Being a CEO accountable for the customer experience of a major airline must be one of the toughest jobs out there today. With few exceptions across the industry, customers consider airlines – at best – a necessary evil. Fuel prices and global terrorism threats make profits darn hard to come by. I was struck a few days ago, when Harris Interactive released its 2010 corporate reputation survey. I noticed that nine of the bottom ten least respected companies received government bailout money, easily contributing to their lowly spots.
The tenth was Delta. Ouch.
If you were a smart, well-intended airline executive, you probably noticed that the yelling has reached a new pitch recently. There are blogs dedicated entirely to poor airline experiences. Customers question your food decisions. Even US senators write bills to keep you from implementing those profit-hunting baggage fees. And then there’s the things you can’t even control like volcanoes in Iceland that make customers cranky and cost you millions of dollars.
So, what’s an airline executive to do? I love a good challenge. So in that spirit here are 10 things I’d do if I were asked to fix the customer experience for a struggling major airline:
- I’d actually define a target customer experience. I’d want a clear “end in mind” or ideal experience anybody could use as a decision making guide every day.
- Declare the problem we solve for our customers that is unique to us. I’d follow the leads of Virgin Airlines and Cathy Pacific or these great examples from New Zealand Air and Southwest Airlines. Time to de-commoditize ourselves.
- Stop over-promising. Promise fewer things and over-deliver on what we promise.
- I’d pay attention to both the tangible (price, inches of legroom, convenience of gates at the terminal) as well as emotional (tone of voice, reading level of policy language) parts of the customer experience. I know that focusing on one without the other yields only short term improvement.
- Enroll employees as part of the team. I’d collaborate with them so customers don’t overhear flight attendants complaining about how the airline treats them as employees, or open a dialog assuming the customer is the source of his or her problem. I know the degree of positive engagement employees feel translates to customers, and in turn to performance.
- Raise prices just a bit to stop nickel and diming people. Then I’d brag that we did it. A lot. I’d trust that my customers know (and actually support) that we must be profitable to stay in business.
- Match add-on fees to what truly adds value (like United’s Economy Plus which offers passengers a chance to “sit further from your feet”), and not to what my competition does. I’d stop the absurdity of charging for a first piece of luggage and bathrooms. People come with bags and bodies. Enough said.
- IF nickel and dime is what my airline must do to solve our customers’ unique need to spend the very least, I’d declare it as boldly as Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary does. Early in the LEARN step of the customer experience his prospects find that barest basic transportation is the need Ryanair is out to solve – that barest basic is what Ryanair stands for.
- Align ALL the processes at my airline with my target customer experience. As Bruce Temkin said so well in his customer experience manifesto, “A bad experience at an airline ticket counter may be caused by ticketing business rules and not by the agent. So improvements need to encompass more than just front-line employees and customer-facing processes.”
- Allow premium flyers to make changes at no-charge and with no hassle – or at minimum give front line employees more leeway to waive charges based on a customer’s situation. Frequent travelers are at their most vulnerable when something provokes a change. I’d stop wasting these SOLVE step relationship and reputation building opportunities.
So that’s my take. What would you say if you ruled customer experience strategy for a struggling major airline?