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What You Can Learn About Customer Service From The Airline Industry

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Posted by John Beveridge on Apr 17, 2017 9:05:14 AM

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The airline industry has been in the news recently for their horrific customer service. And it's no surprise for anyone who has flown in the United States recently. With all due respect to the cable tv industry, the US airline industry is known far and wide for arrogance and a total lack of respect for their customers. Despite being in an industry which is essentially an oligopoly, the US airline industry is on an express train to the financial toilet.

I recently flew to Detroit and back from Washington, DC on American Airlines. From my standpoint, American's customer service is just as bad as United Airlines. Here are a few of my experiences with what should be a 1-hour flight:

  • I checked in online for my flight to Detroit and paid for a seat upgrade. Upon arriving at the airport, I found that my seat upgrade had been canceled with no notification and no refund. After standing in line for 30 minutes to find out why, I was told, "The seats are broken." After being seated on the plane, I found out what they meant. 25% of the seats on the plan had non-functioning oxygen masks. That didn't give me a high degree of confidence about the maintenance on the rest of the plan.
  • The flight was 2 hours late because the crew was 2 hours late. Similar to the United incident, our flight was delayed because the crew to fly the plane was somewhere else. When they did arrive 2 hours late, we waited on the runway for another hour dealing with the oxygen mask issue. So what should have been a 1-hour flight turned into a 4-hour flight, not counting time at both airports before and after.
  • On the return flight, we waited an hour for our luggage to appear on the designated luggage carousel. After waiting an hour, I checked with the American baggage people, who told me that the bags had been waiting on the carousel next to the one that was designated for our flight. No announcement, no apology, nothing.

That's become normal customer service for a 1-hour flight in the United States. No sense of obligation to the customer, no apologies for terrible customer service - just a "take it or leave it" attitude.

My two prior flights had been on Avianca (Colombian airline) and Copa (Panamanian airline). The contrast in customer service was striking - a 5-hour flight to Bogotá, Colombia was infinitely more pleasurable than a 1-hour flight to Detroit. When did the United States stop taking pride in customer service?

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Typical US Airline Customer

Despite the customer having relatively few options when they need to be somewhere, the US airline industry should tread very carefully with their lack of appreciation for their customers. Despite the barriers to entering the industry, the US airlines industry should be wary of both direct competitors as well as indirect competition.

I live in Washington, DC - here is how my thinking around travel has changed.

  • If I'm traveling on the Eastern Seaboard to Philadelphia, New York or Boston, I'm taking the train. It may or may not take a little longer, depending on the inevitable flight delays from the big 3, it is much more pleasurable and I can do the same things on the train that I could do if I was sitting in my office.
  • If I'm traveling to destinations that I could drive to in 6 hours or less, I'm going to drive rather than fly. For me, this includes cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Charlotte and others.
  • If I'm going someplace that requires air travel, I'm willing to pay 25-50% more to fly on an airline other than Delta, United or American. I've had very good experiences on JetBlue and Southwest.

I'm sure I'm not the only person thinking like this. People are looking for options to the terrible customer service experience that they can expect from the US airline industry.

So what can you learn from the US airline industry about customer service? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Never take the customer for granted. Even if you have a temporary advantage (e.g. - lack of competition in the airline industry), business moves at lightning speed. Lack of attention to continually improving your customer service experience will make you vulnerable to competition that you won't see until it's displaced you. Just ask the retail industry.
  2. If you make a mistake, own up to it and make it right for the customer. Lee Resources found that if you resolve a complaint in the customer's favor, they will do business with you again 70% of the time. On the other hand, 91% of unhappy customers will not willingly do business with you again. How many customers of the US airline industry would be open to options if they were available?
  3. Customer service is a key differentiator for SMB businesses. Developing a reputation for good customer service and consistently delivering on it is a key differentiator for SMB companies and will help the bottom line.

Customer service is something that we all have a great amount of control over. We should consider customer service in all aspects of our businesses and is a quality that should be instilled from the top to the bottom over your organization. It will be interesting to watch the fallout from the terrible customer service of the US airline industry over the next year.

Topics: Business Management

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