While the hospitality and entertainment marketplace may be crowded with companies that really do lavish attention on customers and provide exceptional customer service, the air travel industry is another matter.
According to the University of Michigan’s Customer Satisfaction Index, airlines in the bottom 30% of major industries for U.S. customer satisfaction ratings, with a 2.7% drop in ratings from 2017 to 2018. With such dismal industry ratings, and personal news feeds awash with horror stories about awful passenger experiences that range from discomfort and rude employee behavior all the way up to forcible “ involuntary de-boarding” (an Orwellian turn of phrase if ever there was one), you might think major airlines would be eager to improve their ratings and make easy gains in customer loyalty.
Guess again. Writing for Forbes, customer service expert Christopher Elliott sums up the reason why airlines don’t have to care about customer service thusly: “no matter how much airline passengers complain about ridiculous fees, indifferent cabin service, or lengthy delays, they’ll keep buying tickets… until passenger threats translate into lower ticket sales, the airline industry has a green light to continue mistreating its customers.” That’s right — airlines typically don’t worry about customer service because they know they have a captive market that is willing to accept shabby treatment in exchange for meager saving on flights.
With airfares seemingly always on the rise, customers often find themselves backtracking on threats to boycott a specific carrier when facing a need to travel on a limited budget. That means executives at the major U.S. carriers see little or no need to invest in improving customer experiences and instead focus on reducing basic perks and trimming amenities while raising seat prices in most categories.
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty of returning to a carrier I swore never to fly again, out of necessity. I vowed never to fly with United Airlines again after a thoroughly awful experience several years ago, involving a gate agent deliberately closing the doors on myself, my pregnant wife, and a group of other arrivals from a delayed flight. This was followed by openly hostile service from a ticket counter rep who grudgingly provided a multiple-connection replacement route that delivered us back to Portland just in time to race through traffic to arrive late to an appointment.
I managed to avoid United for nearly two years, until this fall, when I needed to travel to Boston for a conference. I reluctantly purchased tickets through United when faced with fares on other carriers that were hundreds of dollars more and less convenient for my schedule. While my flights went fine this time, I had the opportunity to witness a perfect example of just how little major airlines like United care about customer loyalty.
I was seated in the rear of the aircraft on a Basic Economy ticket, which these days means little or no complimentary in-flight service (drinks, snacks) are available. A man seated across the aisle from me flagged a stewardess a couple of hours after takeoff, wondering if he could have a snack. He informed her that he was a member in good standing of the United Airlines loyalty program, but had booked his flight last minute and found only Basic Economy was available.
The stewardess brusquely informed him that his seat number prevented her from giving him a snack, although he could purchase something if he were hungry (which he did, vocalizing his frustration through the entire process). And that was on top of a wifi issue, which resulted in the passenger having to contact United customer service to get a small refund for the non-functioning wifi signal over much of the flight.
Now to be fair, cabin crew members have a difficult job — they’re tasked with looking after hundreds of people at a time, navigating small spaces and monitoring broad safety concerns while making sure they don’t spill a cup of coffee or soda. But the issue here wasn’t really the crew member who charged the man for his snack — it’s that the airline cared so little about retaining customers that they enforced a policy where snacks are awarded based on seating position in the airline, rather than actual loyalty.
My fellow passenger was clearly a loyal, longtime flyer on United who had probably spent tens of thousands of dollars on their services — yet his loyalty literally didn’t even earn him a sandwich. And for all of his grumbling, it’s likely that he still booked his next flight on United, due to a lack of options and probably a desire to continue stacking rewards through the loyalty program.
Given the fact that airlines really have no incentive to care about customer service, it’s all the more extraordinary that JetBlue has made it their mission to invest in customer experience and make it their mission to put smiles on faces, both in the air and on the ground. When former CEO David Neeleman founded JetBlue in 1998, he realized that airline customer service was widely ridiculed, and recognized an opportunity for a competitive advantage.
Safe to say, they’ve been successful — JetBlue was ranked Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among Low-Cost Carriers in North America by J.D. Power &Associates from 2014 to 2016. And just like Zappos and Disney, the investment in customer experience pays dividends, with JetBlue reaching #1 among all air carriers in customer engagement and customer loyalty in 2016. Much of the credit is given to their incredible rewards program: points never expire, customers can earn additional points for purchasing upgrades such as increased legroom or bringing a pet, and customers can even donate their points to a charity of their choice.
As we’ve already seen with Zappos and Disney, great customer experiences happen when companies empower to take care of the details in the service of making people happy. That starts with something as simple as just being nice and taking care of minor inconveniences, as JetBlue customer and leadership consultant Erika Andersen shares.
Comparing her experience on a JetBlue flight with that of another carrier, Andersen highlights JetBlue’s simple approach to treating people kindly and being cheerful while helping customers get seated as a crucial distinction. Whereas on the other carrier slowed the boarding process by arguing with passengers and failing to communicate with each other, the staff on her JetBlue flight radiated calm and helped everything go smoothly.
That may not seem like much of a difference, but as Andersen comments, it speaks volumes about the emphasis JetBlue places on hiring, training, and retaining great. “JetBlue didn’t spend more money 'serving' me. The difference in my experience was 100% in the attitude of the customer-facing employee. Somehow, the management of JetBlue has figured out how to build a positive, friendly, respectful way of interacting with customers into the DNA of their company.” She’s right on the money, of course — JetBlue operates one of the most unique and extensive cabin crew training programs in the country, with new hires spending their first month at JetBlue University, working through classroom and simulatortraining before starting live supervised trials. John Layton, one of the first crew members to join the company in the late 90s, confirms that the training program has only continued to double down on a customer focus over the years.
But the folks at JetBlue know that even happy passengers still have to make decisions about their next flight, and they recognize the importance of starting their customer experience on the ground — even before customers make a decision and book a flight. A few years ago, they booked an empty storefront in New York and created one of the most delightful marketing experiences ever. Inside a vacant storefront, they set up a giant screen resembling a hologram, displaying questions with “buttons” for entering answers and a smiling stewardess to greet passersby. Curious people couldn’t help but interact, and ended up spending 10-15 minutes pressing the “buttons” to answer seemingly generic questions, only to have the “hologram” begin speaking to them, goading some to dance or laugh.
Eventually, the “hologram” stepped out from behind the screen, revealing herself to be an actual JetBlue stewardess, handing out vouchers for free travel.
The ecstatic reaction from recipients and onlookers alike echoed across JetBlue’s social media feeds, generating marketing buzz while giving the company a chance to showcase their amazing social media customer service team. JetBlue’s Manager of Advertising, Philip Ma, explained that their social media strategy combined marketing tactics with customer service goals to create an efficient channel that prompts customers to tell the company “they really feel cared for,” thanks to the dedication of the staff responding to questions.
A great example is seen in the case of a JetBlue customer who was headed for Boston’s Logan airport with a short window to catch his flight, and tweeted that he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to get a cup of Starbucks first. The customer only mentioned JetBlue via hashtag, rather than a direct mention, but a member of their social media team caught the reference and contacted staff at the airport. As the man took his seat, a cabin member handed the completely surprised customer his fresh cup of Starbucks coffee, leading to weeks of viral shout-outs after the interaction.
Let’s pause for a minute and unpack the giant steps that were taken to make this small moment happen, one that generated an exponential return in word of mouth buzz. That kind of connection takes dedication, training, and empowerment — the same sort of empowerment we’ve already seen in examples from Zappos, Disney and others. Much like those companies, JetBlue empowers customer service team members and gives them the options they need in order to deliver amazing service. It’s no coincidence that a social media team member noticed the Jetblue reference in the customer’s tweet — the company clearly trains team members to be on the lookout for such small opportunities.
From there, a connection was made to staff working in the terminal at Logan airport, who were able to identify the flight and the customer in question. Next, one of those team members had to acquire the cup of coffee — likely only a few steps away, but still an action that took them away from a busy ticket counter. Then the coffee had to be delivered onto the plane, likely passing from a ticket agent to a cabin member, who knew which seat the customer was in.
And bear in mind that the customer would probably still have been amazed if someone handed him a cup of the coffee available on board the plane already, mentioning that his tweet had been spotted. But that still wouldn’t have the same impact as actually getting the brand of coffee he mentioned. It’s a small story with a big message — JetBlue proves they care about their customers by dedicating people to creating moments like this that mean so much more in the “couldn’t care less” world of air travel.
JetBlue has seen stiff competition in the customer service area of late, most notably from Alaska Airlines, which recently earned a #1 ranking from U.S. News & World Reports for their rewards and loyalty program. And Southwest Airlines, founded in 1971 by legendary rogue business leader Herb Kelleher with the philosophy that “ employees come first”, has recently edged JetBlue out of first place in the J.D. Power & Associate rankings, earning first place in 2017 and 2018.
But credit goes where credit is due here, and that’s back to JetBlue — without their entry into the market and a commendable twenty years of focusing on customer service, these other carriers may well have opted to settle on less exceptional customer experience targets in their own business models.
Customer service and experience expert Shep Hyken tells the story of how Southwest Airlines was able to turn a frequent but unpleasant situation — damaged luggage — into a moment of delight. When his daughter’s suitcase arrived with a broken handle, he dutifully went to the onsite office, expecting a long line to fill out a form and a drawn out process to get reimbursed for the damage. Instead, he was greeted by a short wait to speak with a cheerful Southwest employee, who gave him two options: either fill out a form and wait for assistance with a repair on the suitcase or select a new piece of luggage then and there.
Yes, that’s right — no vouchers, coupons, or rebate forms. Shep was taken to a room filled with brand new suitcases, where he selected a model similar to the damaged one, transferred his daughter’s belongings, then completed a form acknowledging the exchange and went on his way. Southwest understands that customers will be inclined to book their next flight based on price and that they will expect issues like this (damaged or lost luggage) to occur on any carrier. But when they know that Southwest will resolve the issue quickly and effectively, the scales tip in Southwest’s favor when the customer ponders options for their next trip.
Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines has taken the air travel world by storm in the last few years, growing from a regional Pacific-Northwest carrier into a cross-country contender, following the parent organization’s acquisition of Virgin America. Their aforementioned loyalty program is the last to reward flyers purely based on miles alone, rather than weighting the perks towards customers who purchase more expensive seats. That’s earned them a loyal following amongst “road warriors” who fly frequently but tend to stick to coach.
The secret (as if you haven’t guessed by now!) is an employee empowerment program that includes a “toolkit” of perks and other offerings, such as free miles, meal vouchers, and fee waivers, that employees can use to resolve situations based on loose guidelines. Employees are coached to “find [a] story and create a personal connection,” as COO Ben Minicucci puts it. Customers feel the difference between employees at Alaska and other airlines, often commenting on the way Alaska employees seem to be happier in general while doing their jobs, making light work out of the tedium of air travel — checking bags, printing tickets, boarding the plane and stowing luggage all happen just a little more smoothly than at many other airlines.
As a recent Alaska customer myself, I can attest to this. I’m still trying to figure out how the boarding process for two full flights was accomplished so quickly and with so many smiles, as opposed to the often demeaning and demoralizing process I’ve experienced at most other airlines. As a customer, I do know that while I may not understand exactly how they accomplished it, I do appreciate it — and I’ll be giving them my business again soon!