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One Big Idea: Not So Friendly Skies

From hidden fees and cramped conditions to inconsiderate staff and bad food, the experience of air travel, for lack of a better word, sucks. In this week’s episode, Bill uses the airline industry as an example to evaluate the value of seeking, and the risks of neglecting, a great customer experience as well as its impact on brand loyalty. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Big Idea and we’re calling this the Not So Friendly Skies for a couple of reasons. I hope and pledge that this will actually be an idea, and not just a rant about how much air travel sucks. That is very present in my thinking, given a trip to and from LA last week.

There’s also an article, that recently came out from the American Customer Satisfaction Index that ranks these things annually. The article had newly updated rankings for a variety of brands across travel, dining, hospitality, and other consumer products. It found, not surprisingly, that the airline industry continues to be a laggard when it comes to overall customer satisfaction. Southwest and JetBlue are the highest, but they are well below the level of other leadership brands. Then you find the rest of the marketplace being far lower and also the overall airline category being really low. In fact, one of the lowest categories that is studied in this overall index.

The slight increase that they saw from year to year, in terms of customer satisfaction with the airline industry and with several specific large scale airline brands, they attribute to a couple of things. One, the fact of lower fuel costs has led to low fares remaining low. In some cases, getting lower. Some airlines, I think American, brought back free snacks in the form of a little bag of 6 mini pretzels or whatever the case may be. Not to mention that American and US Airways have gotten some of the craziness out of the way in terms of the merger immigration, systems, and affinity programs, etc. that are working a little better. There is a variety of reasons why there may have been a slight uptick in the satisfaction scores year over year, but the bottom line is that the airline industry still, at least on customer satisfaction measures, is a horrific performer.

As someone who’s a moderate to frequent traveler, I know exactly why that is. It’s very unpleasant, at every touch point. Really, the exciting thing of course is getting off the plane, looking at your watch, and realizing that you’re going to get off in 15, 20 minutes, whatever the case may be.

In satisfaction, or when it comes to net promoter scores or other measures of satisfaction, you can get to a decent level – let’s say it’s a 1 to 10 scale. You can probably get to 5, 6, 7, even 8 by just delivering crisply, by being polite, by communicating well, by being transparent, by doing more or less what you said you’re going to do, from a brand perspective. As we know getting the 9 or 10 and real advocacy reaching that kind of level, the pantheon of well-regarded and well-loved brands is not just about the product. It’s about the experience as a whole.

I’ve talked on this podcast, but certainly to colleagues and clients as well about an experience we had in our family. When my wife gave birth to our first child who’s now five years old. When you go into that experience at the hospital, what you’re really looking for is obviously, everything to go well. Everyone to be safe and healthy and happy. That happened. The care that she received was fabulous. Coming out of that experience we ranked that very positively, but then when it came time to sleep there for the day or 2 on the back end of the delivery, she was in a room with a roommate, the room wasn’t very nice, the roommate was noisy. The overall experience, I mean listen, we weren’t going in expecting the Ritz, goodness knows. Coming in we’re just like, ‘10 fingers, 10 toes everyone’s happy, smiling, healthy.’ That’s what we need. That’s the dream here. Coming out we’re like, ‘Well that happened and it’s great, but you know what this was really unpleasant in a lot of ways.’

All this is to say that to really get to 9’s and 10’s in customer satisfaction you have to deliver not only product but experience. Now the airlines don’t get anywhere close to that as the data indicates at this point. Airlines deal with the literal customer journey. They are taking people to different places. The interaction with an airline brand and with the travel experience begins long before flight attendants or listening to pilots over the loud speaker. Along the way, airlines have made both individually, and en masse, seemingly an endless drumbeat of anti-consumer decisions, in terms of fees, in terms of smaller travel berth in cubic inches, things like that. Again, it isn’t a surprise that you’re seeing these scores.

I understand in many ways why this is on the financial side of it. Consumers want lower fares. This is how they get them, or how they keep them low. Spirit Airlines was the lowest performing customer satisfaction brand, at least in the airline category. Their Spokesperson, CEO, and marketing folks have long said, ‘You know what, it isn’t going to be great but the reason it isn’t great is because unlike other airlines that make you pay for things that you don’t want or need, we’re going to keep the fares as low as we can. Make the overall thing no frills, because we think that’s ultimately what you want and charge you a la carte for different things.’ Either way, customer satisfaction for Spirit and for others was very low. They made this bargain and they perform lowest on satisfaction and overall low performing category.

Again, I get it. There is a challenging cost structure in the airline industry. There are plenty of examples of airlines performing, at least in terms of passenger travel, at decent capacity levels yet not performing financially. There’s labor cost issues, there’s uncontrollable elements, to a degree, like fuel costs. There’s a lot of issues related to just the financial structure of running an airline, I get it.

‘The question, ultimately, is the degree to which airlines care about customer satisfaction and brand goodwill.’
I understand bag fees, I understand crowding as many people as you can on there, but there is a consequence to that. The question, ultimately, is the degree to which airlines care about customer satisfaction and brand goodwill. Is it worth it to them to coordinate systems on the technology side, to emphasize culture, or to deliver cross functionally?

I don’t mean this as a joke question. In the airline industry when it comes to an individual flight that one person may take on one day, competition is minimal. There aren’t multiple carriers often or if there are, the price difference is significant, the timing difference is significant. This isn’t about walking down the aisle of grocery store and choosing which detergent you want. The choice factor here remains minimal for a lot of structural reasons. Industry-wide costs are high and they’re borne by everyone. It’s very difficult to make a profit within this financial structure.

This isn’t a joke question. Ultimately, what financial value would an executive place on customer satisfaction being high, brand goodwill being high, brand loyalty being high? They use affinity programs to create brand loyalty and lock in brand loyalty beyond smiles and happiness.

On the other hand, there is some choice here. We do see brands like Southwest and Virgin and JetBlue, to a degree, being liked and that translating into financial performance. Southwest is legendary, in a lot of ways, for breaking the mold of the industry cost structure. Being able to operate in a leaner way to get more versatility from their work force and have a happier workforce. That certainly shows, you certainly feel it, the strength of that culture. Again, is that worth it financially for others to make significant investments and improving the customer experience?

Another thing that should not be forgotten is that, in the airline industry often, while specific brand’s goodwill may not be strongly in evidence with a couple of exceptions, the airline industry as a whole has relied on the goodwill on the American people from time to time when it comes to things like bailouts, when it comes to things like regulation of the sort that congress may be seeking to to put onto the backs of airlines as they operate. They have relied on and they often rely on the American citizenry as being supportive of the industry. We shouldn’t forget the fact that overall goodwill as a category does matter. It certainly matters at critical moments when it comes to inflection points for the industry.

I was thinking about this more deeply when I was flying to and from LA, and there has been many years of doing this. You’re sitting there and reeling from all the calamities that may have happened on the way to the plane – in terms of being late and nobody knowing what’s happening and nobody wanting to tell you. Then you stand in this long, sweaty line and everyone is pushing. The overall thing is just very unpleasant and then you get on and you’re like, ‘Oh great, I’ve got 6 hours.’ You want to try to sleep or you want to be productive but WiFi is super expensive. Talk about a brand with Gogo, good grief.

Anyway, everybody knows that. I don’t have to go through the litany of this. There you are and you’re settled in and maybe you’re in a bit of a relaxed state. Then all of a sudden, a flight attendant comes on the loud speaker trying to sell you a credit card. I mean, good heavens. The way that they’re trying to sell it to you, they’re obviously not engaged in the pitch. They’re told to do this. It’s part of their ritual, it’s part of their checklist. They’re not reading this offer with any feeling and the way the offer is written is about, ‘Hey, just for you. Today it’s a special.’ We know that’s not true. You hear it every time. Every single time you fly, you hear it. Maybe they change up cadence but it’s written in a very schlocky direct marketing way.

I happen to actually have the card. It’s not a bad deal, the American Airlines version of it. Not a bad deal at all, if you fly a lot. If you’re a consumer and you’re not suspicious of this, by the way that they’re reading it and the way that they’re treating you and how they walk down the aisle, slowly looking over their glasses, holding out. Trying to catch your gaze and watching you avert it as they have these applications in their hands. I mean good heavens.

Not a bad deal, again, but horribly presented and someone somewhere within the airline structure decided that any additional revenue that they can bleed out of consumers through this opportunity should override the impact of customer goodwill, and the impact on brand dilution, and brand strength. If you fundamentally create brand loyalty by an unspoken compact that a brand has ‘got your back,’ this is the opposite of that. My rule has always been, and you look at and others, if in order to sell something to you, the seller must conceal what it does or how much it costs, you’re probably not being consumer friendly, ultimately.

That’s how it feels in every touch, in a lot of ways with airlines, but certainly when it comes things like this. They’ve finally given you 6 measly pretzels and the cost of that is you’ve got sit here and listen to this pitch and have it inflicted on you. Basically be, lied to is too strong a word, but, ‘This special deal just for fliers on Flight 804,” or whatever the hell it is.

‘What’s the balance between maximizing financial opportunity and insuring the maximum level of consumer goodwill, brand strength, loyalty, and brand equity?’
Anyway, the bottom line is, ultimately, is where does it leave us? How is this a One Big Idea rather than one big rant? Where is the balance ultimately? Key questions here, not just for airlines, but for brands in general. What’s the balance between maximizing financial opportunity and insuring the maximum level of consumer goodwill and brand strength and loyalty and brand equity?

Certainly in the UK and Western Europe it has been evoked to value brand equity on a balance sheet. We don’t really do that much here in the US, financially. We study it but it’s treated in some ways as a soft brand asset – of course, we at Finch believe, it’s anything but.

What’s the right balance here? How can you, if you’re looking at an airline which is a very unwieldy and complex organization, certainly, how do you sync up and manage it in a true, meaningful, progressive way that customer journey when you have so many people involved, so many dispersed functions? Often in many cases, there is a union situation so that the corporate ability to say, ‘Here are the rules. Follow them. You’ll be managed against those metrics and against the dashboard of how well you delivered this.’ It is not as linear as it might be in an environment where you’re not dealing with personnel. Then you certainly have TSA as a part of this. You certainly have local airport folks who are part of this, so there is a maximum ability to control the brand perspective of an airline. But how do you sync up these touch points in a way, if you really do want to progress the journey and you really associate value well with this brand loyalty and goodwill, how do you fundamentally do it?

I’ll stop there. I’m babbling about this but it was fresh in my mind reading this article. As well as just experiencing yet again, horror may be too strong a word, but certainly the unpleasantness interpersonally, physically, emotionally of flying back and forth coast to coast last week.

As always, 3 ways to do so, if you’d like to help us here at Real-World Branding. Let’s have a dialogue on Twitter. Please if you feel we’ve earned it, rate us in the App Store of your choice. Then subscribe so you do not miss a week of what we do here. We do one week on, in terms of interviews with brand and business builders that go deep, and then one week where I just ramble. Hopefully, not as much as I’m rambling today, but I appreciate your indulgence. We will sign off with all the best to you for a wonderful week from the Cradle of Liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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