Two quick stories about customer focus help me put in context a conversation that’s been happening on LinkedIn among airline executives.
- Jeff Bezos says the biggest mistake companies make is focusing on what their competitors do instead of what their customers want.
- My high school debate partner sophomore year said something that stuck with me for over 30 years. After a tournament several of us went out to a nice restaurant for dinner. He ordered something that wasn’t on the menu. Fourteen year old me was perplexed, and he offered “good restaurants will make you whatever you ask for if they can.” He went on to become Senior Vice President of restaurants and bars for the Kimpton hotel chain.
As an aside, here are other high school debate stories I’ve written about, and maybe my high school restaurant story is why I enjoyed Etihad’s first class chef program so much.
Mark Ross-Smith, who used to run the Malaysia Airlines Enrich program, wrote on LinkedIn about how airline executives need to truly put themselves in the shoes of their customers.
Air Canada loyalty head Mark Nasr writes in response,
Airline employees and executives benefit greatly from firsthand experience with competitor products, relevant (even if non-airline) digital experiences, and eating their own dog food. Loyalty program leaders should also know the products and services of their partners as well as they know their own.
Though, I’m not sure it requires previous experience in being a customer–that could also have unintended consequences for hiring and diversity strategy–just that it is encouraged/facilitated/required on an ongoing basis.
When American Airlines signed off on its new domestic product, with less space for each passenger and less padding for each seat, they did not even build a mockup of the cabin to test it. Their CEO did not even try their new standard product until it was flying for nine months. Is it any wonder that after retrofitting planes into this new configuration (Project Oasis) they had to go and re-retrofit them to fix problems (Project Kodiak)? And that they’re still left with uncomfortable seats, regardless of how many of them there are?
American Airlines is hardly alone here, but they’re the U.S. airline with the greatest potential to be better than they are today. It all starts by thinking through the product that delivers the most value to the customer and working backwards on how to deliver it.
Delivering a commodity (‘our schedule is our product!’) is low margin. The highest margin products are usually also the best products.
I’m reminded of American’s ‘We Know Why You Fly’ ads from the mid-aughts. It wasn’t a super well-executed campaign but the basic idea was right: start with understanding your customer needs.
My favorite spot was the businessman sinking into his seat after busting his butt on the road and American basically says ‘we get it’ and we are going to make it simple and easy from here, just relax add we will get you home. (It was 15 years ago so it was a middle aged white dude, natch.)
That is why little things like skipping over people for upgrades if they aren’t at the gate is so deadly. Your core customer pays a premium for efficient use of time whether arriving last minute or working in the club as long as they can.
And it’s why changes Tempe management made in 2015 to restrict same day flight changes were so bad. Customers had to follow the same routing. American is the biggest route network with the most hubs but business travelers looking to get home early could no longer use them. Indeed, flying out of a city without multiple flights a day to the same hub could no longer same day change at all. And American uses more restrictive inventory for this than others.
Starting with we know why you fly and then describing the customer you’re trying to serve focuses the brand. Every decision needs to be built around making life easier for that passenger and they will always be loyal and pay what you ask.