Wednesday, April 11

Shaping Experiences: Why Every Contact Counts

If you want to appreciate how important the customer experience can be, consider the airlines industry. Despite noticeable improvements in overall airline quality performance as measured in the 2012 Airline Quality Rating, consumer impressions of the airlines industry continue to lag and even falter.

The reason is evident. The global view of the industry is shaped by the collective past experiences of all customers.

"Consumer perceptions are shaped by past experiences," said Dr. Dean E. Headley, associate professor of marketing in the Department of Marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business, Wichita State University, and one of two co-researchers who head the project. "Small, often unnoticeable, outcome improvements do not get included into consumers' mindset very quickly."

Specifically, every time a customer has a negative experience related to an airline, it reinforces their personal negative perception of the airline and potentially the industry. In turn, disenfranchised customers share their experiences with friends and family, who immediately remember their own negative experiences or become hypersensitive to negativity if they will be traveling soon.

That's too bad, especially because there are countless stories and studies to confirm that negative experiences tend to be shared more often and remembered much longer. And while this phenomenon is not confined to the airlines industry, the industry is unique in being one of a handful of industries with an abundance of indistinguishable brands.

It's also unique because the industry invites (or is required to invite) third-party interruptions into the experience, which is exacerbated by fragmented teams who are more departmentally loyal (and sometimes location loyal) than company loyal.

There are about 16 points of contact, of which the airline can only manage half.

• The airline's individual marketing efforts and online presence.*
• Online booking agents that sell price-based fares.
• Reservationists and customers service phone lines in lieu of third parties.*
• Airport parking and traffic flow for arriving/departing flights.
• Self-serve kiosks that present new fees beyond the ticket price.*
• Ticketing agents, with less empowerment because of self-check in.*
• Airport security, interrupting the experience between ticketing and gates.
• Gate seating and a new team of passenger service agents to assist.*
• Airport and weather conditions that may or may not impact the flight.
• Baggage handlers, working to load the bags on the plane.*
• Flight attendants, who sometimes serve less and push product more.*
• Flight crews, with pilots who have varied degrees of styles and experience.*
• Other customers, who are extremely varied in how they interact.
• Destination airport, which presents new conditions into the mix.
• Baggage claim, which introduces any number of new experiences.*
• Airport parking, traffic flow, and car rental companies, indirectly.

Again, the oddity here is they are only responsible for little more than half of the experience in reality. But from the perception of a customer, the airline and the airlines industry experience begins the moment they arrive at the airport and ends with when they leave the destination airport.

One would assume that any company knowing this would work that much harder to ensure the areas they are responsible for create pockets of positive experiences where customers feel protected. But the truth is that most do not, with a few exceptions.

Specifically, Southwest Airlines continues to promote a service-oriented message and consistently scores the highest in passenger friendliness for consumers as a result (it is ranked fifth overall). AirTran, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Alaska make up the top four airlines in terms of quality, overall. (Virgin was not included in the Airline Quality Report, but would probably make the top five if it was included too.) Conversely, most airlines are not so cohesive.

Many set themselves up for negative experiences on the front end. 

Among some of the most common complaints from customers are delays at ticketing, hidden fees, extra charges for bags, and agents who forward standard service questions (like seating changes) to gate agents. All of these prime the customer for a bad experience before they ever reach airport security, which most consider unpleasant.

By the time people arrive at the gate, any additional negative experience can create an overall negative experience: a lost bag, flight attendant having a bad day, delays, missed connections, uncomfortable flight, etc. Generally, such experiences are only salvageable when customers stumble into one of those employees who genuinely champion customer causes or concerns. But even if these employees can salvage the moment, most cannot transform a soured experience into a positive experience.

Instead, the abundance of negative experiences only set expectations to be a negative experience, which is almost always easily confirmed and never suitably addressed. Until every individual airline elects to make changes, the industry will continue to falter — which is good news for the few that have brands that transcend being lumped into the industry.

A little more about the Airline Quality Rating survey.

The Airline Quality Rating survey measures on-time arrival and departures, denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and customer complaints to score each airline. Before the Airline Quality Rating, there was effectively no consistent method for monitoring the quality of airlines on a timely, objective, and comparable basis. Anyone can participate online.

The research is headed by Headley and Dr. Brent Bowen, professor and head of the Department of Aviation Technology within the Purdue University College of Technology. Their body of research is recognized as the most comprehensive within the airlines industry by the American Marketing Association, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the Travel and Transportation Research Association and others.

The most interesting aspect of the research right now is that "more than 50 percent of frequent fliers say air travel has gotten worse for them in the past year, despite the fact that overall airline quality performance has risen as measured in the recently released Airline Quality Rating."
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