Air travel could be better, and technology could deliver that, but only if the customer is at the heart of the brand.
Shortly after the United incident, the New York Times published an article which argued that technology has not helped make air travel better.
Instead, the writer suggested, technology has only helped improve airline margins and efficiencies but provided no tangible value to consumers.
Though the premise is arguable, the story proves that airline reputations have taken a hit, especially in the US. The industry’s operating practices and CEOs face Congressional scrutiny and viral videos of poor passenger treatment have now impacted all three major US airline carriers.
The Harris Poll released a report this month showing that the United Airlines suffered a 500 percent increase in negative consumer sentiment during a survey this April. Forty-two percent of U.S. consumers described the airline as “bad” or “very bad,” compared to seven percent of consumers in 2016.
It’s time to take notice. United has. It published a 10-point program of improvement. But delivering will require technology. United has promised to the reduce overbooking and to create an automated alerts to recruit volunteers when seats are needed.
There is no irony in this. When you serve millions of customers a day, you need technology to keep up.
But should technology only benefit airline operations or can it resolve brand damage and build better relationships with consumers? Can it build loyalty? Can technology, in fact, improve air travel?
As Chris Nurko, global chairman, Futurebrand explains, the way we think of technology drives how we apply it.
“First of all, we have always had technology, but today it has become the shorthand for ‘integrated computer systems’ and increasingly, AI for automated task completion.
“It is the darling of investment because it fulfills for organizations three key objectives: it’s cheaper (cutting costs), it’s easier (eliminating system complexities) and it’s faster (fewer wasted resources). All of which are great, but, for whom?”
Nurko believes technology needs to be framed properly, focusing it on creating affordable, simpler and real time/efficient products, services and experiences that appeal to consumer needs.
“These are great benefits, rather than just features. However, airlines have not framed this well—because technology disrupted the booking model more than anything else.
“Now, it is all about the use of ‘tech’ to driver ancillary revenues, to sell more stuff to passengers—increasingly by charging for what used to be included as the core product offer!”
It’s the old argument of sales versus marketing. They should work together, but they don’t think alike.
Wait, but why?
Why aren’t technology and innovation customer centric? How can, not just airlines, but all travel brands change this focus?
The difference is best encapsulated by the iconic image from the Crispin & Porter advertising agency in Florida. It is not enough to know the product a customer needs, if you don’t understand why the customer needs it.
Nurko believes it’s critical to start with what he describes as “the voice and needs of the customer or passenger.”
Successful companies, he tells us, start with the understanding that brand experience, and the related products and services must be relevant to the consumer, meet a specific need.
Technology, deployed with a customer-centric design, can offer choice, flexibility, and rewards for return custom.
“These are the benefits from a customer point of view that brands need to pay attention to; not the operational benefits to them of applied technology but rather the customer experience and ‘value’ for passengers.”
Nurko believes the gap in understanding the consumer explains the rise of the great disruptors. They offer consumers direct access to competitive products and services, while democratizing and cutting the middle man out of the path to purchase and beyond.
Services like TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic, Yelp! and similar technology platforms, Nurko says, have helped fuel marketing awareness and develop preference.
“Every business—not just travel—should think of technology as being an infrastructure that helps them stay relevant, and competitive.
“Yes, in part for bottom line efficiencies, but more as an enabled means of gaining greater customer engagement, involvement and increasing relevance.”
Great but how?
Jeroen van Erp, founding partner at Fabrique and professor of concept design at TUDelft, which works with KLM on the hyper-personalized application of technology, suggests that companies have placed blind faith in algorithms without really understanding their function or the data which they process, or, more importantly, what that data reveals about the customer.
What is more, data collected may not be specific or relevant enough to offer customers value because it can’t answer the “why”.
“The brand is all about a relationship. Dialogues are very important. But technology makes companies run away from a real dialogue, and that´s a pity. Your data is not good enough. It says nothing about somebody´s personality or underlying reasons for buying.”
As an example of this disconnect, van Erp shares an anecdote of a study one of his graduate students conducted on Nike products.
Basic purchasing data revealed nothing meaningful but by cross-checking for motivation, formulating the right questions, they learned that a lot of Nike’s buyers don’t intend to run.
They may not even like to run. They just like to look good with Nike shoes on. They like Nike as a fashion brand, and associate it positively as a real sports brand, even if those consumers don’t themselves do sports.
This aspirational and identity brand association is important to travel brands, including airlines.
Looking at a passenger purchases only, for example, might identify someone who most often flies one airline in economy class, for example, as a budget flyer.
The airline may follow up with fare promotions, and miss the detail that the passenger flies with them while complying with strict corporate travel budgets, but is affluent enough to pay for a premium ticket on a partner or competitor out-of-pocket which offers a superior product or serves a choice holiday destination.
Aspirational and identity consumer behaviors, and the hyper-personalized brand positioning required to satisfy them, requires thinking beyond numbers.
“If it you care about the brand you have to really discover why people are doing things. That´s the only way to keep your brand strong. It’s really counterintuitive for those who are technology focused.
“I think you have to look at the system. What airlines really want to improve is the general satisfaction that passengers have. You always have to be sure that you are future-proof. The moment someone is able to compete with you, you should be strong.”
Applying technology to more intelligent and focused marketing, with hyper-personalized consumer engagement isn’t a touchy-feely notion. It is a brand necessity in a competitive market, van Erp tells us.
“It should really be the preferred brand in our heads. They can’t afford to lose market share. So, with KLM for example, it´s very important to ensure that the collective satisfaction for travelers is really high.
Also, because KLM is not a low-cost carrier, the added value should be very evident.
“Technology can only deliver that if you can really tap into the individual concerns and personalities.
“For example, with KLM one of the ideas the graduates came up with is that if people have different personality traits. Some people always want to know what to expect but there are also people that want to be surprised.
“You feel that someone knows who you are, starts a dialogue and can really delight you. Then a flight is better than just a flight.”
Who, where, when?
Seeing beyond the immediate to what might surprise and delight requires brands to make organizational changes, van Erp believes.
“If technology is important for your company, if innovation is important, if change is important, it is of vital importance for companies to instal a chief innovation officer at the Board level to reinforce that innovation is important.
“A chief information officer always has technology, a chief marketing officer’s view is always short term. A chief innovation officer is looking at long term innovations. The power of installing someone like that in the organization is under estimated.
“A lot of corporates are organized in columns. Innovation, by default goes through various columns, but you need an individual who goes across all columns to ensure the innovations happen.”
Rob Sinclair-Barnes, strategic marketing director at Amadeus IT Group believes that technology, as a tool, can do a lot, if given a chance. He says:
“Technology is about enabling better informed decisions but only as good as its parameters. That’s the challenge we have in the industry. We need to apply technology in the right way to inform decisions.”
It’s a cycle: focus on the relationship by acting on what you’ve learned and you learn more so that you can focus better on building and growing the relationship with improved services and better products.
Sinclair-Barnes believes one hurdle in the way for travel brands, especially airlines, is a disconnect built into the system by the various sales channels. During disruptions, for example, there may be inadequate information available about the passenger for the airline to respond.
“If the third-party who booked the travel doesn’t offer 24/7 service, and they hold the relevant customer data, the system breaks down.”
Sinclair-Barnes believes there is a lot of work ahead for travel brands to collaborate on “data hygiene”, ensuring that everyone has shared insights on the customer at a basic level.
He also believes travel brands should focus technology around the consumer’s “hierarchy of needs”; the ‘What’ ‘Where’ and ‘When’ but also The ‘Why and ‘How’.
Getting full answers, though, requires permission from the consumer, and brands need to build consumer confidence to earn that.
“To my mind, it’s all built around what level of personalization you want to offer, but the threshold is trust. You have to have trust in the person you’re sharing information with.”
If we’re giving the impression that consumer satisfaction requires more granular consumer surveys, that’s not the whole story.
Structured and unstructured data, which reveal behavioral patterns and preferences, can be perhaps more valuable than survey answers alone. That’s because we, as consumers, often don’t know what we want.
Deeper consumer understanding allows brands to anticipate a need, and fulfill it. Unstructured data, from social media for example, as well as fuller view of past behavior with data shared between partners, can reveal consumers true identity and values.
Not passport details, but true identity: knowing that a person would buy Nike shoes just to drive a short distance to the shops because it makes them “feel” sporty.
Trying to understand millions of people on a personal level is impossible without applied technology. The amount of information to be processed is staggering. There’s a good reason why we call it Big Data.
But the industry is making progress. Sinclair-Barnes says:
“We are working with a lot of airlines in terms of applying these techniques. We see booking traveller patterns which help develop a more customized experience. It helps judge what works and what doesn’t work, by analyzing consumer feedback.”
By testing data gathered on consumers in general, Amadeus can predict what passengers might want to buy lounge access, and Fast Track services when they are flying with an airline they don’t fly often or when they are traveling at a non-hub airport.
Building trust with consumers to access data like GPS location, can facilitate point-and-click ground transport services, fitting their preferences. What is known about customer preferences can be shared with staff to enhance operations, and with trust and permission, with network partners to improve joint services.
Amadeus has already tested the appeal of cross-brand services with the Star Alliance airport experience at Heathrow’s Terminal 2.
And, yes, technology can improve operations while satisfying customer needs. It’s difficult to imagine keeping customers happy or building trust if you can’t deliver on the core service offered, regardless of all the consumer insights you may have gathered.
Efficient disruption recovery is as important as selling ancillaries and can also put a smile on a passengers face.
AI can make brand interactions more meaningful, timely and relevant. Bots won’t replace personal service, but they can enhance it. Airlines are only beginning to dip their toes in this area.
Sinclair-Barnes believes, in the end, technology will come through for consumers.
“There’s a whole mix of airlines on an evolutionary journey. They’re working more closely together to evolve technology as a brand. We’ve seen that evolve.
“There is an element of investing. You have to invest in the right technology for the right return.”
Making technology work for consumers isn’t just about throwing money at it, though. As Nurko and van Erp point out, you have to put your heart and mind into it.
There has to be a destination in mind. You have to get the kid by the side of the road to mom’s for Christmas.
Forging stronger brand ties through applied technology is trip, but it’s important to get started. Now would be good.