Why Experience is Key to Customer Loyalty


Whenever I travel, I'm reminded of the many amazing opportunities that come from being able to reach many parts of the world relatively easily.

Let's face it, things can go wrong with the weather and with technology. It is how an airline — or any company, for that matter — handles customer fairness that will make a big difference to its bottom line. Will they have to discount fares more deeply so people will do business with them again next time?

There is plenty of room left for improving customer experience in the travel industry — airlines, hotels, car services, even airports, with a few notable exceptions (thank you, Justin Meyer, for setting a new standard).

Memo to TSA: We should stop pretending that treating people poorly is a good practice. Security is not guaranteed that way, and showing some professionalism would go a long way to gain respect. I've had better screenings anywhere else in the world. How is it possible? 

It would be an excellent idea to have service personnel at all of these companies, and government employees, experience a normal day of travel as a regular person, someone without the special privileges of not having to be screened, or not having to wait in line, etc. A-la mystery shopper.

That full immersion alone could help fix many issues. Would you like your own treatment or that of your organization?

There is a disconnect between what companies promise, and what they actually deliver. That gap is the reason why customers, when given the chance, will take their business elsewhere.

Because brand perception makes a big difference in premium and consideration, including recommendations, customer experience is more important than ever. More and more people are voting with their mouths, likes, and wallets.

Looking at customer complaints is not enough

Complaints are symptoms, and they will lead organizations down the reactive path every single time. Plus, only 2% of the population — or even less — bothers to say something, anything. In my experience, most frequent travelers, to stay with the example in this post, learn to hack the system for themselves.

Which leaves the rest of the customer base with the habits of a very select few to live with, and the business with a false picture of what customers experience. I wish ticket agents actually did measure the size of some of those carry-on bags.

The other day, I was watching a group of what looked like seasoned business travelers literally hedging an older lady and a family with young children to push their way into an early boarding line for fear of not being able to fit their large carry on bags on the flight.

It was even more ironic by the fact that they looked fit and well heeled. More the  line backer kind than timid travelers. Had I taken a picture, it would have looked like any board of directors in composition. What was the experience for the rest of the travelers?

Bottom line is after a poor experience, many just won't go back, and they will tell their whole circle of friends and family why not. Or, if they go back, it will be at very reduced prices. Which in turn explains why most of the industry struggles to make a profit.

Designing the customer experience

Designing the customer experience needs to be a proactive activity and drive to wanting to make it a positive one. There are rare exceptions. Consumer advocate and journalist Chris Elliott says:

Virgin America is unashamedly retro, when if comes to service. Don’t look for solemn-faced ticket agents trying to make their weekly quota of luggage fees. They’ve been replaced by helpful employees with real-looking smiles. The flight attendants seem genuinely happy to be there, a sharp contrast to the tired counterparts at some of the more established carriers.

The image you see in this post [hat tip Beth Harte] highlights two important points for a make or break situation with customer experience:

  1. companies do have control over those instances that can make or break customer loyalty
  2. and they know which data they need to either collect or connect and when

So, as the chart suggests, the fundamental questions marketers and customer service groups need to work on are:

  • how can we make this a positive experience?
  • what can we do to make sure consumers come back time and time over?
  • where do we need data to help deliver the experience?

In some instances, the company may already have the answers. In others, it may need to rethink the way it operates and communicates in order to collect them. However, I'd say that the main difficulty many organizations have is with knowing to ask the right questions — or, in some instances, wanting to do so.

Loyalty programs circa 1990 are quite broken. There is no amount of points you could give a customer who has had a horrible experience to go back to the same brand or organization. At best, you may get them to use the coupon or redeem the points if it's easy to get something for free.

Many mileage programs are so hard to navigate that many a business is thriving over helping people take advantage of their points. People who charge fees to help travelers use their points. A missed business opportunity, not to mention reason to be loyal, for airlines.

Imagine what could be done there that is social and helps the business deliver on promises. A whole industry bent on sticking to a money-losing model, when they could trade their assets so much more creatively — and create experiences people would be willing to talk about to boot.

How are customer talking about you online, and worse, off line? What stories are they telling their friends, neighbors, family, and anyone who will ask?

Situations do come up. In an increasingly interconnected world, how organizations work on designing the customer experience to deliver on their promises does matter more and more to the business long term prospects.

"After all, the customer is not stupid. She is your mother, your sister or your wife,” to say it with Mr. David Ogilvy.


[updated from archives]


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