expect more – I don’t need miles or vouchers – at least not if the disruption wasn’t drastic. But not receiving a “thank you” or “we’re sorry” basically shows that for the airline, the journey is somewhat “fire and forget”. Does the airline even know or care how my journey went?
Well heck, why doesn’t it work?
I have a theory. and will turn this theory into a call to action. First and foremost, I wonder how many C-Level airline executives, VPs and directors actually travel, well, like travellers would travel. In my experience, none. They have staff tickets and people who book for them. They never follow the customer’s path. When missing a flight, they can easily no-show, knowing they can go-show on the next flight. Sure, they sometimes have to deal with being a “passenger available for disembarkation”, however they can also get insight into booking figures or call duty travel to rearrange flights, often with other airlines with no cost to the “customer” at all. Why don’t designated decision makers search, book, rebook and travel like the 99% of people sitting on their aircraft? Why don’t they use the apps to check-in or try to change their bookings like a consumer would? That could result in some eye-openers, I’m certain. Most likely it would also lead to a better understanding of the Net Promoter Score (NPS). Oh wait, you don’t measure that? Or you do, but don’t analyse the results and take action?
Surveys such as NPS are a great means to understanding satisfaction. However, it is not enough to conduct a survey. Two airlines we have worked with over the past years had task forces in place to evaluate NPS surveys and create action plans for improvement. These were very structured processes, with a dedicated team and empowerment to influence the different departments in the airline to constantly improve customer service. The issues, actions and improvements were presented twice a month at executive level, with buy-in from all departments within the airline. In both cases, NPS scores increased, and while the increases were only marginal in the first six months, they grew considerably faster once the improvement team and the processes were established and the first “quick wins” identified and implemented.
We suggest that airlines start doing two things if you do not already:
- Make sure that decision makers can travel like customers a few times each year. Make them book online or via the app – or even with a travel agency. Travel like the masses – don’t call in for privileges, sit in the back, book non-flex tickets.
- Measure and act and get help doing so if necessary.
Why are we asking you to do this? Well, as an industry, we have moved so far towards this vision of retailing and customer centricity. All the talk is about systems and technology, about retailing and customer data, about segmentation and creating personalised offers. That is all great, and we share the vision here at Travel in Motion. However, there is more to it than a vision of airline retailing with offers and orders, or other buzzwords like NDC, ONE Order, Dynamic Offers, Continuous Pricing and what have you. At the end of the day, the customer has to be happy.
(Daniel Friedli, 3. November 2022)