Tell us a bit about your role.
I am the Customer Experience Director and Founder of Empathyce, a CX consulting and coaching company. I help organisations, especially in aviation and travel sectors, understand what it’s really like to be a customer, what their experience should be like to achieve the commercial and strategic aims and how to go about making it happen.
What led you to your current position?
Following a corporate career in the UK and New Zealand in senior Customer Experience roles I set up Empathyce in 2012. I love working with aviation companies but I also support organisations in a variety of sectors around Europe and the Middle East. I’m also a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) and am one of a handful of people globally who are also authorised to train practitioners for the accreditation.
Why is customer experience in airports so important?
It’s a simple equation: better experiences mean better business and a better place to work.
Good experiences for passengers, airline customers and employees create sustainable economic and strategic value; poor experiences simply erode value.
Think about any brand preference we have. We choose them because they are reliable in helping us achieve what we want to achieve, they make it easy and we feel good about it. If that happens, we’ll do it again, we’ll buy more, spend more and we’ll tell everyone we know to do the same. The opposite, however, is also true if the experience is poor.
Customer experience is just that – understanding how we as an airport or airline fit into our passengers’ lives, especially as expectations are rising all the time. It’s not about how we expect them to plug conveniently into our processes.
To understand why it’s important, it may help to clarify what we mean by ‘customer experience’. It’s not another name for customer service. That is what an airport does to, or provides for, its passengers. Customer experience is about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that service. As a result, it’s what passengers will remember and therefore do next time as a result. It’s a subtle, but vital, distinction.
It’s also important because the leadership team cannot declare they intend to ‘do’ customer experience. If an airport has customers, they are already giving an experience. The challenge is, therefore, is it the right experience?
What should aviation businesses be doing to improve the customer experience?
Firstly, the leadership team must nurture the right culture across the business. It’s one that knows how improved customer experiences lead directly to stronger and more sustainable commercial outcomes. The Board will take as much interest in customer metrics as they are in financial returns.
By having absolute clarity about how good they want to be they can then design the appropriate, intended experiences. The Passenger Experience Strategy will articulate to their employees what “World-class”, “An outstanding experience” or “We put passengers at the heart of everything we do” means for them on a day to day basis. They’ll share the success stories and get their people and partners excited about being more customer centric.
In Canada for example, “I’m Toronto Pearson” is an internal initiative that brings to life the customer experience to help employees take more pride in what they do. At Arlanda airport in Stockholm, floor-to-ceiling pictures of employees from all parts of the airport explain who they are and what they do. And at Schiphol in Amsterdam, there are photographs of the toilet cleaners declaring their pride in helping to keep the airport a pleasant experience.
Businesses must obsess about seeing things from their customers’ perspective. Not just in analysing the survey responses but by sharing and acting on the insight from immersive activities like customer journey mapping.
Improving customer experience is not the responsibility of just the Passenger Services Director or operations teams. The business therefore needs cross-functional governance to pull it all together. It will prioritise and coordinate activities with other programmes, assign clear responsibilities for making changes and report back to the Board on progress and outcomes.
There are risks though. Becoming truly customer-centric can take years and might seem overwhelming. Or, because it’s not a project with a 3-month ROI, the temptation might be to dismiss it. So rather than trying to create “wow” experiences, the best way to start improving things is to focus on the detail of today’s experience. Ensure that the fundamental expectations of customers are met every time. Simply by getting the basics right, an airport where everything is reliable, easy and hassle-free will create an environment conducive to operational smoothness and a happy shopper’s mindset.
What do you predict to be the biggest challenge for airports in 2019?
Airports are such complex beasts that to call out one just challenge might be unfair.
Financially, it’s about providing returns to investors. Operationally, it might be about reducing the turnaround times or needing partners to do more for less. Strategically, it might be about security or getting the master plan and surface access proposals approved.
But from a customer experience perspective, the biggest challenge is likely to be a balancing act; continually improving the experience while coping with the predicted growth in passenger volumes and increasing the revenue they each contribute at the same time.
It’s therefore vital that airports see things from their customers’ perspectives. As part of a recent customer journey mapping exercise I walked the team through their airport, role-playing personas and recording what they saw, did and felt.
It helped the employee to take, literally, a different view; their customers’ view. For example, they observed that despite walking through their airport several times a day themselves, they hadn’t noticed that wayfinding signage for the bars and restaurants hadn’t been updated when the terminal was reconfigured. It was pointing to what was now a blank wall.
Such complacency is often unintended and in this case, they fixed the signage the next day. However, mediocre success can lull organisations into a false sense of security. The leadership team might say “We’ve got airlines adding routes, we’ve got passengers coming through the door today and even though margins are under pressure, we’re still making money. Why spend money on fluffy things like customer experience?”.
The challenge is that expectations are rising all the time. Doing nothing is effectively moving backwards. It’s easy to create a strapline and put a poster on the wall about how “We put passengers at the heart of everything we do” or “We will be the friendliest airport”. That’s a great start but unless the leadership team visibly live and breathe the values, where cross-functional employees and commercial partners have common, customer-based motivations, they will remain just that; convenient but meaningless words on a wall.