In a 2010 Open Forum article, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said, "It's no coincidence that the term 'hospitality industry' is understood to encompass hotels and restaurants, but airlines are conspicuously excluded." He goes on to discuss the importance of second impressions for online customers. As the lines blur between connections and connectivity, however, consistent impressions are most important.
Travelers generally stay in one hotel on a trip, but, if traveling by air, pass through at least two airports. Providing a good service is no longer enough to be the best in the business. Providing an experience that is not only better, but also different, from competitors is needed to be remembered and to be discussed.
Establishing the customer experience begins with the employee hiring process.
Growing up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I worked for three casino-hotels for summer jobs. One put every new hire through a week of customer service training. Every one from the front desk to cooks to housekeeping learned his role in influencing the customers' experiences. The training ensured the brand's integrity. It helped the company acquire its target demographic, develop its clientele through cooperation between departments, and retain guests through its consistent experience.
In my current role as an airport customer service employee for a U.S. airline, I did not receive any customer service training. I learned how not to get hurt on the ramp, how not to hurt others, and how not to damage equipment.
In the past six months, I applied for the same job with three different airlines. I quickly learned the only thing the same was the title, flight attendant. The application process with each airline was indicative of different expectations and a different customer experience in the same metal tube in the sky.
One of the largest U.S. airlines did little to prequalify applicants online. The second phase was a phone interview with situational questions such as, "What would you do if a child was sleeping on the floor of a plane and the pilot turned on the 'fasten seatbelt' sign?"
U.S. government regulations restrict foreign ownership of domestic airlines, thereby insulating U.S. airlines from some international competition. This seems to bleed into their lack of recruiting. Their hiring questions imply a desire to hire individuals who will minimize liability (a trainable skill) rather than maximize experiences (an acquired ability).
Virgin America made the best first impression to a prospective employee. It took the time to ascertain a good fit between the employee and employer, asking an extensive array of personality questions that were as thorough as questionnaires I completed for several U.S. government applications.
Emirates had a simple application process, asked for a photo, as their labor laws permit, and immediately progressed me to an in-person interview.
Few, if any, U.S. airlines highlight their customer experience above the fold on their websites.
Virgin America is known for its technology, entertainment and world-class service. They do not fly many short flights, instead focusing on transcontinental routes. Virgin Atlantic lists "Virgin Experience" at the top of its website. Virgin America lists the "Virgin Experience" under the top center tab, "Flying with us."
Middle Eastern countries, while their societies are old, are some of the newest nation-states. Emirates reflect the region's value on personal relationships and face-to-face interaction. They have significantly longer face-time with passengers, flying longer haul international flights. Emirates lists "The Emirates Experience" as the very first tab of its website. Etihad Airways also has "The Etihad Experience" at the top.
Not only do these international airlines make a great first impression online, most international travelers will quickly attest to the consistency of the brand throughout the entire time of travel. Even flight attendants on U.S. airlines have spoken highly of the difference they've experienced on international airlines.
"Share" buttons are easier and faster to press than dialing a customer service number (if you can find the number). It is crucial that every single customer interaction add value to the experience. With Wi-Fi readily accessible, often even above 10,000 feet, connectivity is simple. It is the responsibility of every employee to build a real connection to passengers. Connectivity is a service on an airplane whose exterior varies little from fleet to fleet. Connections are experiences that distinguish brands and breed loyalty in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The customer experience must be consistent in marketing, ticketing, gate operations, flying and baggage handling. Likewise, brand management and customer service must influence employee recruiting, hiring, training and development. Employees ought to view each customer interaction as an opportunity, regardless of the employee's title. Each interaction is an opportunity to turn that customer into a raving fan. Each interaction is an opportunity for one human being to be kind to and take care of another.