Dear Chief Executive Officers,
I envy your industry. I really do. There is such a natural affinity for the service your companies offer. People love to fly. Actually, to be more succinct, people love what flying represents: exploration, jubilation, celebration, investigation, opportunity, and adventure. What business leader would not want that natural consumer energy to harness and build upon?
You know, I need to retract the third sentence above: people do not love to fly. I spoke too soon. We once did love to fly but have grown to detest it, resent it, dread it, and loathe it. I know that sounds harsh, and I’m sorry, but it’s true. In fact, your industry scores the lowest in customer satisfaction amongst the more than 40 industries tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Index by the University of Michigan. The Postal Service has higher levels of customer satisfaction than you do.
How could you have let this happen? How could you take one of the most exciting events in consumers’ lives each year – the visit to grandma’s, the exotic vacation, the honeymoon or anniversary, the game changing business deal – and turn it into an event approached with dismay and doubt?
Listen, we know things are tough and times are challenging. Prices are increasing (gas, salaries, maintenance, insurance, and so on), competition has never been higher, and it seems like people’s lives have more stress than ever before. We get it. We are feeling it too. But for some reason it feels as though you all have collectively decided to abandon principles of treating people like, well, like people (let’s call it customer centricity). As Fred Reichheld points out in his book, The Ultimate Question, companies that increase customer loyalty (satisfaction) will generate more growth than those that don’t.
In your industry’s case, Southwest Airlines proves Mr. Reichheld’s point. Yes, Southwest Airlines, you are THE exception—kudos to you. I think we can all agree that Southwest is a beacon within your industry. And as an aside, isn’t it somewhat ironic that the carrier with the highest level of customer satisfaction is the one that offers nothing to its passengers? No first class, no food, no movies, no frills—just clear, concise, and consistent in who they are and, more importantly, how they treat their customers.
This takes me to why I am writing you this letter. I have traveled nearly half a million miles in the past decade, visiting more than 20 countries. That’s a lot of time on your planes, with your reservation and service staff, with your on-flight staff, and experiencing what you offer. A loyal and satisfied customer should be your goal, first and foremost. And, yes, that needs to be balanced by business goals. I see the effort to succeed in the latter, and continued reduction in your efforts to prioritize the former. So please allow me to give you all the following advice.
Communicate with Your Customers
As a frequent flyer, the key things I want to know are is my flight departing on time and is my flight landing on time. Pretty simple, actually. But far too often, I am not given accurate nor timely information relative to these two goals.
As I recently checked in online for a Chicago to Richmond flight from my hotel, United identified that my flight’s departure was “on time.” I got to the airport, went through security, arrived at my gate, and the board continued to indicate an “on time” departure. The only problem was that the in-bound flight (that was to become my out-bound flight) had just left its destination (over an hour late) and, guess what? There was absolutely no way my flight was going to be on-time. And United knew it when I checked in from my hotel but did not feel it important to tell me. So instead of remaining with friends, celebrating an event for an additional two hours in downtown Chicago, I spent two hours in the O’Hare Chili’s.
In early September, I was leaving Chicago on a US Airways flight. We boarded the plane and pulled away from the gate as scheduled. Unfortunately, we sat on the tarmac for over 20 minutes and were not told a thing. Eventually, the pilot got on and stated that there was some weather issue that had caused the delay but we would arrive on time, making up time in the air. True to his word we did. We arrived on time. Unfortunately, the destination airport, Richmond, did not have a gate nor ground crew for us. We must have, I don’t know, surprised them? So we waited for another 20 minutes so they could get a gate, stairs, and a crew.
We all have stories like this. And delays happen, we understand that. What I can’t understand is why we are not communicated to in an open, honest fashion. Do you fear that after spending hundreds of dollars for a ticket on your airlines we may, upon hearing of the oftentimes slight delay, sprint to your competitor and abandon you? Of course not. Do you lack the technology to determine that (1) you are delayed or (2) to communicate that news to us? No, you have both a watch and a loudspeaker. In fact, if we have the technology (for free, by the way) to get real-time stock quotes when thousands of shares are trading each and every minute of the day, I think you can tell us within, say 10 minutes’ accuracy, when a multi-ton steel airplane should leave and land on the ground. Don’t you agree?
Speak to us as you would want to be treated, ladies and gentlemen. It’s not tough. You have the technology and we have the desire. The fact that you consistently do not creates a poor customer experience and makes us not want to travel with you, a specific carrier, again.
Stop Nickel and Diming Customers
We know that gas prices are high. We feel it each and every time we fill the tank. We make due, cut other costs or reduce driving, if we are able to, and go on. You, on the other hand, seem to look for every opportunity to squeeze customers for additional revenues. Fees for luggage? Charging us for drinks (shame on you US Airways)? This makes you look so… greedy. By finding every opportunity to add “extra” fees you give us yet one more reason to dislike you and your product. What’s next, the bathroom?
Imagine this scenario: you go to the gas station down the street and while prices have indeed risen to $3.50 a gallon, there is now a $2.00 per use “nozzle renal fee.” How do you feel? Good? Pleased? Or do you think to yourself “just add the price into the price of a gallon of gas, make it simple?” I would bet on the latter. Yet you are doing the exact same thing. Think about it—you are giving customers yet another reason to dislike you and the experience you have created and look elsewhere.
If you need to raise ticket prices, it would, quite candidly, stink. But we can understand it. Treat us as adults.
If you need to compensate for higher gas prices, then do it in an open, honest fashion. That’s the key—it’s an open, honest thing to admit and we can personally relate to it.
Create a Good Customer Experience
Unless you retrofit all of your fleets with first-class seats and adding more leg room, there is no way around this—travel is simply not the most comfortable thing in the world. We accept this and understand, but there are things that you can do to make the trip not only more comfortable but more enjoyable.
I am six feet, five inches tall and well over 200 pounds (not that well over). With the exception of Northwest Airlines, I have flown every major carrier at least a dozen times in the past decade or so. And you know what would have guaranteed my loyalty and undying love? If one of these carriers had demonstrated the foresight to put into a database that I am six feet, five inches tall and well over 200 pounds. To what end, you may ask? To ensure that I always get priority for (1) the emergency aisle or (2) an aisle seat or (3) at a minimum, to ensure that you don’t put some behemoth next to me. Do you know how often I see some sub-six foot tall person in the emergency aisle, legs curled up on the seat? Meanwhile, I am in a middle seat sandwiched between a former college linebacker and someone with an obvious glandular problem. There is no reason to not collect and use this information in the proper allocation of seats. I know, you’re thinking “we don’t have a process to collect this in a systematic manner.” Understood. You also didn’t have one to collect luggage fees but damn if you didn’t figure out that one in a hurry.
We all have challenging days. We even let it show sometimes in our places of work. We shouldn’t but it happens from time to time. All too often it seems to happen with your in-flight crews during flights. They come across as perturbed when addressed. They seem unhappy. As a tall man (see above), I walk a great deal around the plane to make sure the blood continues to circulate around my body. I do not want to overhear one more time about hours being cut, schedules being changed, routes being altered. Aren’t there other hours in the day to discuss and share these thoughts other than during work on the plane and in ear shot of passengers? It really creates a fun, enjoyable atmosphere. Last week, on a return flight from Atlanta on AirTran Airlines, a crew member simply walked up and down the aisle saying good morning and asking how people’s days were thus far. He was brilliant. Given it was some un-Godly hour of the morning, his warm, friendly and genuine manner really opened up people’s hearts. It was a beautiful thing and I regret not getting his name and sharing it with you now. But to the musician/crew member on AirTran who has been flying about seven years, grew up in Richmond, and used to bring his horn with him on all flights, I hope to make your acquaintance again.
Spend a little more time focusing on the service experience you deliver. Use information smarter. And train your staff to understand the Brand Ambassador role that they uniquely have. If they are great, we feel great. If they are not, we remember.
My Aunt passed away two weeks ago. I had two days’ notice to line up my transportation to get to her funeral. Given the short notice for making travel plans, the normal ticket on AirTran (approximately $148 round trip) was available for $718. I called a service representative to explain and attempt to get a more reasonable fair. No such luck. So I passed on the ridiculous, opportunistic fare (and let’s not get into a “supply and demand” argument). The next day I looked again and found the sameflight on Airtran for $399. Again, I called a service agent to say that the price had clearly gone down, was there anything I could do to still get a better price. The answer was yet again an unequivocal no. I ended up purchasing the $399 ticket, and guess what? The flight that wanted $718 originally, it only had 19 passengers on its return leg. AirTran sought a more than 400% mark-up instead of working with a customer in mourning to resolve the situation.
A dear friend was visiting from the Far East recently and had redeemed miles to purchase her ticket. She had to make a minor modification to her itinerary which would not have resulted in any incremental effort by American Airlines (outside of keystrokes on a keyboard) and the flight that was to be changed to was less than one-third full—they could have accommodated this customer. They choose not to. The rule was no change of any type, at any time, without buying a full flight with more miles, rendering the original miles now wasted.
All too often, people have a need to make a modification to an existing itinerary. Your representatives are called, the situation explained, and you know the rest of the story: the credit card come out and you yet again cash in on the opportunity. A $200 ticket that requires a modification will result in a $100 change fee (plus the difference in fare, which as we know from above can be exorbitant), for example, to be able to return home a few days later. A 50 percent mark-up for what is a few minutes and keystrokes by your employees to be put on a plane that more often than not has capacity. No accommodations and no effort to demonstrate the presence of empathy or heart. You make us feel as though you squeeze us at each and every opportunity. Is that what you want your brand to be?
This summer, my wife was returning from vacation with our children. She needed to change her flight and could not find seats together online with a JetBlue flight. She called customer service and explained the dilemma. The airline representative told her to not pick out seats, but to leave everything to her. She had children the same age as ours and knew how hard it would be to sit apart. She would personally check the seats every day until she could get us them together. When they arrived at the airport in Sacramento, the representative, true to her word, had made the arrangements; she looked each and every day for 7 days until she could make it work. Care to guess my wife's reaction? Her first stopping point in purchasing tickets is now... JetBlue.
Empathy and heart will return you long-term growth in today’s commoditized market.
Create a Real Customer Loyalty Program
All major carriers have a loyalty program of some sorts. The most common is the “points” system; a customer receives points for each mile flown which can then be redeemed for free flights or an upgraded seat. I have one with United Airlines that is also tied to my credit card. For each mile flown on United or dollar spent on the credit card, I receive one mile. I have used it for free air travel, but United has not always made it easy. Often the dates I want to fly are blocked or the two seats allocated per flight at the promoted redemption rate have been taken and I have to use twice the regular miles to get there.
And this is positioned as a loyalty program. While points and free flights are a start, let me share with you what would really make me loyal.
· Discounted fares as a frequent flyer
· Lowest fare matching
· Automated upgrade to Economy Plus (United’s “better than Coach but clearly not Business” class) that has more leg room
· Noting that I should always have an aisle
These are tangible elements with clear benefits of a loyalty program that would entice me to seek travel on your airlines and not look elsewhere. Please email me if you design one like this and watch my dollars roll in.
Please do not take these ideas and examples as the ramblings of a disgruntled passenger; nothing could be farther from the truth. These are the suggestions from a seasoned traveler and passionate advocate and practitioner of customer centricity. Business is all about choices. I choose to balance business goals with the needs of the customer in a well thought out customer experience. My experience suggests that as an industry you have taken your eye off of the customer experience in your quest to solve for a challenging business climate.
I urge you to take to heart what I am saying:
- Communicate with your customers,
- Stop nickel and diming us,
- Create a good customer experience,
- Show some heart, and
- Build a loyalty program that builds, well, some loyalty.
Still not sure? Then think about the market share that carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest have taken from you, all the while earning customer satisfaction scores that are in the same range as Apple and Mercedes-Benz.
My experience suggests that companies that strive to balance business goals with consumer needs, in an open and honest manner, do better and grow faster. I am not suggesting that you give away the farm to every sad story who calls up. But making an effort, showing some reasonable sense of empathy and commitment to your customer, treating them with the respect that they deserve as a person and as a paying customer—this is your key, folks. In essence, the company that keeps this front and center of their core values will win in the long term.
IF YOU HAVE READ THIS FAR, PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO COMMENT... THE VALUE IS IN THE CONVERSATION, NOT MY RAMBLINGS...