Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tiered Systems Suck: Lessons from Airline Customer Satisfaction

This morning I came across this article on Airline customer satisfaction, Airline satisfaction: below post office, above subscription TV. On the one hand, this comes as no surprise to anyone -- airline customer service scores have been terrible for years and, for most of us, there is a long list of painfully unpleasant events that rank above interaction with an airline. I suspect that if you could get across the country in four or five hours traveling by sewer, there would be a line of people opting for that instead of going through the airport.

But the interesting little tidbit in this article is the contrast between the customer satisfaction scores for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue compared to the other major carriers.
Low-cost carriers JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines led the industry with scores of 83 and 81, respectively; network airlines Delta, United, American and US Airways rated no better than 68, the survey found.
Now you can deconstruct these results in a lot of ways. You could wonder whether the results are shaped by the volume of traffic that the airline handles, or perhaps the demographic of the passenger. -- if travelers on JetBlue and Southwest are typically infrequent travelers that opted for the airline based on the low cost profile, they may have lower expectations for the results.

Fundamentally though, I think that there is a very different philosophy at play that makes a strong contribution to the contrasting perceptions -- the way that they view the customer. Both JetBlue and Southwest treat the passengers in their system equally. There is no first class. While JetBlue offers a pay-to-upgrade option for extra leg room, the default for both airlines is that all flyers are treated equally.

It's just a tiny variation in the business philosophy, but consider the implications of that difference. On Southwest or JetBlue, everyone on the flight is part of a community. You are equal citizens. When something goes wrong, you don't expect that there is some hidden intent at injustice based on the class of your ticket. Any perks you are awarded are likely equally available to everyone else and potentially available for a small fee.

Contrast that with the tiered service on the other carriers. From serving meals to people in first class to the cramped, unpleasant seats at the back of the plane, if you found yourself stuck in the lower priced ticket options on one of the major carriers, you are treated -- poorly isn't really the right word because it's worse than that; it's more of like testing the limits of human tolerance. Would you be willing to sit in this tiny space for four hours for $50? How about fitting all of your stuff into a carry-on for $50? Can you go without food for four hours for $200? It's kind of depraved and, when your in the system, everything is a reminder of that reality. The major carriers may try customer-service-oriented messaging, but for the majority of people on the plane or interacting with their system, it sounds disingenuous.

Airline customer satisfaction is similar to broader problems with the inequality inherent in the austerity programs. While 'belt tightening' may appear to be equitable to someone looking through the rose-tinted lens of first class, 'equally distributed' has a much larger impact when the standard for economy treatment dances with the definition of humane. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, while I find myself increasingly choosing airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, people in the main cabin class of an economy have no alternative carriers available.

If there is a take-away from these airline customer satisfaction numbers, it should be a reminder about the positioning of options in your product offering. Rather than differentiating products by crippling essential features and making lesser products unappealing, it's probably better to determine a base level service that meets the broad range of customer needs and wow your that base of customers with an amazing product.

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