3 Lessons In Customer Service From the Airline Industry

3 Lessons in Customer Service from the Airline Industry

The airline industry is infamous for its absolutely deplorable customer service. Here’s what happened in the airline industry in 2013, according to Christopher Elliot, author of How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle):

In 2013, companies stayed busy segmenting their “best” customers with gimmicky loyalty programs while relegating the rest to smaller plane seats and rooms with fewer amenities. They merged into enormous, customer-hostile companies over the objections of watchdogs and their own customers. They outsourced more of their basic service functions and, in some cases, simply walked away from their obligations, both written and implied.

The average flier can attest to this – airlines collectively received 69 out of a possible 100 from their passengers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) in 2013. In fact, they have such a bad reputation in customer service that when a customer actually has a pleasant experience on board any airline, it comes as a really, really big surprise – so much so that the customer can hardly believe it themselves.

Elliot began 2013 with the goal of documenting positive customer-service stories in this industry – he ran out of material by spring. Certainly not a good sign.

Add on the fact that, given the state of and access to technology today, it is increasingly more and more difficult for airlines to differentiate themselves from each other. Barbara Apple Sullivan, CEO and managing partner of Sullivan, describes it as such:

In such a saturated industry, it is difficult for any airline to differentiate the customer experience. The planes themselves are virtually identical. The food, if it exists, is universally awful. Airport security is conducted by an entity over which the airlines have virtually no control. And virtually everyone who flies has a personal horror story.

Given the dire state of customer service in the airline industry, those that actually provide good customer service stand out like lighthouses amongst a sea of darkness. As such, it is instructive to take note of what these airlines have been doing to keep at the top of their game, and apply it to other industries as well. Here are 3 lessons in customer service that we can learn from those at the head of their classes in the airline industry.

1) Forget promises – take action on the front-line

 Part of Delta Airlines’ advertising campaign early in 2013 was a promise for a “reinvigorated customer experience”. Many airlines’ advertisements tend to promise much but deliver little, and this one likely flew over everyone’s heads as well.

However, Sullivan (mentioned earlier) had an encounter with a front-line employee that restored her faith in the airline’s promise.

To cut the long story short, a Delta Airlines employee, Mr. Karim Sayoud, took it upon himself to become Sullivan’s saviour of the day and help her navigate the various checkpoints in order to get on board her flight (she had lost her passport). World-class customer service, check.

Simply put, what makes or breaks an airline’s brand is not the grand promise advertised on the big screen, but the face-to-face interaction between the front-line employee and the customer.

Forget promises – it’s the small things up front that count. Invest in your front-line employees, and empower them to wow your customers.

2) Be helpful and responsive on social media

Airlines are slowly but surely realizing the power of social media in not only providing stellar customer service, but also diffusing ticking time bombs as well. However, there are several hits and misses among the ranks.

Here’s the good part: Some social media managers understand that whatever transpires on social media needs to be translated into some real action somewhere. United Airlines were spot-on in this exchange with Myles Dannhausen of Lightspan, when they quickly and efficiently fixed his problem in a matter of minutes.

The bad part, of course, is that other social media managers don’t quite get it yet, and drop the ball. American Airline’s automated responses on Twitter to raidernationtimes.com founder, Elias Trejo, with regards to former Oakland Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn, made them come across as first ridiculous, then inauthentic.

At the end of the day, social media is about the personal connection and authentic conversations. An inauthentic and automated social media voice doesn’t quite help the customer nor build a connection with him/her – they make no sense whatsoever.

Be quick to respond to your customers on social media, and helpful in solving their problems, and you’ll hit the customer service nail on the head.

3) Utilize technology liberally

New technology has been sprouting up all over in recent years, and companies have begun to take notice and implement them in improving the customer experience, with exceptional results.

Qantas recently started using technology from a local Australian start-up called Local Measure to monitor digital conversations on social media sites. By doing so, they have begun to piece together a better picture of what people actually think about their experience with the airline, and react accordingly:

For example, Barouch says, a customer recently tweeted a picture of cereals on offer at the Qantas first-class lounge and noted that his favorite was absent. The next time he visited the lounge, the cereal was there.

Some airlines have even taken to digitizing the entire pre-flight process, from e-boarding passes to reminder text messages.

With so much technology at your disposal, the possibilities are endless. By trying out the relevant technology, you can make the entire customer experience seamless and far more pleasant than it would have been.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that all these points come back to the core message that stellar customer service comes down to how the business interacts with the customer on a personal level. The top customer service performers in the airline industry make it a point to come down to the customer’s level and serve them accordingly – this is the secret sauce for creating customer satisfaction.

Daniel is a writer based in the sunny island of Singapore. His byline can be found in a variety of publications and blogs, such as Heroic Search. He is madly passionate about entrepreneurship, marketing, and productivity. Daniel's home is at danieltay.me, but you can follow him on Twitter as well @legendt.

3 Comments

  1. Clay Springer 17-01-2014 at 7:25 am - Reply

    GREAT post. Two great challenges to carriers are differentiation, and a product that can never be “spectacular”. So what’s an airline to do? Play the ground game and win in increments. Emphasizing opportunities on the personal experience is the long haul path to infusing customer service in to the company culture.

  2. Harry 19-01-2014 at 9:51 am - Reply

    Daniel – You hit upon the right point when you said – “stellar customer service comes down to how the business interacts with the customer on a personal level.” It is all about how to handle those individual interactions that matters. This is where front line employees come into play. They can make or break your reputation with how they handle customer complaints and difficult situations.

    • Daniel 19-01-2014 at 10:14 pm - Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Harry. Time we gave our frontline employees credit where it’s due!

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