Sabre + Skift Present:

Modern Digital Retail

Some of the best examples of customer-centric digital systems built around building customer memory are found outside the aviation industry, in digital retail. Think of Amazon’s ability to remember each customer’s orders and product views and then correlate a purchasing trend not only to make related product recommendations but also to send reminders of commonly purchased products that may need replacing.

The company has invested heavily in the smart application of customer data to turn an impersonal retail presence — developed with no brick-and-mortar or personal interactions at all — into a very personal space that not only makes the sales process smoother for the company but also more pleasurable and efficient for the consumer. The strategy also encourages additional purchases by remembering abandoned cart items, triggering suggestions based on discounted items that have previously been purchased and sending timed requests for ratings to help boost the product to other customers, all of which creates a sense of customer community and lends credibility to the brand.

Amazon does not spend large sums of money with social media teams to respond to customer complaints or push products. It is not necessary because Amazon anticipates service disruptions, and automated systems update customers before they get a chance to be disappointed.

The design of the retail platform raises awareness of new products loosely related to individual customer purchases, fitting their lifestyle preferences as reflected by their previous product selections. And, of course, Amazon earns plenty of press with technology experiments (whether they are effective or not doesn’t really matter), which keep the brand at the forefront of a public conversation on the future of retailing.

Airlines have invested heavily in social teams to address customer complaints and to push brand messages through creative campaigns. They have also invested in physical spaces, hard assets and customer-facing staff. In addition, they have developed highly complex systems to manage flight logistics. These are designed for operational efficiency and crisis response, not customer-relationship building and brand definition.

It is a curious combination of digital paradigms because, in many ways, the two — Amazon and airlines — share a common retail space. They are both transporters — one flying other companies’ equipment (until recently) and the other with impressive fleets all their own.

By considering the digital-retailing techniques of Amazon, and capitalizing on well-established in-house strengths, airlines could easily stand out in the consumer memory as an invaluable lifestyle need and always first-choice provider. Customer-centric systems will support this transformation and offer airlines the same quality of retailing and service efficiencies that have made Amazon a strong first-choice global retailer.

And the timing couldn’t be better. As air traffic continues to grow, airlines will need to develop more efficient ways to manage their interactions with the millions of flyers. Responding to complaints via social media won’t be good enough. Eliminating the need for this responsiveness is far better.

We spoke with airlines that have launched their own customer-centric digital systems to find out what works best and what they would further improve. We also received insights from a psychologist of customer experience and systems design on the best way to drive engagement and build a desire to purchase.

In the sections to come, we will explore how customer-centric designs succeed and review a viable path forward from anonymous bulk selling of destinations, services and ancillaries to personalized and optimized retail. We’ll identify moments when customers are not only more likely to opt-in, but when they are more likely to be delighted by the airline’s engaged awareness of their travel circumstances, as well as the airline’s willingness to offer solutions when they are most needed.