The Customer Journey

Customer Experience From A Pilot’s Perspective

Research shows that customers want to hear from pilots, especially during irregular operations. They are more likely to remain calm and have a pleasant experience when they are communicated with by the pilot flying their aircraft. Therefore, airlines should view pilots as an asset for increased customer satisfaction and encourage them to be part of their customer-excellence team.

Jonathan Ewbank

Following the crash of Germanwings flight 9525 in March, many pilots took extra measures to reassure nervous flyers by personalizing interactions and “humanizing” themselves. Actions  ranged from giving emotional speeches to personal contact with boarding passengers – in  some cases, shaking hands and even hugging. There were similar actions following the tragic events of 9/11, when pilots would personally address customers, providing narratives on what had been done to prevent future security lapses and their heartfelt confidence in the safety of that flight.

It is within these times of extreme tragedy that flight crews find themselves as being an essential part of the experience, a voice of reason to fight fear, filling the gap of human connection between an inanimate, metallic aircraft and the persons who put their lives in the hands of those who manipulate the controls.

It is within these remarkable circumstances that pilots will step outside of their normal duties (and comfort zones) to willingly engage with passengers; not because they have been directed by the airline to do so, but because they recognize that emotions of the situation drive a necessity of human interaction.

Yet, under normal circumstances, the majority of pilots avoid personal contact with passengers because they view customer satisfaction as something that is largely outside of their control. Many see customer service as the flight attendant’s responsibility and core competency and rarely consider their contribution to the overall customer experience.

Why? Are there no other circumstances that require a pilot’s input into the customer journey? Does it matter? Can pilots positively/negatively affect customer satisfaction? Should pilots even involve themselves with customer-service functions that are outside of their responsibilities?

Before answering these questions and defining what a pilot’s role should be within the customer journey, I would like to give you a brief introduction.

I am a former airline pilot (10 years), an MBA graduate and current customer-experience business consultant. I also have 15 years of airline/aviation experience and have worked in customer service for 11 years.

I put myself through college waiting tables and bartending, went on to teach for my alma mater for a of couple years, and by the time I was hired as an airline pilot, I was elated to finally be within a professional environment where I was judged by mechanical skills over human ones. As it turns out, airplanes don’t care if you smile when you see them; and they don’t complain; and they pretty much do what you tell them to.

I recall joking with my colleagues that in a post-9/11 era we benefited from having a bulletproof door between ourselves and the increasingly unsatisfied (and sometimes angry) customers; spurred by a steady deterioration of the overall traveling experience – greater security hassles, laborious airport journeys, high load factors, etc. Never again would I have to deal with angry customers, be reminded that the customer is always right, be yelled at for something that is completely out of my control or have my compensation tied to how much somebody liked me. Never again!

Pilot Interaction

In support of an airline’s customer-experience strategy, pilots should routinely interact with customers to enhance their overall travel experience, relieve any fears or concerns they may have about their flight and show human compassion. That level of interaction can boost customer satisfaction, even during times of irregular operations such as flight delays.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

Then one of the flight attendants on the aircraft I was piloting called me to the back of the plane to deal with an intoxicated passenger who had become disruptive. The exchange reminded me of the nights bartending when I would have to cut off belligerent customers, call a taxi and escort them out of our building. This incident was followed by a gravely ill passenger who had fallen down while boarding the aircraft, prompting me to jump in and carry the man to his seat. On another occasion, a disabled person was seated in an emergency exit row and refused to move; causing me to personally address the situation with the individual.

These seemingly one-off situations, where I was required to personally interact with passengers, became part of my normal duties.

Now as anyone who has ever flown or worked for an airline knows, “normal” operations are interspersed with continuous irregularities and disruptions. What I also discovered is that during these events (maintenance, delays, weather, cancellations, etc.) passengers want to hear from pilots. Moreover, messages conveyed by pilots carry more weight and are generally more trusted. This nuance is an effective tool that can and should be leveraged.

Two personal experiences to prove my point:

On one flight, we were unable to land at the destination airport due to fog and had to divert to another airport. By the time we had landed at our alternate airport, weather at the intended destination airport had cleared.

We (dispatch and I) made the decision to take on more fuel and fly back to the intended airport. The destination airport was a resort town with a premier golf course, and our full flight was nearly all golfers who had booked a morning flight so they could make their afternoon tee times.

This became a problem when after taking on more fuel for the flight, we had to remove golf bags. Upon looking out the window and seeing their golf bags exiting the aircraft, passengers became angry and openly hostile with our flight attendants; prompting multiple public address system (PA) announcements asking passengers to remain seated.

As things began to unravel in the cabin, I opened the flight deck door, went to the front of the aircraft (so I was visible to all) and personally addressed the passengers. Within seconds, all passengers stopped yelling, listened, sat down, and the situation was immediately diffused.

On an international flight, a cargo door would not close. We did not know how long it would take to fix. Because this occurred after all passengers boarded, we had two choices: deplane the passengers and have them go through customs again (a one- to two-hour process) or keep them onboard for an unknown/undefined period of time.

A Competent, Compassionate Pilot

On Jan. 15, 2009, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III safely glided US Airways flight #1549 to safety on New York’s Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers onboard. His level of professionalism and compassion for human life is a prime example of the type of pilot airlines should seek to hire.

Passengers disliked the uncertainty of announcements that were made by ramp agents and flight attendants. Again, I exited the flight deck, addressed the passengers personally, stated the situation as it was and gave them the option. Being able to act from a position of authority and relate to passengers on a personal, conversational level brought immediate understanding, acceptance and overall peace to a difficult situation.

Without ever making a conscience decision to do so, I found that to be good (and hopefully great) at my job, I needed to leverage those customer-service skills that I had cultivated in professions that had nothing to do with aviation.

Now, several years into my professional career as a customer-experience business consultant for airlines around the world, I am finding that a pilot’s role and contribution to customer satisfaction is as understated as what I thought it to be. As non-customer facing employees, airlines often overlook the pilot’s impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty. Yet, in our consulting work, we have consistently found that something as simple as pilot communication can have a significant impact on customer experience.

In conducting customer-journey mapping workshops (all-day customer-focus-group activities, where passengers detail their journey with an airline and provide sentiment ratings for every touchpoint) passengers consistently say they want to hear from the pilot and that while providing continuous scenic narrative over the PA isn’t all that important, not talking during irregular events is unacceptable, and it’s a key driver in their perceptions on how the situation is handled.

Data collected during these engagements is further supported by research showing that customer satisfaction improves significantly when captains communicate with passengers during delays.

In light of this, airlines are pushing pilots to be more engaged, communicate more often, discard refuge from having a secure door between themselves and customers (those that ensure job security) and involve themselves within the customer journey.

I recall that during my airline pilot career, my employer installed handbooks in every flight deck that provided guidance and written speeches for what should be said during irregular operations and while flying over scenic terrain. I also recall that the handbook was largely ignored and rarely used.

In reality, my professional background and entrance into the airline pilot career is somewhat unique in that I had customer-service experience and a skillset to draw from.

Typically, airlines’ hire pilots based on mechanical skills; with customer-service skills being a nice-to-have, but rarely a deciding factor in the hiring decision. After all, this is what they should be looking for, right? Ultimately, it is most important to hire the “safest” pilot, not a customer-service expert, right?

Not necessarily.

Pilots And Customer Satisfaction

Looking at customer satisfaction for passengers who experienced a delay of 60 minutes or more, in nearly every category, customer satisfaction was significantly higher when the captain made an announcement regarding the situation as opposed to those instances where he or she did not. What is even more compelling is the sharp differential increase (5 percent to 19 percent) in satisfaction when the pilot chose to make those announcements in person – most often by standing within sight of the passengers and making an announcement over the flight attendants’ public address system.

Mechanical skills, abilities to fly an airplane and safety can be largely taken for granted by the time a pilot reaches the interview stages for a major carrier. Any pilot who has had an incident/accident, failed tests of any kind, not passed any of his or her line checks, upgrades, etc., and/or had disruptions in his or her career (failed medicals, driving while intoxicated, etc.) must disclose that information on the application. Should the prospective pilot not disclose the information; the airline will discover it during background checks.

In reality, once pilots reach the stage in their career when they have enough time and experience to fly for a major airline, they are “safe,” and variations between the skillsets of pilot candidates is relatively minimal.

As such, some of the most forward-thinking airlines have relied on attitude and customer-service skills as being an integral and deciding characteristic among the pilots they do and do not hire.

Airlines that have adopted this philosophy (where pilots are required to be part of providing excellence in customer experience) are also market leaders in customer loyalty and the consequential revenue growth of increased passenger spend, reduced churn, etc.

Of course, as with all business strategies, it is not enough to create policies on the front end, but there must be policies and procedures that maintain the strategy.

In this regard, airlines cannot just change hiring profiles and expect customer satisfaction to increase proportionally. They must establish ongoing, continuous improvement strategies that support the organizational vision.

Doing so requires several moving parts where:

  • A customer-first strategy is part of the culture,
  • All employees have bought into the vision and work as a team to increase customer satisfaction,
  • All employees are continuously trained to work better and are accordingly managed by relevant customer satisfaction/loyalty key performance indicators.

While many airlines have adopted the above strategies for a more customer-focused organization, an integral part of that equation is sometimes forgotten – those who are most responsible for managing the operations and findings ways to recover from the regularity of irregular events and those who passengers trust most in conveying messages of reassurance when the customer journey has been disrupted.

Unfortunately, unless an airline has hired the right person, equipped them with the right skills, asked them to be part of the customer-excellence team, trained and guided them on how the airline wants the product managed, pilots are relegated to being nothing but a mechanical bridge between the airline and it’s passengers.

Rather, pilots can and should be an asset for increased customer satisfaction, supporting the airline’s vision.

Within the airline industry, there is a distinct movement toward customer centricity as carriers realize it is a key factor in gaining and maintaining competitive advantages. In this movement, many airlines put forth the idea that they have or are working toward complete employee buy-in, ensuring all participants are steering the company toward what the customer wants. “All” employees should include pilots.

In assessing your airline, do not discount the role your pilots play in the customer experience. These individuals are not just an extension of the autopilot … there is a humanity there that can be leveraged to push your airline to the “next level.” Having been on both sides of the line between pilots and executives, I can tell you that allowing pilots to join the team will help you win the customer loyalty, satisfaction and brand advocacy race. There is untapped potential there that all successful airlines should use.

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