Insights

5 ways airlines should be putting their customers first

June 30, 2019

by Charlie Cosham, Strategy and Growth Lead

I recently attended the Future Travel Experience conference in Istanbul alongside airlines, airports and technology companies from across Europe, Asia and Africa, to hear about the challenges and innovations impacting the sector today. I’ve picked five things you need to consider if you’re looking to thrive in the travel industry.

#1 Work backwards from the customer

In his opening keynote, Paul Armstrong from Amazon Web Services laid down the gauntlet: “Always start with the customer. Think about what experience matters to them.”

In an industry plagued by legacy infrastructure, complex operations and inflexible processes, it can be easy to focus on driving efficiencies across the business.

But as digital-first businesses continue to raise the bar of customer expectations, the demand is for more than just a smooth travel experience from A to B. The challenges of tired systems and unstructured data shouldn’t stand in the way: speaking to customers can surface the small insights that make a big difference.

Companies that invest time understanding their customer’s desires, on top of their functional needs, are well-placed to offer a differentiated and memorable experience.

How much do you know about what your customers really care about?

#2 Look beyond travel for your competition

Should airlines act more like retailers?

This was a constant theme of the conference - with a split audience. Some feel that thinking and acting like Amazon - with the same level of personalisation, choice and fulfilment - was the ultimate goal. Others seemed complacent: airlines and airports are unavoidable, and have a captive customer for an unavoidable period of time.

It’s widely known that companies are becoming famous for not just what they’re giving us, but how they’re giving it to us. Whilst there is much to learn from data-driven retailers like Amazon, travel companies would do well to look for inspiration beyond retail. Who is setting the bar in different aspects of customer experience?

  • Booking & onboarding: Bulb, a new UK energy provider, are famous for their friendly interactions and simple sign-up process. Coupled with offering sustainable energy and mates discounts, they’re rapidly stealing market share from traditional players.
  • Personalisation: Coconut is a challenger bank designed to make life easy for freelancers by giving you access to multiple accounting partners, all from one place.
  • Seamless end-to-end journeys across providers: Curve aggregates all your bank accounts into one card.
  • Upgrades made easy: Seatfrog enables loyal customers to access last-minute upgrades on train travel through their mobile app.

What could you be famous for?

#3 Explore value-add services to improve the customer experience

There is so much opportunity for airlines and airports to disrupt the standard offers. Extra baggage, more legroom or lounge access don’t create differentiated experiences, nor do they really consider what would transform a customer’s experience.

With WiFi now available on board, the battlefield for a passenger’s attention just got bigger. When companies like Grab are bringing your choice of food directly to the gate, suddenly the on-board kitchen looks a lot less appetising. Google recently announced that they can tell passengers how crowded their transport will be. Now they can collect data from passengers on aircrafts, how long until they start adding new insights and experiences?

The value-add services can start small. TUI revealed that the free features on their app - the holiday countdown and pre-packing checklist - have proved the most popular with their customers. Not only do they respond to customer’s excitement for their holiday, but for TUI, they create opportunities to make recommendations and upsell products at the right moment for the customer.

What new experiences could you offer customers?

#4 Adopt the mindset & methods of a startup

A fundamental difference between startups and large companies is their attitude to risk and experimentation. A startup, as Paul Armstrong summarised, typically has no money, no resources and no time. Therefore they have to start trying things and learning fast before they run out of road.

If you’re not taking risks, you’re not doing anything newPaul ArmstrongPrincipal Solutions Architect, Amazon Web Services

SunXpress, a joint venture between Lufthansa & Turkish Airlines, shared a great example of the types of innovation possible when you have more freedom from the mothership. Collaborating with InFlight VR, they’ve been trialling the role and benefits of embedding VR into their flight experience - and are constantly learning and evolving the service as they see how customers engage. With huge improvements in customer satisfaction, it’s clearly adding value to the travel experience.

Also adopting an experimental approach are EasyJet - except they’ve chosen to run their ‘micro battles’ within the motherbrand. Ben Robertson spoke of EasyJet’s success with an experiment-led approach to testing and growing a new product, Hands Free. The product was launched through “a set of discrete tests,” beginning at just two locations and scaling to every customer in Europe within 12 months.

The reason it's so difficult for firms to innovate is that the processes and business models that make them good at the existing business, actually make them bad at competing for disruptionClayton ChristensenProfessor at Harvard Business School

Experiments can work successfully within or outside the core business, as long as they are given the freedom to be methods for learning. Building the right culture and measurement around these experiments is key.

What could your next experiment be?

#5 Building a culture of innovation is the most important thing

A small but important statement by Santiago Aldana Sanín at Aviania.

Across all industries we see the challenge of organisations trying to be more creative, more dynamic - but getting throttled by inefficient processes, heavy-handed governance and often, a sense that we’ve tried all this before. Solving these challenges is far from easy; and takes more than filling the walls with post-its and fridges with beer.

Creating the space to experiment is one part of the answer. But that space needs to be treated differently: measures of success should be different when the goal is learning. Ways of managing workflow and approval need to shift when work is iterative. Teams need to self-organise and collaborate across disciplines to bring the best thinking to the mix.

At Idean, we help organisations build and launch what we call Beta Businesses: a new product, service or proposition that’s designed to learn faster than its competition by existing outside of the mothership. Empowering it to make rapid decisions and learn in-market.

What would you learn if your company built a Beta Business? Fill in the form below to join our community of Beta Business builders.

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