Improving the airline customer experience 

I’ve just been trying to buy an extra bag on an American Airlines flight for my daughter who comes home from the US this week. Despite the information on their website that says you should be able to do this online after you’ve checked in order to ‘save time at the airport’, I have not been able to do this. A call to AA customer services in the UK ends with ‘I’m sorry we don’t have this facility’ and ‘is there anything else I can help with you with, have a nice day’. How frustrating! It reminded me of a quote I noticed in a recent article in Flight Global from David Kondo, Head of Cabin Interior Development with Finnair, who admitted: “We do really suck at understanding what people want. That’s where the hard work lies.”

Why airlines don’t know what passengers want

Surely airlines are aware of what their passengers want? We are constantly being barraged with all kinds of questionnaires and surveys for us to comment on our experience both in the air and on the ground, so how can it be that airlines themselves feel in the dark about our feelings about their services? The issue here is about the subjective nature of almost all conventional research. Asking people what they want, what they think and what they do is a very unreliable way of getting to the truth. This is not because people are being deliberately misleading, but rather that we are not consciously aware of the real drivers of our behaviour and so cannot accurately express them when asked.

Airline passenger customer experience

Science has known this for many years and has conducted hundreds of behavioural experiments to demonstrate this. We ourselves have shown that simply changing the colour, smell and ambiance of an environment where a transaction takes place can alter improve profit by 37%, despite no awareness of this from those customers – even after pointed questioning. Or that, whatever participants say after they’ve been through an investment game, they don’t actually invest their money with the trader they said they not only preferred, but also trusted more.

Although advances in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics have long indicated the problem of customers being unable to tell us how to improve experiences, most businesses remain stuck with the same old research methods that have been so prevalent since the 1950s. But new techniques, including the monitoring of customer physiology using wearable biometric devices, mean that we are now far more able to track the unconscious drivers of customer behaviour and, having learnt what they respond badly to, start to design experiences that are smoother, less painful and closer to what people want.

Improving the airline customer experience

For the airline sector, this offers huge opportunity. In the design of pre-flight services – booking, checking in, ordering extra bags (grrrrr!); when arriving at the airport, offloading baggage, security, getting on board, during the flight itself and when disembarking – all these elements have an impact on the overall experience. Using unobtrusive wearable technology that monitors, for example, heart rate, electrodermal activity (the amount of sweat on a person’s skin – a reliable indicator of ‘arousal’) and skin temperature, allows us to ‘see’ the moments where the customer experience goes wrong. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the area of cabin design. Just as with all mass passenger solutions – rail, bus, coach, etc. – there has been very little science done in the real world with real people to understand the actual experience of entering and exiting, sitting down, standing up, eating a meal, plugging in your laptop, or watching an entertainment screen. This is not to say that engineers and scientists in labs have not been hard at work measuring these things in detail, but not in the field, where all experiences are different because they do not occur in the sterile, controlled environment of a laboratory. In so many business areas, not enough real world experimentation takes place using biometrics to help design better products and services that best suit human beings. We rely on what people say and that can, at best, lead us down blind alleys.

As the work we did for a leading airline demonstrates, by using behavioural science to ‘index’ your current experience, you can see which parts are working well for you, which need to be improved and even which can be dispensed with as superfluous – monitoring experiences can be as much about taking out what you don’t need (and so saving cost), as adding in what’s missing! In this latter way, our airline client was able to save themselves £10m a year without any negative impact on either passenger numbers or customer satisfaction scores.

From aircraft cabin design to online booking systems, from the impact of free vs paid-for snacks to what uniforms staff wear, all have an impact on the customer experience, whether passengers are aware of it or not. The only reliable way to understand their impact and how this might be used to: a) eradicate ‘friction’ in your experience (we call these moments ‘Tripping Points’); b) to design ways of ‘softening’ the negative impact of inevitable experience hiccups (e.g. giving up personal information); or c) compensating for things you cannot alter through pricing, is to forensically investigate your current experience using behavioural science. This will highlight where the actual experience is at odds with customer expectations and provide a benchmark against which future improvements can be accurately measured. You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m trying to find the name of the Customer Experience Director at American Airlines now, but I doubt whether they will take my call. Maybe they don’t yet have the ‘facility’ to use science to better understand and therefore improve their customer experience with all the commercial gain it would bring?

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