Airlines are struggling in today’s on-demand, consumer-focused world; a trend that is showcased through both documented passenger experiences and media coverage. As an industry at its most profitable in decades, it would make sense that it is also at its most successful. Yet recent media reflects just how broken the customer experience is throughout the airline industry.
Our CEO, Tim Houlne, is an entrepreneur and former FORTUNE 500 leader who strongly believes in the power of customer experience as a differentiator. Recently he weighed in on the airline customer experience challenges, providing insight as to the primary reason airlines are struggling – lack of understanding of the human connection.
“The airlines are more profitable, spending more and yet not focused on customer experience. Today a passenger has less leg room, less food choices and spends more in fees to fly,” said Houlne. “People want to be treated with respect in all aspects of their lives. The airlines are not supporting that need, which creates a tense environment for everyone.”
You don’t have to look hard to find any number of poor customer experiences. However, it is the recent debacle with the British Airways system failure that signals the overall lack of focus on the passenger. While they were scrambling to resolve the outage of their 200 technological support systems, the passengers were left without any information, grounded, for several days.
“What I find interesting is that the solution to improving their passenger experience was not difficult. Today, airlines leave their passengers in the dark. There is no solid line of communication and, therefore, no easy way for passengers and airline staff to access valuable information,” said Houlne. “The answer is to focus on improving those lines of communication,which includes the human to human lines of communication, not just technology.”
Communication goes beyond an app or a web page, a monitor at the airport or the occasional desk agent providing gate information. Communication is part of the customer experience journey, so ensuring that it is personal, easily delivered and contains the human touch is crucial.
The average consumer is no longer tolerant of being kept in the dark and expects immediate access to information using technology and mobility. With younger generations growing up in this environment, there is no tolerance for lack of information. Older generations have adopted technology as well, so the savvy organization ensures a consistent line of communication and access to information to keep their customers happy.
“British Airways is a great example of a situation where a more ‘old school’ approach would have made a big difference. Granted their platforms were down, but there are ways to ensure that your customer experience does not suffer because the technology is not available,” said Houlne. “Instead of having tens of thousands of people stranded with no information, they could have used automated messages for regular updates, increased the number of customer service agents answering calls, sent emails or text messages to their database, even used social media to provide some form of update.”
“What if they had an outsource partner who could step in and provide crisis communications while they worked to resolve the issue? The reality is that British Airways did not have a focus on the passenger,” said Houlne. “If they did put the customer first, then creative solutions would have been deployed to improve the customer experience.”
The airline industry has continued to focus less on the customer and more on their bottom line. As a result, many passengers are expecting to be treated disrespectfully, resulting in a tense situation that can easily turn antagonistic. The onslaught of bad press is forcing many airlines to review their policies and find a better way to serve their passengers. While a noble cause, having chosen to focus on passengers before being forced to do so by the outpouring of bad press would have been the more prudent choice.
“Something as simple as providing free Wi-Fi on flights so customers are connected is a game changer,” said Houlne. “It shows that an organization puts the feelings of the customer above the minimal revenue that could be received from charging for the service. People would feel connected, have the ability to communicate, and feel supported to maintain their busy lives while flying.”
Some airlines do provide internet access, but via a subscription service that is tiered and not always easy to access, while others do not have access of any type. Considering the level of connectivity people expect today, it is interesting that more airlines do not consider making that shift.
“The difference for passengers is staggering. In addition to feeling connected with their normal lives, they can receive information via a channel they already use, such as social media or chat,” said Houlne. “Now you have a well-informed passenger who is not worried because he or she was able to check on a connection and stay productive during the flight.”
Any industry that regularly serves consumers would be wise to consider the customer experience at the forefront of their decision-making process. Remembering that customers expect connectivity and communication to happen regularly, seamlessly and on-demand is crucial.
“It’s important to consider the customer journey and every touch point,” said Houlne. “Treating customers like they are of value to your organization ensures that systems are in place, crisis communications are well thought out, and respectful customer engagement becomes a core part of the culture.”
When considering an environment that positively supports customer experience, it’s essential to combine new and traditional communication channels. As an example, British Airways having a crisis communication plan that incorporated an outsourced contact center partner would have easily solved the challenge of passenger communication. This would have provided additional options, such as combining text and phone to unify the updates, or utilizing online chat to maximize communication opportunities while providing that human touch.
“When you focus on the customer, it changes how you approach your business communications,” said Houlne.