Airlines: A Cautionary Tale of Bad Customer Strategy

Airlines: A Cautionary Tale of Bad Customer Strategy

It’s rare to find a story about an airline that stands out because of something positive they’ve done.

Consumer demand for air travel is going up, and conversations about airports, airlines, and travel experiences are becoming more and more common. “Worst” lists are bountiful: worst airport, worst airline… It’s rare to find a story about an airline or airport that stands out because of something positive they’ve done. At Faculty of Change, this led us to the question:

How has the airline industry gotten away with providing a product with such a bad customer experience for so long?

I deliberately call air travel a product and not a service, as buying and taking a flight has become so transactional it might as well be a product. You can see this in the two main ways customers interact with airlines:

  1. When booking a flight. The first interaction a consumer has with an airline is focused on the calculation of nickels and dimes: Would you like to choose your seat? Pay a fee. Would you like the option to be able to change your flight in incredibly specific circumstances? Pay a fee. Do you need a bite to eat during your hours-long flight? Pay a fee.
  2. During the flying experience itself. Sure, airlines might not have a say in the way customers are herded through security, but they can impact the interactions customers have with staff at the check-in counter and on the plane. These are important interactions, as they’re the only times the brand truly comes to life through its people.

Despite the importance of these two touchpoints, airlines do little to differentiate themselves. No one carrier truly stands apart from others in the crowd. With few unique qualities, the process of choosing a flight provider often boils down to finding the cheapest price to get from A to B.

Just because this is the status quo, though, doesn’t mean that customers are happy with the process. Some things don’t need to be entirely broken for them to need fixing. The system works, technically, but there may still be a better way: providing a personal experience, capturing brand loyalty, and thereby increasing shares of returning customers.

How would customers’ expectations of their interaction with airlines evolve if even just one airline became more customer-centric?

If an airline positioned itself as more than a mere ticket seller, what would that look and feel like for their customers? What would the result be?

A customer-centric airline would focus on acknowledging and addressing the pain points of their customers. They’d commit to helping their customers overcome their challenges, and to creating a sense of “we”—a sense of unity that acknowledges a relationship between airline and customer that didn’t previously exist.

Acknowledging the pain points of their customers would require discovering and understanding them, and this isn’t something that can be done from looking at a sheet of profits and losses. Becoming customer-centric would require airlines to buckle up and look into the highs, lows and turbulence in the midst of a customer’s travel journey. This research could be done by speaking to their customers—either intercepting them on their travel journey or by connecting in customer interviews—to understand their entire experience, from their point of view.

For an industry notorious for low and volatile margins, differentiating from competition in a customer-centric manner offers an untapped opportunity to improve and sustain profit. The flight purchase of the future should be akin to making a purchase of a t-shirt at a local clothing store. It shouldn’t be a stressful, pain-staking process that leaves customers hesitant to click the ‘purchase’ button out of fear that they’ve made an error. It should be simple, stress-free, with an air of calm, and knowledge they’ll be taken care of if they need to make a change.

Opaque terms & conditions, unclear cancellation & rescheduling policies, and the variance of all those minute-but-terribly-important details between airlines leaves customers confused—and also misunderstood. The average person is not well-versed in legal jargon. Airlines are misguided in expecting the average customer to be willing and able to read through technical terminology when all they want is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to whether they can reschedule their flight for any reason.

For a contrast, consider CAA Orion Travel Insurance. They sought to understand where in the purchase journey their customers were feeling hardship. Focusing on resolving their pain points and adjusting the experience accordingly, CAA created a new online purchase journey that offers its customers the transparency, information, and education they’re looking for. CAA’s customer journey improved substantially because of the organization’s investment in understanding their customer’s pain points.

The flight purchase of the future shouldn’t have customers asking, “Which airline has the smallest delays, fewest canceled flights, and will give me the least headache?” It’s about time that airlines took the leap to differentiate themselves from one another in a way that transcends the negativity. It’s time for airlines to become customer-centric service providers, giving their customers a sense of trust, confidence, and positivity.

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