Frontline All-Stars

Turning Satisfied Customers Into Happy, Loyal Ones

Today’s customers expect nothing less than a superior experience. Therefore, it’s imperative that customer-facing employees understand a company’s service expectations, are properly trained to deliver exceptional service, and have the personality and passion to do so every moment they are on the clock.

Before airline deregulation in 1978, airlines primarily differentiated themselves with their customer service.

Today, air travelers routinely penalize airlines with some of the lowest customer-service scores. Collectively, airlines received a score of 69 out of a possible 100 from their passengers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), about the same as industries such as subscription TV services and social-media companies.

Thus, every interaction a customer has with an airline must be satisfactory, at least. For airlines, the customer service on the ground is just as important as the service at the 30,000-foot level, because the ground is where the face-to-face contact with the customer begins. It’s the first impression of an airline’s brand.

Employees should be hired, trained and empowered to represent the brand in the best possible way and rewarded for demonstrating the desired behavior.

What can airlines do to improve customer service?

First Impressions

For airlines, the first impression is made well before a customer boards an aircraft. The very first encounter a customer has with an airline leaves a lasting impression, good or bad, which results in retaining a loyal customer or losing a customer for good.

1. Train The Entire Team

Here’s how customer-service training happens in most businesses. With the best of intentions, business leaders hold a “pep-rally type” meeting about customer service; in other words, a meeting to ramp up the initiative and build enthusiasm and momentum. This is followed by customer-service training. As a result, the service improves for a few weeks. And then, without continued education, the service levels slowly decrease. The reminders grow further apart because business leaders are busy focusing on critical operational areas. In addition, management most likely feels it has adequately explained to front-line employees what is expected.

Clearly, everyone across the organization needs to understand the exceptional customer-service expectations. But it can’t stop there. Managers need to consistently and persistently reinforce those expectations.

They should also focus on the hiring process. Look to hire people with engaging personalities who are excited to work with the public. Beyond finding people with the right personalities, focus on a candidate’s passion for working with people. It is important to only hire people who truly believe in the product or service a company is trying to deliver.

The most beneficial step leaders can take to show every new employee their commitment to customer service is to train them about the company’s customer-service expectations immediately. They should ensure each new employee receives the same initial customer-service training that the entire team received.

Basically, good or bad, customer service is the responsibility of business leaders. Anything less than exceptional customer service falls on the hands of leaders. If they are not committed to exceptional customer service, the business will never achieve its potential for profitability or sustainability.

Customer-service discrepancies are most often due to:

  • Lack of proper training,
  • Inconsistent and/or infrequent reinforcement,
  • Improper or underutilized supporting technology,
  • Inadequate methods for gathering and providing feedback,
  • Employees in positions for which they have little or no training and/or aptitude.

Even leaders committed to exceptional customer service may fall short sometimes, but if they falter, they know how to get the operation back on track. In addition, when customers are accustomed to receiving exceptional customer service, they’ll be much more likely to forgive in rare instances when they do not.

The lack of customer complaints does not mean all customers are satisfied. The reality is that the majority of customers who are disappointed with any business won’t complain to anyone; they just switch providers. Leaders have to determine the appropriate definitions for their businesses of “exceptional” and “good enough,” train and coach accordingly, and implement systems to help ensure those standards are met.

Satisfied customers are just that … satisfied. If someone else has a little better price or offers a more convenient way to shop, they’ll switch. If the goal is simply a satisfied customer, even when customer-facing employees execute perfectly, their highest expectation can only be a “satisfied” customer.

However, customer satisfaction isn’t enough. Customer service needs to be exceptional, and leaders should strive to create loyal customers.

Building Employee Enthusiasm

Holding pep-rally type meetings to build enthusiasm and momentum with customer-facing employees is a good start toward improving customer service. However, this must be followed by recurrent training and regular meetings to keep the momentum going and reinforce the importance of quality customer service.

2. Consistently Reinforce Expectations Across The Organization

Truly outstanding businesses committed to exceptional customer service don’t just create and internally relay catchy slogans or vision statements. Rather, they hold their employees accountable by intentionally conveying to customers their company’s customer-service expectations.

As such, leaders should find as many ways as possible to collect feedback from customers including:

  • Recorded messages when customers are on hold on the telephone,
  • Signs at an airline’s places of business (in-flight, airport check-in counters, ticket offices, etc.),
  • Advertising,
  • Email communications,
  • The company’s website,
  • Surveys via email or direct mail asking, “What do you like? What don’t you like? We’d like to know.”

However, if companies are going to ask for input from customers, they must act upon it once it is received. Whether it’s a good comment or a complaint, every customer who contacts the company should receive a response.

In addition to improving customer service, one of the best reasons for sharing customer-service expectations with employees is to make them aware that customers may come directly to the leadership team if they feel they haven’t received the promised level of service. In turn, leaders will also be more concerned when customers have a direct path to them, and they must be involved personally with service failures.

Defining Customer-Service Expectations

Ensuring new hires have a clear understanding about an airline’s customer-service expectations is essential. Upon employment, they should be thoroughly trained on best customer-service practices, and that training should continue throughout their employment with the airline.

3. Don’t Mimic Machines

Chances are, most people have experienced the crushing frustration of getting caught in automated phone-tree circles, trying to the find the magic combination of buttons to press to speak with a customer-service representative. Or perhaps they have struggled with faulty apps that disconnect while trying to live chat with a representative.

These types of inconveniences should be avoided when attempting to help customers, who should not have to struggle with technology to get the help they need. Digital interactions should be seamless and transparent. Online customer service should make processes easier, not harder. Fortunately, a company can streamline its online customer-service approach to reach these ideals and form better human connections.

Generally, when customers contact customer-service representatives, it’s because they’ve exhausted all other options. They’re looking for help. Therefore, responses should be succinct, informative and helpful, but they should also reassure customers on a human, emotional level.

Customer-service representatives should avoid scripted or canned language and strive to empathize with customers’ frustrations. They should try to include simple statements of acknowledgement and reassurance, such as, “I understand that the flight delay is disrupting your plans. Let me see what I can do to help.” Showing empathy can help quickly defuse a customer-service situation.

Companies that rely too heavily on canned, scripted or even automated responses run the risk of alienating their customers. Leaders can reduce these frustrations by training customer-service representatives to introduce themselves by name and use natural, empathetic language.

4. Know What To Automate

A company’s digital presence makes it possible to connect with an audience of thousands. The potential for visibility and engagement is much higher online compared with brick-and-mortar businesses. Therefore, a certain level of customer-service automation is necessary to address as many needs as possible.

For example, a customer who is struggling with the account creation process might benefit greatly from an automated email link to a page on the support site. However, customers should also have the ability to speak with customer-service representatives directly via live chat, email or phone.

Automated responses should never be treated as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to all problems. It is likely that customers will run into issues that automated support systems cannot address.

Hiring The Right People

Airline leaders should be involved in the hiring process of frontline employees. They should focus on individuals with engaging personalities who are passionate about working with the public.

5. Be Transparent

Once customers decide to contact customer-service representatives, their options should be clearly available. Don’t try to hide customer-service contact information, because this leads to greater frustration. Be transparent about possible wait times based on resources. Provide flexible options, such as scheduled call-backs or even video chat, so customers don’t feel like they have to wait for long periods in a queue.

Leaders should give employees the latitude and authority to make snap decisions (given specific guidelines) for the sake of customer service. The latitude not only helps with consumer relations but also empowers employees to rectify situations immediately, promoting employee engagement, as well as customer and employee retention.

For example, a male passenger approaches a flight attendant with the news that he’s going to propose to his girlfriend in flight. In an effort to make the moment more memorable for the couple, the flight attendant decides to grab a bottle of champagne (at no cost to the customer) and then teaches the man to use the intercom system.

That level of empowerment and latitude not only makes the couple’s experience much more memorable but also enables the entire plane of passengers to witness firsthand the lengths the airline goes to on behalf of its customers. Certainly, many customers on the flight will share this experience with others.

That single act of kindness and exceptional customer service has great potential to be far reaching.

Clearly, when employees are given latitude and authority, they are more satisfied in the workplace. No doubt, this will be reflected in their interactions with customers — a winning situation for customers and employees alike, as well as the airline.