Age of the Customer

Customer Experience At The Forefront Of Successful Airlines

The customer experience is, or should be, a high priority for all airlines. Delivering a consistent, quality customer experience is possible when an airline builds a solid strategy, as well as establishes an internal culture that empowers employees and provides them with the necessary tools to care for each and every customer. The result: customer retention, revenue growth, reduced costs and customer advocates.

This is undeniably the “age of the customer.” Consumer’s expectations are higher than ever, and customers are demanding accountability from airlines for products and services — on their terms. However, it is not enough to simply provide superior service and quality products. Consumers expect an excellent overall experience when interacting with an airline’s brand. It is not just a matter of the customer asking, “Did I get what I needed?” or even, “Was it easy to get what I needed?” They are asking, “Did I enjoy the travel experience?”

Social media has opened new opportunities for consumers to express their feelings and share their experiences.

Consider the example of musician Dave Carroll whose frustration with his damaged guitar and an unnamed airline’s lack of response led him to post a video on YouTube in 2010 that went viral (more than 14 million views and 74,000 comments as of August 2014). This generated a firestorm of negative publicity, and while the airline ultimately responded and set matters straight, the damage done to its reputation affected the airline years after the original social media response was posted.

In this age of the customer, companies live and die by the relationships they form with consumers of their products. Deliver on the brand promise while helping consumers enjoy the experience, and they will become advocates, extolling the brand virtues to all whom will listen. Failure to do so turns them into active detractors who seek alternate products or providers and may turn other existing or potential customers away.

Interestingly, Carroll went on to publish a book about his experience with the airline and formed an online consumer advocacy movement that continues to grow in popularity.

Customers For Life

A customer-experience maturity model records the journey that customers are supposed to take when they engage with a particular brand. It identifies customers’ needs and expectations and enables airlines to anticipate them. The ultimate goal of a customer-experience model is to acquire lifetime customers.

What Is Customer Experience?

It is important to have a clear understanding of the term customer experience. While the consumer view of customer experience generally means the sum of all experiences the customer has had with a supplier over the duration of his or her relationship, let’s focus on the supplier view of customer experience, which is defined as an organization’s delivery on its brand promise. This does not necessarily mean a supplier should offer the most luxury or the most extensive selection.

In fact, many customer-experience leaders offer simple products with limited services relative to their competitors.

The brand promise is what consumers expect of an organization based on how it represents itself in the marketplace. It is influenced directly and indirectly by what that organization says and does as a brand.

Organizations can easily become lost in their own brand communications or get too wrapped up in their marketing slogans. For example, it is easy for a company to promise an experience that it may or may not be able to deliver, simply to entice customers. Consider the slogans: “Fly the Friendly Skies” or “Something Special in the Air.” Consumer sentiment for these brand promises of the past made it clear that some customers didn’t experience “friendly skies” nor did they feel particularly “special” after their experiences.

Rather than making promises that sound good but aren’t always possible to keep or applicable to all customers, airlines should closely examine their brand promises and promote and communicate accordingly to ensure they deliver the promised experience. The brand promise must be realistic and achievable, and it should represent the real vision, strategy and objectives of the organization.

Southwest Airlines continues to lead all U.S.-based airlines in customer-experience scores, yet its product offerings, as well as its brand promise are simple, direct and easy to understand. Customers appreciates the airline for this, and via its blog, the airline enthusiastically extols its virtues and promotes its services.

The results generated by consumer-centric, customer-experience-focused organizations clearly indicate that companies that deliver on superior customer experiences:

  1. Reduce operational costs,
  2. Increase recurring revenue,
  3. Secure a lasting relationship with existing customers,
  4. Attract new customers at a higher rate,
  5. Have more engaged and committed employees.

The cascading effects of customer-experience maturity across an organization are tremendously positive, producing exponential results that touch every corner of a business. Simply put, the potential returns on customer-experience investments are enormous, while the penalties for customer-experience failures are equally impactful but with devastating consequences.

The stark reality is, with the exception of a few bellwethers, the global airline community continues to struggle with making real inroads into customer-experience maturity. Recent Forrester studies of customer-experience satisfaction among consumers in the North American marketplace indicate that the airline industry falls well behind customer-experience-leading industry segments such as retailers and hoteliers. And while there have been clear leaders in the airline segment, even their top scores were at best average when compared with the aforementioned top industry segments.

Why is this? Customer-experience success appears to be achievable by any organization in any industry. The airline space seems full of opportunities to excel at providing superior experiences to consumers. In fact, many airlines claim to put customers first. After all, the airline industry pioneered loyalty programs designed to secure relationships with high-value customers. There are customer-profile and customer-relationship-management systems designed to connect frontline and airline support staff with customers’ data at multiple touchpoints. These tools promise to provide such employees with a “single view of the customer” and a deeper understanding of the relationship between a customer and his or her needs.

In addition, airlines have years of experience managing large volumes of transactional data, as well as performing research and analytics on consumer sentiment and demand. In fact, many organizations spend millions of dollars selecting, testing, configuring, implementing and operating customer-experience programs of one sort or another.

Many factors contribute to customer-experience success. Three factors are of particular importance and hold key anchor positions in the overall organizational customer-experience toolbox:

  1. Customer-experience strategy,
  2. Customer-experience culture,
  3. Customer-experience technology.
Customer-Experience Strategy

Successfully establishing and implementing a customer-experience strategy is the first step to customer-experience maturity. The right strategy is direct, simple for employees to understand and actionable by everyone from senior executives to contract employees working the ramp or handling luggage. The strategy must define an organization’s customer-experience intentions and principals so clearly that employees follow its precepts like sailors navigating toward a lighthouse that will bring them safely home.

However, defining and communicating the strategy isn’t enough. Employees are often bombarded by other communications such as values, tenants and mission statements. When combined with multiple performance objectives (company, departmental and individual), employees can easily become lost in a sea of confusing organizational flotsam and jetsam. It is vitally important that airlines reduce complexity and simplify their overarching strategy while moving the focus from addressing symptoms of customer-experience failures to driving a customer-centric philosophy, vision and strategy deep into the heart of their organizations.

The best way to ensure the strategy meets the objectives of customer-experience excellence is to engage customers. There is no substitute for customer engagement.

Take every opportunity to listen when customers speak. But don’t stop there. Often times, when they are speaking it is because they are already unhappy. Find them before they become unhappy. Better yet, engage them before the experience and ask them what they need. Airlines should not assume they know all the answers. They should ask their customers and continue to ask them.

This means establishing programs and building the skills necessary to engage customers in dialog about their wants and needs, recording this information, prioritizing customer requests and monitoring performance over time. As well, performance objectives should be tied directly to customer feedback and shared throughout the organization. Company, departmental, team and individual objectives should be directly mapped to the customer-experience strategy driving the organization.

Once an airline has intently listened to its customers and clearly understands their needs, the next step is to define its vision of the customer experience. The vision should be a simple and direct statement of the desired customer experience. It should integrate well with the corporate strategy and should be consistent with brand values. Employees should clearly understand the vision and how they can support it.

A key point to consider is the existence of multiple customer segments. If there are multiple customer segments with distinctly different customer-experience intentions for each, then creating an overarching vision with separate vision statements for each segment is critical.

Once a customer-experience vision has been established, the next step is to create a customer-experience strategy. In essence, the strategy defines how an airline will deliver on its vision. It’s not meant to address the tactical details but instead provides an overall guide as to how the airline will meet customer-experience expectations.

Again, alignment with the corporate vision and brand image is the key to success. An airline must ensure its vision and strategy for customer experience is clearly and directly aligned with its organizational objectives.

The customer-experience strategy should be specific enough to provide business units with clear direction on where to focus their efforts and how they will be measured. Therefore, the strategy must include elements such as business-unit-level expectations, performance goals and key performance indicators (KPIs).

Basically, the strategy is a master blueprint that individual departments and groups within the organization can reference when planning their own detailed customer-experience initiatives, goals and measures.

There is one final point to consider when building a customer-experience strategy. The strategy must clearly support incremental revenue growth and/or provide clear cost savings. If it cannot be directly mapped to either, it should provide measurable support for efforts that do. This point is crucial, particularly when an organization takes its first steps down the path to customer-experience maturity.

Outperforming The Competition

Apple’s strategy to include customer experience as one of the core focus areas has contributed to the stock’s 10-times growth rate during the last decade.

Source: Nasdaq

Customer-Experience Culture

The next critical component is the creation and ongoing support of a strong customer-centric culture within the organization. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. It takes seven to 12 positive customer interactions to compensate for one bad experience. While an airline may establish and communicate a clear vision and strategy for customer experience, its employees must take it to heart and deliver in a consistent, reliable and dependable manner.

Examples of employees taking ownership of a situation abound. For example, a pilot purchased pizza for everyone on his aircraft after experiencing significant delays. Ultimately, an airline’s employees are, in large part, responsible for the customer experience. The airline, therefore, must create a customer-centric culture where customer experience is a priority and all actions taken by the airline and its employees are measured against the touchstone of the customer-experience vision and strategy.

Building a customer-centric culture is more than simply communicating the organizational strategy and values to employees. They must be actively engaged in developing the tactical plan that achieves the strategic objectives. In a recent study, Dell, the multinational computer technology company, found that Net Promoter Scores® were twice as high when the experience was delivered by a “highly engaged” employee.

Employees should help build the customer-experience strategy. Customer-facing employees often have a keen understanding of and insight into customer needs and the organization’s ability to fulfill them. They can help identify the pain points for travelers that may be hard to casually detect. Most importantly, they have ideas about how to address pain points, which enables the airline to provide customers with the experience they desire and expect.

Formally collecting employee feedback can provide an organization with valuable information about the customer experience it delivers.

Voice-of-the-employee programs can be designed and implemented to encourage and reward employees for contributing to customer-experience objectives. The purpose of such programs is to establish a culture that incentivizes employees to “own” the tactical delivery of the customer-experience strategy and act accordingly.

Customer-Experience Technology

The late Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Apple Inc., said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around.”

When considering Apple’s laser focus on customer experience and the 10-year performance of its stock, the story is clear. By focusing on customer experience as its core business strategy, Apple moved from the brink of irrelevance (and some might even say extinction) to the pinnacle of success and is now one of the most profitable businesses in the technology space.

The core components of customer-experience technology have been around for a long time. Customer and business profiles, customer-relationship management and survey programs are all examples of tools that can facilitate customer-experience objectives.

However, many of these tools exist in isolation with little or no interaction. These solutions must be interconnected and leveraged to help drive customer-experience objectives.

For example, customer-relationship-management systems (CRMs) should be enriched to:

  • Contain information such as customer-segment-specific workflows;
  • Support unique services;
  • Integrate and utilize customer lifetime value scores;
  • Customize offerings specific to customer interests, preferences, channels and past activities.

Enriching an existing CRM system can differentiate the customers’ interaction while significantly improving employees’ ability to provide excellent service to them.

CRM applications and content should be readily accessible whenever customers interact with airline staff, and that content should be relevant for individual customers or customer segments.

For example, in order for gate agents to understand customers’ value to the airline, they should be made aware of any recent service issues that could affect customer sentiments. Using the information in the CRM tool, a gate agent can provide targeted attention to a specific customer at gate check-in to ensure the service he or she receives affords the opportunity for relationship building or recovery.

Providing gate agents with a screen full of information listing purchases made by the customer or detailed call logs to the service center during the past 24 months actually hinders gate agents’ ability to provide the best possible service. This information could prove useful and should be available; however, the primary presentation of CRM data should be targeted to the role of an employee and anticipate the most likely need of that employee and customer at a particular touchpoint. Therefore role-specific user interfaces with employee-specific customized workflows and role profiles should be developed.

Additional customer-experience technology includes online customer-experience feedback and ratings (voice of the customer), online employee feedback and ratings (voice of the employee), Net Promoter Scores, customer-experience management and customer-value calculators. Each tool is designed to enhance an airline’s understanding of the customer and his or her experience, expectations and perceptions to help build a strong relationship and promote long-term loyalty.

The key to customer-experience-technology success is to provide the right data at the right time in the right way to deliver the best possible customer experience.

A New Era

The tide has turned, and the age of the customer is upon us. As such, it’s critical that airlines embrace their customers and fully commit to providing the best customer experience possible while staying true to their brand promise. To accomplish this, airlines must engage directly with customers and employees to understand individual travelers’ desired experiences.

Developing a customer-centric strategy and culture enables employees to excel at customer care. This environment, supported by customer-experience technology, empowers employees to deliver on an airline’s brand promise, resulting in exceptional customer service, revenue growth, cost reduction, increased traveler loyalty and customer advocates who will promote the brand via a multitude of channels.