'Blue Sky' Approach to Customer Service

Just how important is customer service to your airport’s future performance? (Creative Commons)

Jo Causon, Chief Executive of the Institute of Customer Service, argues that poor customer service is not only bad news for an airport, but for the future economic well-being of the country it serves.



Just how important is customer service to your airport’s future performance? (Creative Commons)

Research from the Airports Council International has reportedly shown that Heathrow was recently rated 99th for customer satisfaction amongst over 200 of the world’s principal airports.  As one of the world’s leading international airports, Heathrow’s ranking is disappointing and arguably damaging to the UK as a whole when you consider that over 70% of the country’s gross domestic product comes from the service industry, of which air transport is an essential component.
So essential in fact that earlier this year over 70 of the UK’s leading business figures wrote an open letter to The Times newspaper calling for the British Government to develop a coherent airport strategy to address the issues of  the country’s ‘overstretched infrastructure’ as a matter of urgency.  Let us not forget that the London 2012 Olympic Games are barely a year away, bringing extra challenges to overburdened resources.
That passengers at the UK’s main air hub should bemoan long security queues and delays, may be no surprise considering Heathrow operates at 98% capacity, handling 66 million passengers a year.  However, despite BAA investing large sums of money in improving customer service, airport visitors reportedly also noted ageing infrastructure, shabby facilities and poor “ambience” as reasoning behind their dissatisfaction.

Door-to-door customer service

This Institute’s latest major piece of research, ‘Return on investment in customer service – the bottom line report’, suggests that it is no longer enough for organisations to simply deliver a service.  It is the whole customer ‘experience’ that counts.  Airports and airlines are no exception to this.  As the balance of power shifts inexorably from the service provider to the customer, it is not enough just to provide a gateway through which a passenger passes en route to somewhere else.  Even leaving or arriving on time is no longer enough – just look at passengers’ ambivalent relationship with Ryanair, which claims to be Europe’s most punctual airline.
Rather, customers are keen to receive a positive overall ‘experience’ which encompasses being treated as individuals and understanding their viewpoint. These issues are hard to get right, unless organisations are built around, and understand their customers’ needs and expectations.
We only need to cast our minds back to the chaos caused to global airline travel by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland little more than a year ago, to find evidence that this situation no longer applies.  Customers, as well as the world’s media, were quick to compare and contrast not only the response of the airlines but also of the airports to this unprecedented turn of events.
True, the relationship between airports, airlines and their passengers is a complex one.  Without doubt airport operators have historically seen airlines as their prime customers and the passengers those airlines handle as somewhat removed from their area of responsibility.
But this can be no excuse.  Many of the world’s leading brands for customer service outsource some of their customer operations.  This growing trend creates a very similar situation to that found within the air passenger industry.  How these brands maintain their customer service edge is to ensure that these third party customer touchpoints adopt the same brand qualities as the parent company.  There is no reason why the airline industry should not do the same.  Airlines themselves have a major part to play in delivering an end-to-end customer experience by demanding more of airport operators.

The bottom line

Customers have not only become more demanding, their views of an organisation’s performance can now be readily shared via developments in technology.  Witness the growth in customer comparison sites on the internet and the explosion in the use of online ‘issue’ groups to force companies to address customer complaints.  A recent survey by this institute showed that 78% of consumers trust peer recommendations on social media – only 18% trust advertising.
One of the examples I use to illustrate this growth in customer power is the now infamous case of songwriter Dave Carroll and United Airlines.  The airline refused to pay around $700 to have his guitar repaired after they had broken it in transit.  He put his complaint to song and added the video to YouTube.  The video has had over 9 million hits and United Airlines’ stock price fell by almost US$200million within days of its appearance.
Was the fall in the share price down to a video on a social networking site?  It may be difficult to link cause and effect but I think we can argue that the airline may have lost money because they weren’t paying attention to customer service.
If this indicates how poor customer service can hurt an organisation, does it naturally follow that the reverse applies, that is, good customer service can have a positive impact on an organisation’s bottom line?  This is what the Institute set to find out in its ‘Bottom Line Report’.
The results confirmed that pressure from customers isn’t just about the elements of delivery – it’s now a key strategic driver for business.  Where historically customer service has been seen as a ‘bolt on’, many businesses now realise it is germane to the core of their business.

Prepare for take-off

This requires a fundamental change in approach which has to be led from the top.  The Institute strongly believes in an alignment of people, processes and strategy to drive up customer service.  Boardrooms have historically concerned themselves with financial results – of course they must continue to do so.  Financial data tells us where we’ve been.  Customer satisfaction data will tell you where you are going.  More boardrooms now acknowledge that customer service is the heartland of their business.
If you want to achieve an optimum return on your investment in customer service, I recommend that organisations ask themselves the following questions to add strategic value and achieve competitive returns:
Look at your strategy – its effectiveness, how is it perceived internally and externally?  Compare it to both your peers and to the ‘best in class’ across all sectors as this is who you will be judged against.  Ask whether customer service is fully embedded in your culture?  Is there a consistent approach right across the organisation, its attitudes and behaviours?  What is the level and range of staff empowerment?
Do you look at your services from the customer viewpoint?  Do you know what needs to change in order to deliver the definitive customer experience?  How can you develop a strong relationship with your customers?  Do you have the right measurement variables – are they cross-functional for a total picture?  Are you looking to measure and track the softer, less tangible aspects?
Above all, be innovative.  Embrace social media, online forums, CRM systems and don’t forget your basics; review your ‘hygiene factors’ such as service recovery and staff training.
No longer can you merely deliver a service within the timescale you have set.  What will really make the difference is when the customer asks: ‘when I went through that experience, did the airport really engage with me, did they understand my needs, did they think logically about what was best for me at all stages of my journey?’
There should always be a constant striving for improvement, never settling for the routine or mundane simply because it’s always worked for you.  Successful airport operators will be those who are prepared to innovate and if necessary, take a risk.

Jo Causon, Chief Executive of the Institute of Customer Service

The Institute of Customer Service is a professional body for customer service.  For further information go to www.instituteofcustomerservice.com