Customers Rock!

A blog about customers, their experiences, and how businesses can make sure their customer experiences rock!

Airline Customer Service Makes All the Difference

Posted by Becky Carroll on June 19, 2008

The Airline ExperienceThe airline industry is in quite a mess.  Extra fees being charged for bags have passengers feeling even more “nickle and dimed” than ever.  Fuel costs are driving more people to take their vacations at home.  Cut-backs at airlines mean fewer employees doing more work = grumpy people.  What is an airline to do?

Would you be surprised if I said “Improve the Customer Experience”!  Well, it is not just me saying it this time.  J.D. Power and Associates just released the results of their 2008 North American Airline Satisfaction Study.  Declining customer satisfaction is linked with the level of customer service provided by airline staff, even more than it is linked with concerns over extra fees and prices.  Per the press release:

The study finds that satisfaction with “people” factors—including knowledge, courtesy and helpfulness of reservation and gate agents, check-in staff and flight crew—has declined dramatically since 2007, and is the leading contributing factor to the overall decline in customer satisfaction with airlines in 2008. The decrease in satisfaction with people factors is more than twice as large as the decline in satisfaction with price factors.

The press release goes on to quote Sam Thanawalla, director of their global hospitality and travel practice, who urges airlines to invest in their employees in order to improve the customer experience.

Here is the Customers Rock! take on the situation:

In a tough economy like this one, customers will be very choosy about where they spend their hard-earned money.  If a customer has decided to take a trip, they want to it to be great!  Airlines need to get with the program and look at the experience from the customer’s perspective.  It won’t take much “mystery shopping” to figure out where to find the pain points.  It could be just a few simple things that make the difference, but airlines need to get into a conversation with their customers in order to figure this out.  Southwest Airlines has done an exceptionally good job of this with their Nuts About Southwest blog, even changing some of their policies as a result of customer feedback.  (Fun aside – Southwest just blogged about MyStarbucksIdea, and now their customers are starting to ask for MySouthwestIdea… think it will catch on?)

Yes, the customer experience really does matter to customers, and it matters more every day.  Marketing, customer service, HR, sales – all departments need to put their heads together and figure out how to create better customer relationships via the experience.  Quick – do it before your competition does! 

(Photo credit: egdigital)


20 Responses to “Airline Customer Service Makes All the Difference”

  1. Let me wholeheartedly agree with you. There is nothing that matters now more than quality and service. I was just talking to a client today, they own a mid-size business, and he was agreeing that he now understands that it is not the price that makes and keeps customers, it is the quality and value of the offer – and service above all. He aims to fully please every and single customer as much as he can — even those painful-to-serve. He knows his business depends on it. Another example.

    I just came back from a (very short) trip to Europe. I will have to return several more times this year, more than likely, as we continue our work. As I was considering which airline to take, I could not say that I have any loyalty built to any of them right now – spite of being elite in most of them. I finally decided, for schedule reasons, to fly with Delta. I do remember past flights where Delta was more expensive (not this time), their seats were more crowded (somethings never change, at least for someone who is 6’3″), and their personnel the grouchiest in the industry.

    What a difference an economic downturn makes.

    Service was superb (really) at any level. I had to change a ticket, no more than 3 minutes and they used all the data they already had. Checking was a breeze through their web site or a kiosk at the airport. Their flight crew was superb! Attentive, polite, and always thanking me for choosing them – but that was not said as an exercise… they meant it! I flew both coach and business, and some portions with a partner (not so good, but they cannot control it). I even asked one of their flight attendants why the change, and she said that management was giving them more and more data on how their behavior affected the outcome of the company – and they now understand that loyalty programs is not the answer to retain customers – service is!

    I will recommend Delta to anyone who wants to listen, I will look for them first, and I will definitely tell the stories — and hope they won’t go back to the old ways.
    And the main difference – they figured out that service is a differentiator… and they are leveraging it. A success story all around…

    Oh yeah, well written blog. Nice job.


  2. James said

    If your industry was afforded random government bail outs and other corporate welfare, customer service would not be as much of an issue either. I believe that there is a sense of entitlement in the airline industry. There seems to be a “you can’t do it with out me” mentality in the airline business model. That is what we get for allowing our rail infrastructure to be dismantled. The traditional “customer is king” model is broken and there seems to be no real incentive to fix it.

  3. Jay Ehret said

    I think people understand that airlines need to charge more because of higher fuel prices. What they want in return is a customer experience worth the ticket price. And that’s the solution for all businesses, not just the airlines.

  4. Esteban, great to see you here as always. Yes, the value is not completely in the offering but also in the people. I would love to see more and more businesses “get it”!

    Thank you also for your Delta story. I hope this instance is not a “one-off” but a harbinger of true change for Delta (see Joseph Jaffe’s Delta Skelter posts to see customer frustration). When companies realize that empowering employees and taking care of them is a key to improving the customer experience, they will see improved customer satisfaction.

  5. James, thank you for your comment on Customers Rock! and for your perspective. There may be a sense of entitlement, but I would bet the airline employees aren’t feeling any of that… and neither are the customers! To argue a point, I don’t believe the “customer is king” model is a viable business model, as it would dictate customers should have their way at all times. However, a business model with a solid customer strategy which complements a strong marketing and product strategy will be successful in the long run.

  6. Jay, the whole “charge more because fuel prices are up” is going to wear thin very quickly; it already had in the airline industry. Yes, people can be understanding. However, when the experience is so painful, patience runs thin.

    Of course, I completely agree with you that all industries should be looking to improve the customer experience as a key part of their customer strategy! 🙂

  7. Chuck said

    Charging for bags was a mistake. They should have just raised the price of tickets. It would have been more transparent and they wouldn’t have gotten all the bad PR. I perceive the move as Delta trying to hide the fact that they have to raise prices, like when you are sold something and the salesperson doesn’t mention the extra fees so you think it’s cheaper than it actually is.

  8. It is actually American and United that are charging for baggage now; Delta doesn’t charge for bags at the moment. However, I agree with you that the “nickel and dime” approach of charging for every little thing (I heard this weekend that an airline was going to charge for soft drinks) is not the way to the customer’s heart. Service is.

  9. I’m stymied that so many airlines just don’t get it. Yes, consumers understand that fuel prices are going to be passed along, and higher prices will help de-market by cutting demand … but the new excess fees are ludicrous, like charging passengers to check their luggage when there’s no additional guarantee their luggage will arrive with them.

    Here’s a concept: charging higher fares AND providing exceptional customer service. That’s something I’d be willing to pay for.

  10. Becky,

    Of course I agree with you, except… Great customer experiences grow businesses when growth is possible. When was the last time you flew a plane that wasn’t overbooked and packed like a sardine can? Airlines are reducing flights, meaning even fewer flights. Do I wish my flying experience could be wonderful? Sure! Do I believe airlines want or need to create better customer experiences to grow? No because they are cutting back and not in a growth phase.

  11. daksh said

    Rising ATF ( aircraft turbine fuel) has been attributed as they key cause of price-rise in airline tickets. But then again what is vital for the airlines is to understand how can they create the ‘wow’ factor in customer’s mind. It is easy to be soft-spoken infront of customers, but then how can your airline differentiate its brand. At the end of the day, it all comes down to servicing your customers better.

  12. Sybil, I agree that the new fees are ludicrous – I just read about one airline charging you to make your online seat assignment (with different prices for aisle vs window vs middle). Do consumers really want to face fees at every turn? Of course, the bigger story here is empowering employees to help customers get through this. Rather than working with employees, airlines seem to be laying off in order to cut costs. May be a dangerous move. Thank you for coming, Sybil!

    Lewis, I feel that the airline industry needs to pay attention to the basic customer experience if they are even going to stay alive. This is not a growth phase for them, but they are trying to act as if it is by doing things that will “increase revenues”. This is survival mode for most, with the exception of a few who do customer service well. The question is, what can customers do about it? Only stop flying or fly airlines that treat them better. Thanks for keeping it real, Lewis!

    Daksh, I agree with you that customers can understand raising prices for fuel increases. There just aren’t than many “wow” customer experiences on airlines, at least, not here in the USA. How does it look out your way?

  13. daksh said

    Hi Becky,,

    Primarily over here the airline industry model is of two types.

    On one hand, you’ve the low cost/no-frills airline operators (Air Deccan, Spicejet) who provide you with cheap tickets which comes at a fairly decent customer service. Typical middle-class Indian family who traveled in railways earlier, resort to these airlines now.

    Otherwise, you’ve Kingfisher airlines which simply great with the overall set of features and service quality. But then again, it comes for a sizable cost. Barely a week ago the prices for all airlines have shot again, so now the price structure is almost similar amongst all. Typically, you’d see families from upper-middle strata here.

    Recently, I was coming from Bangalore to Delhi and there was a big queue for the baggage-clearance. The attendant from Kingfisher Airlines who was standing at a fair distance was quick to realize that I was only carrying a hand-baggage and politely requested me to proceed for the security check. Although its a standard everywhere that for hand-baggage you can directly proceed for security check, I was really impressed by their sweet gesture.

    On the flip side, I remember that a friend of mine boarded the Indian airlines flight from Delhi – Pune a few years back. Apparently, on reaching Pune he found out that his baggage was missing as it hadn’t been loaded on the same flight. After engaging in arguments for more than two hours, my friend managed to convince the reluctant airport authorities that loss of baggage was their responsibility. Finally, he did receive it after a couple of days 🙂


  14. phildarb said

    I agree, and it applies to any business in any sector, not just airlines.

    A good customer experience starts in the boardroom, just as it did at SouthWest, but even where the understanding and the will exist most organisations fail to deliver because they underestimate the chasm that exists between the boardroom and the front line where the experience is real. I have just written about this on my blog.

    We are talking internal marketing here. Probably the least understood and under-invested area of marketing. The policy that I promote to my clients is based on the Iceberg Imperative – nine-tenths of your marketing communications go on below the surface, but organisations the world around invest the bulk of their time, money and effort in making promises via the sexy media without paying much heed to how they will deliver. Result – it becomes too costly and involves too much effort to deliver the kind of experience that makes a difference to customers so the effort is half-hearted.

    Fix your internal marketing and it will happen, just as it has at SouthWest.

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