What airlines can learn from smart marketers about the customer experience
The airline industry has been hit with some highly public complaints over the past few months. Columnist Evan Magliocca discusses how airlines are lagging in the customer experience and what they -- and any brand -- can do to put customers first.
Go to any marketing conference these days, and everything will be about customer-centricity — which isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think people realize how astonishing the evolution of the customer journey has been in recent years.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Sears or Penney’s catalog was still the apex of marketing. Now it seems that there’s a new technology, KPI or customer touch point every month. We went from the print catalog to email, to e-commerce, digital, social, and all the way to virtual reality and machine learning in a very short time.
Overall, the change has been revolutionary and in the customer’s favor. There is one exception, though, where the customer experience has somehow seemed to regress: The airline industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction from all other forms of commerce.
While everyone else has been fervently seeking to understand their customers — how they’re changing and what ways they can provide better service — some airlines have continued to cater to a select few, while (quite literally in some instances) dragging the rest of us kicking and screaming through our travel experiences.
Before we can make it better, we need to understand some factors that are, in fact, out of the airlines’ control.
No retailer can imagine the nightmare it would encounter if it had to deal with the logistics and subsequent delays that airlines manage on a regular basis. Delays and cancellations are inevitable, and while there’s much more that airlines could do to empathize with passengers, there’s no way to avoid the vitriol they’ll receive from some individuals.
The only thing worse for the customer journey than the airlines is having the government put its hand in the pot as well. That’s not to say that regulation isn’t completely necessary, but let’s face it: The government is not good at dealing with people.
The seemingly arbitrary rules that create flashpoints between flyers and the airlines are not entirely the airline’s fault — they’re just following regulations. Unfortunately, we associate bad government interactions with the airlines at times.
Think of security lines, for instance. One bad experience with the Transportation Security Administration and your entire flight is ruined, even though the TSA is not associated with any airline brand.
Airlines are culpable, too
While there are some factors that are out of their control, airlines have enough problems of their own to fix. We can focus on individual touch points, but the biggest issue with the airlines is simply the brand mindset and what is often perceived as arrogance.
There’s an old adage thrown around in marketing known simply as the 80/20 rule (and derived from the Pareto Principle): About 80 percent of business comes from 20 percent of customers. For the airlines, this is exacerbated by business travelers. Almost all of their business comes from a select few travelers — they know that, and they cater to them in every way possible.
To some degree, that’s smart marketing. Loyalty programs often run into issues by focusing their sights too broadly and not weeding out the people who don’t actively participate in their programs. But with the airlines, the stakes are even higher than that, and the level of selection is so extreme that it’s actually anti-customer.
How many times have you been told you can’t go through a completely empty queue because it’s for premium, double-diamond, platinum, preferred, select members only? How many times have you boarded a flight, hungry, to find that you don’t even get crackers or pretzels anymore? How about the constantly shrinking coach-class seats?
Such airlines don’t do themselves any favors. They only care about their core, most valuable members, and the rest of us are just supposed to feel lucky to have a seat.
So, what can they do differently?
Give associates who interact with customers more responsibility and options. It’s easy to create a blanket rule for some situations, but in reality, not all situations can be handled the same way. There are many different contextual elements the airlines can’t address that the associates can adequately read and react to.
Flying is painful, it’s stressful, and it’s complicated. Not everyone is a business traveler with a perfectly packed carry-on suitcase. Not everyone is flying solo without families or other individuals they are responsible for getting to their destinations.
It’s an anxiety-ridden situation that doesn’t have to be exacerbated. Airlines can show more empathy to their customers. You can’t change the fact that a flight was delayed, but you can make sure to give relevant updates and be helpful to each person’s unique circumstances. Even a free drink voucher can go a long way in those situations to show the customer you care. Give associates more flexibility to make smaller decisions based on individual circumstances.
Come back to reality
Anyone in today’s age of disruption who thinks that their sector is safe from having a Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or other radical thinker come in to steal their market share is simply crazy. The airlines have a larger barrier to entry with overhead and regulations, but they’re ripe for disruption. It’s survival of the fittest — and Musk’s Hyperloop should be keeping airline executives up at night.
Anyone can look to retail if they need an example; there are a lot of parallels. Retail was in its prime before Amazon (no pun intended), and a hundred smaller, more agile companies began putting the behemoths out of business.
Technology creates equilibrium; it removes barriers for great thinkers. If you had asked Sears and Penney’s a decade ago what was going to happen to the industry, neither one would have predicted that technological advances in commerce, logistics and the internet would decimate their business.
Perhaps another decade from now we might be saying the same for some major airlines if they don’t drastically change their mindsets from the top down.