John Gray’s classic book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus sheds some light on why so many airlines have this amazing and obstinate ability to annoy customers. Despite armies of female employees, airlines are at their heart “male” organizations with a “doer” mindset to which customer listening is hardly more than an inevitable nuisance.
However, learning to listen methodically to customers is a prerequisite to starting any Customer Experience improvement plan.
During my work with different airlines, I came across some epic customer listening failures. Let’s start with an example:
While performing a service audit, I found a long feedback thread from one particular frequent flyer. From what he wrote it was easy to understand that he was not the typical chain-complainer; he sincerely wanted to make management aware of service shortcomings because he wanted to be able to like his airline.
One email reported that the crew had not explained an aborted take-off, despite the panic of some passengers.
Another one described a heart touching airport scene of a crying elderly lady that hardly spoke the local language.
She had lost her flight after having been dropped off at the wrong terminal and needed to change her reservation to the next flight. She had to pay a penalty, plus the fare difference, a charged that turned out to be so substantial that it was declined by her credit card company.
No money, lost in a foreign country and forced to pay an amount equaling her next month’s living cost to get “released”. Two subcontracted equally helpless inexperienced girls representing the airline at a remote station on a Sunday. No corporate service protocol to solve the situation gracefully. Obviously, the former two elements of this scene cannot be blamed for causing this service tragedy. What an opportunity to learn and listen to the complaining customer!
But unfortunately, the airline’s ruthless “system” had been flagged him as a “frequent complainer”, entitled only to automated standard responses of the “sorry, we appreciate your feedback and we will do our best to improve in the future” kind.
Reviewing the case, I noticed that “the complainer” had stopped sending feedback several months ago and a look at his frequent flyer account confirmed my suspicion: he had also stopped flying with the airline.
At the end of this post I will tell you how we solved this particular case.
This is just an example of what happens more frequently then we would like to admit. Despite investing millions in fancy new business class “hardware”, many airlines are still struggling with getting the “software”, the human part, right. Hardware never produces any ROI without the right software. If we don’t listen, we will be unable to develop it, besides forcing the social media-empowered customer to speak up publicly in the Internet.
Listen first, and then act in consequence
The first step of any Customer Experience Management (CEM) project is therefore establishing bidirectional communication channels with customers. Having occasional looks at complaints or Tripadvisor comments is no longer sufficient. It requires setting up specific processes with their respective fully accountable owners, training people and implementing “Voice of Customer” IT solutions.
When avionline starts a CEM project, we religiously defend the need for simplifying customer interactions and internal processes. This saves costs and creates value for the customer by improving the “ease of use” of the service process.
We start “Voice of Customer” programs where the real “ears” are: setting up easy ways to collect feedback and providing frontline staff with better support processes when dealing with non-standard situations.
Enable CEM with “CRM+persona management”
Next is CRM integration. We use a lifestyle segmentation/purpose of travel approach. This allows the front line staff to better recognize the specific needs and value generation opportunities for the passengers according to their lifestyle and their current role.
For example, my father, a retired but still very active university professor, may be flying a lot, we may both be top tier FFP members, but his needs are very different from mine: he values and may be willing to pay a premium for reassuring personal assistance at the airport, while I may be prepared to pay a premium for getting everybody out of my way to speed up my boarding process. However, when travelling together, we value different things, such as a nice place in the lounge to talk.
Frontline staff can do much better if they can recognize customers and interact with them using persona (lifestyle profile) + purpose of travel specific service pattern. This way, staff can be trained to develop a higher systematic empathy with customers and to feed their comments more efficiently back into the system.
Persona management simplifies employee training and structures customer listening more conveniently and empowers them to react in a more personal way to their specific needs. For instance, you could script a persona attention protocol that silently exempts unaccompanied travelers older than 70 with little travel experience from reservation change charges.
This may still be a challenge for many CRM systems although an increasing number of solutions providers can help you to pull information about the customer from many heterogeneous sources. Airlines can incentivize customers to share crucial information by surveying them, following their Social Media profiles or setting up certain behavior triggers to assign them to one of the persona profiles you decided to implement.
Defensive CEM: stop losing money
In a first phase, still on the “defensive side” of CEM, “new generation customer listening”, which includes Social Media listening and engagement, will enable us to reduce “dis-satisfiers” in an equally persona aware manner. Removing dissatisfiers will not create value, but it helps to improve yields as we reduce complaints and stop giving our customers good reasons to ask for a discount.
Offensive CEM: make more money
The tendency towards increasing persona based microsegmentation is unstoppable as it is the only way to identify, develop and exploit new persona specific value creation opportunities. Accumulating persona structured customer knowledge from internal and external touchpoints will set the foundation for creating new ancillary revenue and yield optimization prospects, with a much higher return than more linear and static “customer centricity” approaches.
In future posts we will get deeper into persona development and management, the definition of a segmented value expectation, the actual service design and segmented touchpoint analysis process and, finally, the implementation and management with all its KPIs, ROI measures, training programs and staff accountability processes. This is the “offensive”, ROI oriented, innovative, differentiating, methodic and disciplined side of CEM.
As a bonus, we will introduce the concept of the “hackable” company as a deliberate way to help our customers to design their personal value proposition beyond our rigid product purchase and utilization rules, while still preventing cannibalization. Intrigued? Sign up here to receive these posts regularly in your email (no more than 2 per month, please use form on the right).
One last thing
I am developing a practical CEM-CRM guide for airlines, in collaboration with Airline Information. I would love to hear about your ideas and needs to make sure you will get a guide you can really use. Please sign up above.
PS: Just in case you are curious about how we resolved the “frequent complainer” story I told above: As a quick fix to this particular case we briefed the Director Customer Service and she decided to call this customer personally, tell him that she had just discovered his valuable feedback, apologize sincerely, assure him that things are changing (which was true: the CEM project was sponsored and emphatically supported by the CEO) and to offer him a free ticket for two as a thank-you gift while reinstating his FFP premium tier he had lost in the meantime.
The customer was surprised and delighted. However, we could never identify the old lady of his story as she never complained nor probably will probably travel again on this airline.