Poor customer service from airlines is legendary. It’s cliche. It’s so common that when we do get great service we feel like we’ve won the lottery, if only for a moment.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, airlines have big challenges that can be obstacles to providing great customer service. So do many other companies that find ways to provide remarkable service to their customers. They choose to overcome their challenges and they take care of their customers very well. And they do it consistently.
Here are four things any of our airlines could do to improve the quality of service they’re providing to their customers. I understand they might already be doing these things. If so that’s great! But they need to do more of them, or do them better, so their customers start to see a consistent result.
1. Get management in direct contact with customers.
All levels of management should be exposed to customers. And I’m not just talking about focus groups or round-tables. Members of management need to roll up their sleeves and do the work of their employees once in a while. And they should talk to customers. It’s easy. Just drive to the nearest airport. They’ll find hundreds of customers sitting around waiting. I’d bet my mortgage payment most of these people would be happy to spend a few minutes chatting with an executive from the airline whose plane they’re waiting to board.
The work of any business happens at the point of customer contact. It does not happen in executive offices or board rooms. Customer facing employees and their customers are the two groups of people who know exactly how your company does business. As a company leader, you’ll never know this by reading reports. You need to get this information by experiencing it. There is no substitute for direct customer contact.
2. Get customers involved in creating customer service standards.
No one knows more about what your customers want than they do. So get them involved. And I don’t mean lengthy surveys or phone calls by consultants. Talk to them like real people. Get your employees out where your customers are and talk to them. Buy them coffee or lunch and get them talking. Doing this one on one using your employees will produce much better results than using consultants or survey companies. If you want your customers to be honest with you, start by being authentic with them.
Then use their input to create meaningful standards in how you will serve your customers. Not that you’ll do everything they want. But you should do everything you can within your mission, your resources and the context of your business. Too many companies disregard and disrespect their customers. They think all the answers reside at the corporate headquarters. That arrogance will ruin a company. Talk to the people who know. Talk to your customers.
3. Get employees involved in planning and implementing customer service standards.
Customers will tell you what they want. Employees will help you figure out how to do it.
Employees do the work of the company day after day. They see (and hear and feel) how things work. They know what works and what does not. They see how the business is changing. They see this all at the point of service, which is where your company produces its revenue. Everything in the company should support what happens at the point of service. Anything that does not support a successful point of service needs to be questioned (and, probably, eliminated).
So, as you gather information from your customers about how to best serve them, make sure your employees are part of the process. Get them involved from start to finish. Include them in planning, information gathering, customer service standard setting and implementation.
4. Leadership must show everyone customer service is a priority.
There are many examples of employees who deliver fantastic service. Some people will do this no matter who leads their company. But, these people tend to be exceptions. I’ve never seen a company that delivers great service consistently without 100% support from the top leaders of the company.
The leaders set the tone and direction for a company’s culture. If the top leaders expect great service for every customer every time, then they will naturally do what it takes to create a culture that breeds such service.
Ultimately, for a company to deliver fantastic service consistently across their organization, the top leaders need to make that a priority. There are no alternative paths to getting this done. The company’s leadership must decide to make service a priority. Then they need to demonstrate this in their words and their actions. It needs to be at the core of everything they do.
Steps one, two and three are tactical. Any company can do them. And if you do them well, you will see positive results. But for long-term results, step four must come first. Without it, most service gains will be short term. They will not live beyond regular employee turnover. Eventually, the motivation that drives them will fade away as they lose their champions and other issues take priority.
For true, sustainable improvement in customer service quality, airlines (and all organizations) must make a commitment at the highest level of management to deliver the best service they can to every customer every time with no exceptions.