Customers: The Heart Of An Airline

Customers today have many choices. To acquire and retain those customers, airlines want to capture the heart of the guest and keep them at the center of their business. Can enhancing customer experience allow airlines to capture and retain those guests?

Customer experience is not what an airline does to serve its customers. It is how customers view, engage with, react to and value the experiences they have with the airline.

To deliver the desired customer experience, airlines anticipate and service customer needs by aligning the right interaction channel to the right customer at the most impactful time during the travel lifecycle. To accomplish this, they leverage processes, data and systems.

A customer who travels once a year could be a customer with a high lifetime value for the airline in the future. Therefore, airlines need to change traditional thinking from a “transaction focus” to a “lifecycle focus” because the ability to differentiate customers and provide differentiated treatment is key to knowing customers today and the value they might bring in the future.

No airline can reap impressive rewards of being “customer centric” by installing software. There is clearly no “one-size-fits-all” solution. However, Sabre Airline Solutions® provides a framework in which a range of applications and customer data work together with the single purpose of putting customers’ expectations and wishes at the heart of the airline.

Customers tell the companies they do business with that they want to feel valued. They want control of choices. At the same time, they also want companies to present them with the best options. This enables them to make educated decisions about their final purchases.

However, with the advent of online shopping, travel search companies, mobile technology and social media, optimizing customer delight has become an area of which airlines need to spend more time. This should be a priority … not only from a physical organizational structure perspective, but more from a fundamental understanding of each individual customer’s needs from the very beginning of the travel lifecycle.

Think about the fact that the first time a customer actually experiences an airline’s brand, when he can actually feel it and touch it, is often when he boards the airplane. That could be weeks or months after the initial purchase. Well before the in-flight experience, there are a number of touchpoints at which an airline can capture the heart of its guests.

So how do airlines start to treat their customers individually, as if they are the only customer of the airline from the first interaction? The challenge is that half of their customers still book flights through third-party travel distribution systems. Many see a flight as a commodity item. Price and schedule are more relevant than brand. However, if anything goes wrong, it is the brand that suffers, not the third party. Nonetheless, airlines must make each customer feel as though he or she is in control by offering the most appropriate experience at the most impactful touchpoint.

Major Touchpoints

Being customer centric involves understanding important aspects of the overall travel process that happen without the airline’s awareness or involvement. There are six major shared touchpoints to capture the heart of the guest once the inspiration to travel has been triggered:

Major Shared Touchpoints

Once a traveler decides to take a trip, an airline can leverage six major shared touchpoints to capture the customer’s business. The airline can win him over by providing an exceptional customer experience through each of these touchpoints.

1. Choosing ― The data points most relevant here include information about the customer (which should be captured in a customer profile), along with search and shopping history, shopping and passenger preferences, and customer value score, (discussed in the next section).

2. Booking ― The data that is most crucial is the booking request and customer profile information along with purchase history, service history, loyalty/frequent flyer history and customer value score. By having access to historical travel information and linking it to the booking history and customer profile, airlines will be able to segment the servicing of customers based on their profitability or “importance,” as well as more-efficiently recognize the customer’s needs and provide a solution proactively.

3. Pre-flight ― At this touchpoint, airlines can really raise their service-quality levels by providing information and services that would improve the overall customer experience and drive additional revenue through cross-sell, up-sell and personalized merchandising. The necessary data includes customer profile information along with itinerary history from the booking, loyalty/frequent flyer history, passenger preferences, inferred preferences and customer value score.

4. Airport check-in and boarding ― At the time of check-in, airlines have the opportunity to cross sell, up sell and distinguish high-value customers from others. Knowing in advance the frequent flyer history and customer value score of each customer at check-in will ensure that the most-valued customers are taken care of and serviced appropriately.

5. In-flight ― Understanding passenger preferences, along with the value score of each passenger, assists airlines with determining the appropriate service levels that are commensurate to the right customer experience. This touchpoint is critical because the opportunity for personal interaction is an ideal setting to distinguish the service offering.

6. Post-flight ― Conducting post-trip surveys to collect additional information that will help improve customer experience is key. Airlines can send post-flight communications to enhance customer retention. The critical data at this point includes service history as well as traveler preferences via loyalty acquisition.

At those touchpoints, airlines must intelligently use customer data to differentiate the customer experience from one guest to the next or from one guest segment to the next. Market segmentation with persona creation is the most effective way of tailoring the experience and offers to those customers who are the most profitable for the airline.

To measure how effectively an airline is serving each group of customers that match a given persona or guest segment, it is important to define a methodology for calculating the profitability of the customer. A customer lifetime value score that has been applied to a certain segment of customers can be used when tailoring customer experience offerings. Determining the correct criteria for this score is vital because an airline’s most profitable customers may not be their highest revenue customers.

Establishing the right metrics for a customer lifetime value score can be complicated and confusing and, hence, are often dismissed. Ready-made calculators exist, but they are too basic and do not capture the complexities of lifetime value. Customer value is not just equated to financial value either. Customer behavior, such as social media activity, also generates value for airlines, although initially this value is not seen in the form of purchases.

Therefore, airlines need to first determine the intent of developing a customer lifetime value score model, establish a common unit of analysis, and then audit and evaluate the available data.

Forrester research shows that a better customer experience drives improvement for three types of customer loyalty:

  • Willingness to consider another purchase,
  • Likelihood to switch business to a competitor,
  • Likelihood to recommend to a friend or colleague.

Intelligent Use Of Data

Data are only valuable if used intelligently throughout the travel experience to differentiate customers, regardless of their point of sale or service. With access to the source of the data, rules should be established based on specific triggers in that data. Those rules then create a specific action to occur.

For example, an airline believes its loyalty program is key to customer satisfaction. When a traveler reaches the next tier of status, instead of having to wait until after travel is booked and systems are updated, wouldn’t it be ideal if the traveler’s status was automatically acknowledged at the start of the trip where he qualifies for the next tier?

The guest arrives at the airport and checks in. He then receives a boarding pass showing the new status, which additionally allows him to board early and check a free bag.

The guest’s booking data was evaluated to see if the customer might be traveling when he is about to reach the next loyalty program tier (data). A match was found between the miles or points and the next tier in the data (trigger), and as a result, a specific rule is applied that will ultimately trigger an action, such as a check-in message being added to the booking (rule) to alert the check-in system of the event (action).

Key Performance Indicators

To ensure a customer-centric program is successful, key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be established for measuring program effectiveness at each touchpoint. An airline must identify both a set of operational and customer-satisfaction metrics to provide a holistic view of the customer experience.

The goal of the operational customer metrics is to monitor specific touchpoint performance and use that information to continuously improve the program. To create operational metrics an airline must identify the critical points in the travel lifecycle that are make-or-break points for their customer segments (commonly referred to as “moments of truth”).

It is also vital to create a customer-satisfaction metric. This metric may be calculated with a post-travel survey, net promoter score or likelihood to recommend score.

The final step in creating the metrics to monitor performance is to assemble the information using a scorecard approach. Each of the metrics can be monitored on a regular interval for significant changes. As changes are detected, an airline can fine tune service offerings. Once an airline has sufficient information, it can correlate service initiatives with the customer experience KPIs to measure return on investment.

Customer-satisfaction Metrics

To ensure a customer-centric program is successful, airlines should establish key performance indicators for measuring program effectiveness at each touchpoint. It is critical to identify both a set of operational and customer-satisfaction metrics to provide a holistic view of the customer experience. Customer-satisfaction metrics may be calculated via a post-travel survey, net promoter score or likelihood to recommend score.

Customer Journey Mapping

To best understand a customer’s end-to-end experience, an airline should take a walk in its customers’ shoes. This is achieved through customer journey mapping, the process of tracking and describing all the experiences that customers have as they encounter a service or a set of services, taking into account not only what happens to them but also their responses to their experiences. When used correctly, it can reveal opportunities for improvement and innovation in that experience, acting as a strategic tool to ensure every interaction with the customer is a positive one.

Relationship Equity

When airlines truly optimize interactions with their customers at every touchpoint, they will build loyalty and sustainable “relationship equity.” They will start to exceed customer expectations through brand awareness. They will gain deep knowledge of each customer or customer segment. At that point, they become a preferred organization to their customers based on the seamless, enjoyable experience they have encountered.

The better the customer experience the more incremental purchases those customers will make in the same year. If only a fraction of those customers actually make another purchase in the same year, the effect on revenue can be significant.

Operational Customer Metrics

The objective of operational customer metrics is to observe specific touchpoint performance. That information is used to continuously improve the program. When creating operational metrics, airlines must identify the critical points in the travel lifecycle that are make-or-break points for their customer segments.

Customer-Centric Enablers

Knowing and understanding airline customers is simplified when utilizing SabreSonic® Customer Sales & Service, a fully integrated customer-centric solution. This advanced technology provides the capability to identify and recognize customers, collect and distribute customer information for operational decisions, and provide a holistic view of customers to aid in fulfilling an airline’s customer promises.

Regardless of the technology an airline uses, experts at Sabre Airline Solutions are available to help build a solid customer-centric program that will enhance the airline’s brand, build stronger relationships with its customers, drive revenue, and grow and retain its customer base.

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