Winging it: how listening to airline customers, lets you get to the root of the problem

One of the pillars of business growth is keeping your customers happy. This has become increasingly important as bad experiences are shared instantly – easily found by potential customers researching their next purchase.

By using our unique approach to social listening and learning, we provide brands with deep, contextual and detailed understanding of their customers. This blog shares how we helped a certain global brand with a disgruntled customer base, find the insight they needed to substantially improve the customer experience.

Great expectations

You can fly budget or you can fly established. If you fly budget, you know what you’re going to get and you’re ready for it. You go into the airport like you’re going into battle. You’re wearing a week’s worth of clothes to avoid the baggage fees, you’ve eaten more than the average bear prepping for hibernation and you’ve taken your own bodyweight in valium just to get through the 40 min flight to Belfast.

If you fly with a prestigious airline, it’s a whole different experience. This is where the holiday’s supposed to start. You feel that sense of pride as you approach the check-in desk with the most recognisable logo (for the right reasons), are ushered through by well trained, demure staff, before being welcomed aboard by an impeccably dressed and mannered steward who shows you to your seat. The food is good, the temperature is good, the space is good, the experience is good. As it should be. You’ve paid more so you deserve more. You’ve chosen an airline with a tradition of service, so you can relax, unwind and the only thing you have to worry about is not mixing your free drinks too much.

Or not. The truth is, some of the major airlines who are chosen because of the fantastic customer experience they should be offering, are falling well below expectations. It’s no good being at the top of your game in 1968 if you’re now trotting out a below par service-by-numbers. At the end of the day, an airline moves people from A to B. The only differentiators are price and experience. If you choose price, good luck and fingers crossed the captain isn’t as tired as the engines. If you choose to pay more, you should get the bells and whistles. And what we’ve found is, if customer experience falls below expectation, you’re in trouble, because they’re not going to be quiet about it.

This is a problem for the brand, but it is not caused by the brand. There’s a time difference between what people are actually experiencing and the expectations a brand has created. Brands can change overnight (almost exclusively for the worse) or they can grow, over time, into something cool, likeable, relevant, pioneering and exciting. And these changes happen through customer perception and experience, based on what you do. Lego was having the perfect resurgence until those pesky do-gooders at Greenpeace pointed out they were in bed with Shell. Conversely, Unilever may as well have been owned by The Horned One until they started acting more responsibly (and shouting about the fact they were acting more responsibly).

Few places to hide

In the era of mass social communication, you can’t be bad and pretend to be good. It doesn’t matter what your advertising budget is, it’s simple physics. And how customers make decisions has changed, especially in the leisure and tourism industry. Back in the day, you had a brochure, an advert, a bored travel agent and maybe a friend’s recommendation. Now, through forums, online aggregators, review sites, below the line commentary and portals, everyone is your friend with an experience and opinion they are dying to share.

Travel forums give brands very few places to hide. Customers love to share their experiences and, as a prospective customer, you can read hundreds and thousands of relevant comments on exactly what you want to know to help you make a decision. The smart brands are investing in this wealth of data. What better way to understand the customer experience than listening to them talk about what they choose to in a place where they want to share?

Getting market insight through social research

At Listen & Learn, we help brands improve by listening to and learning from social media. We select thousands of relevant comments from social networks and platforms and read every single one to understand what’s important to customers and what factors are influencing decision-making. By learning what customers value, we give brands the insight to develop practical strategies to improve the offering, product, service and experience.

Our research methodology is distinct in two ways.

  • Firstly, lots of social research agencies process social content or data through algorithms to get a vague sense of what the market might be thinking. We’re different. We use human researchers to read, study, learn and recommend direction based on a human understanding of the situation.
  • Secondly, traditional research tries to prove an idea that might be true (eg, our customers want speedy service more than anything else) by creating questions and statements (surveys, focus groups, interviews) that customers have to respond to. This leads to bias because you know you’re being researched. By learning from natural content, we assume nothing and let the data guide us to a conclusion. No vested interests, no presumptions, no bias. Just natural insight.

We call this social learning. It’s great to listen to your customers, but if you don’t learn from what they are telling you, then it’s all for nothing. So we decided to learn from a targeted group of airline customers who had shared their experiences online, specifically, those who said they wouldn’t recommend that particular carrier. What was it about their experience that made them need to vent? As ever, it all comes down to customer experience.

The core problem is the carrier doesn’t deliver what the brand promises. Customers have great expectations but amazingly, nearly a third of non-economy travellers shared negative stories. So what’s the problem?

Falling behind the flock

First and foremost, this airline is known for high-quality air travel. People get excited when they book a flight with them because of their heritage and status. After listening to thousands of customers, we learnt that when customers get something less than excellent, there is tangible disappointment and frustration, which leads them to share their negative experiences.

Our market insight is gained from analysing free-form text to uncover what consumers really think. Through social media research, we learn new factors in decision-making that brands wouldn’t traditionally consider. Customers felt they had stopped trying to innovate or reach their own high standards. There was a strong sense the planes were old, out of date, shabby, even falling to bits, a perception that’s way off the brand values.

Crew cuts

Unfortunately, this was pretty much how customers felt about the cabin crew. We saw a direct correlation between comments mentioning crew members and an overall narrative of not caring about its standing, offering or customers. Comments mentioned crew looking “bored” or “scruffy” and unwilling to give attention or assistance. There was a strong feeling that they wanted to dispense with customer duties quickly and get back to “hiding” in the galleys to chat amongst themselves. The cabin crew are supposed to be synonymous with excellence, but we saw almost 20% of customers describing them as unfriendly, offering very few smiles to travellers, and in some cases even being rude. The result? Huge damage to the brand and customers talking about the better alternatives out there.

In the seat of the moment

Because we read each and every comment, we pick up nuances that traditional quantitative research would miss. Nearly 50% of our sample talked openly and negatively about the physical aspect of the plane seats. Too many of them, too narrow and too close together. Although seating concerns wouldn’t be mentioned if you were flying budget (because you get what you pay for), it’s such a fundamental factor for a prestige airline to get wrong, the repercussions are far worse.

Food fight

A major differentiator between budget and prestige airlines is food. The butt of a million jokes, if you can get aeroplane food right, you’re in a very select club. But when over 20% of your customers publicly moan about your food, you need to listen and learn. After analysing the social commentary, we found customers complained bitterly about the overall poor quality of the food, describing it as “atrocious”, “disgusting”, “mediocre” and “shocking”. We found the menus were seen as limited and didn’t account for dietary requirements and children. Problems get worse when the popular options run-out, leaving customers very dissatisfied and sometimes very hungry when they’ve paid for a premium experience.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly again

At Listen & Learn, we help brands improve the customer experience by learning from the customer’s’ experience. We analyse high volumes of data but keep it incredibly targeted. We use real, live human brains to understand the real, live human experience. We don’t rely on an approximation of a result and insight that might be in the right ballpark. For this airline, the problems are manifold. We talked earlier about brands evolving over time, but if you’re not listening carefully to what really matters to customers, devolution is possible, if not likely to happen.

 

About us

We’re an insights agency that uses social data to help brands + their agencies find new opportunities for growth.

If that sounds good to you, drop us a line and we’ll get straight back to you. If you want to hear more stories from social, then sign up to our blog (As heard on social) below.

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