The online-offline impact of user experience is vital in today’s economy, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the travel industry. I experienced the best and worst of it on a recent business trip, and the learnings I encountered were enlightening.
Airlines, like many other businesses, have become accustomed to controlling the information flow. Curious about gates, seats, flight times, or other details? They’ll tell you when they’re ready to tell you. But the Internet has changed that, and continuing improvements in ease-of-use and access have forever changed the game.
Organizations today need to be as aware as their consumers of data streams and information sources. They need to be proactive and accommodating. Consumers want their needs addressed by people who are as informed as they are. The alternative–the old way–can be galling.
Here’s what happened to me: I had a trip planned from New York to San Francisco, originating at JFK on a 6 p.m. flight. My departure day was filled with weather-related delays. Morning flights were taking off more than three hours late, although they were pushing out from the gate on time, leading to “on time departure” proclamations by the airlines.
When I checked my flight status around 2 p.m. my airline’s website declared my flight was on time. Skeptical, I checked the condition of JFK on faa.gov, which revealed five-hour ground delays due to weather. But the airline’s website begged to differ, so I called the airline directly.
On the phone, the customer service representative repeated the flight’s on-time status. I asked her to investigate the difference between the airline’s estimates and the FAA’s. She put me on an extended hold. While waiting, I checked my flight status on the airline’s website again, and discovered my flight had been canceled!
When the rep returned to the line, I asked for alternate arrangements. She told me the airline was filled to capacity and couldn’t honor my Monday ticket until Wednesday, which would ruin my trip. The rep referred me back to the airline’s website to edit my plans, but the site declared my flight ineligible for a weather-related refund. At the same time, the rep on the phone put me back on hold to look for other options, and wound up disconnecting my call. The airline had stranded me in two different communication paths.
I ultimately booked a flight on another airline for the next day (at more than twice the price). An hour or so later, I was able to get a refund from the original airline’s website.
Nearly two hours after I discovered my flight delay, and 90 minutes after I rebooked my flight, I received an automated message on my home phone advising me of the canceled flight. I almost screamed in frustration.
The game has changed
An airline’s only real differentiator is service. JetBlue stands out for its leather seats and TVs; Virgin for its hip, knowing accoutrements; Southwest for its easygoing, cheeky demeanor. But every airline has the same base concerns: comfortable flights, timely service and good communication.
What does my recent experience say about my first airline’s service orientation? Aside from the obvious–that the airline has some serious internal issues to resolve–I spotted several lessons that can be applied to all businesses, not just the airlines.
- Businesses no longer control information flow. A smart company will accept this and learn to work with it. Whether it’s me looking at faa.gov or consumers Twittering issues amongst themselves, news and facts about a company’s offerings are no longer dictated solely by the public relations staff. Companies that insist on rigid lines of communication will find themselves outsmarted by savvy consumers and disparaged by uninformed ones.
- Nimble trumps rigid. My airline couldn’t put me on an alternate flight within two days of my original plans, and it never considered putting me on another airline and sharing my revenue. My company’s travel service couldn’t find a replacement in its system for under $1000. Yet I booked myself on Virgin Atlantic, via its website, within minutes for far less. The folks looking to me as a customer could not help me spend my money with them, because their basic systems didn’t allow flexible thinking.
- Responsiveness is everything. Two hours to inform me about a canceled flight is unacceptable. Losing my customer service phone call and not calling me back is, in this circumstance, unacceptable. The airline’s website not acknowledging my canceled flight? Unacceptable. Discerning consumers will avoid companies that make these kinds of mistakes. Firms that get communication right–on time, proactive, and helpful–will win.
Commercial airlines are in a unique industry with unique problems, but their customer service concerns are universal. Any business that communicates with its customers–which is every business–can find clever ways to improve by watching the airlines manage a crisis.