Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Air Travel Is No Fun Anymore (as if it ever was!)

Image courtesy of TechGenStaffer
When you're mapping out your customer touchpoints, don't forget that if your customers interact through your partners to purchase your products or services, those partners are a customer touchpoint... your customer touchpoint. Not only are partners a touchpoint, but you are, to some degree, responsible for the experience that your customer has with that partner/at that touchpoint. So be sure to choose your partners wisely. Be sure to understand what the customer experience will be via that partner. Why? Because that experience can be just as detrimental to your brand and to your customer relationship as if the customer had dealt with you directly.

Let me give you an example: American Airlines. Ah yes. The airlines. Always great fodder for anyone blogging about customer service or the customer experience. For me, this is the fourth or fifth time I've used the airline experience for a blog post. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it won't be the last time.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the airlines and the partner experience. (Ironically, that post was also about American Airlines!) My travels last week provided me with more content, which I am happy to share!

I had a business trip last week that I booked through American Express Business Travel. I booked a flight on American, but it ended up being a codeshare flight with Alaska Airlines. (This whole codeshare thing could really be explained much more clearly. Sometimes you check in with the partner, sometimes you don't. Let's get some consistency here. Read on to see why.) The American flight information was in 14pt black bold font, while the "operated by Alaska Airlines" information was below it in gray 8pt italicized font. Which one is going to draw the attention of your eye?

I travel a lot, so I already plan to check in for my flights 24 hours in advance. Always. I even put a reminder on my calendar. I've set up my American account to send me all of the standard notifications. But for whatever reason, I never got a check-in email from American. Or American Express BT. Or Alaska. Why not? Whose responsibility was that? When everybody owns it, nobody owns it!

Fine. I had my reminder set. I logged into American's site to check-in. Once I logged in and entered my confirmation number, I received a message saying that I had to check in "via the codeshare partner's site." They didn't even acknowledge who the codeshare was with on that flight. (I went back to the American Express Business Travel site later and saw that my itinerary read to check in with the codeshare partner. OK, my fault. But still.)

So I went to Alaska's website, where I was asked with which mode I wanted to check in. Well, that was a good question. I had four options: Confirmation Code, E-Ticket Number, Mileage Plan Number, or Credit Card Number.

E-Ticket Number: Hmmm... which one is that?
Mileage Plan Number: Well, I used my American number when I made the reservation, but I don't have an Alaska number. The American number didn't work; hmmm, I thought this was a codeshare.
Credit Card Number: This isn't an option. The trip was booked on the corporate card saved on the American Express site by my employer, and I don't have access to that number.
Confirmation Number: This is my favorite. This is usually the obvious choice that I use, but in this case, it was not so obvious. The Confirmation Number on my reservation was an American Confirmation Number, not an Alaska confirmation number. I, as the customer, did not know there was a difference at this point. Only later did I learn what my Alaska Confirmation Number was!

Eventually I figured out that my "TripID" on my itinerary was my E-Ticket Number. Can we name these all the same thing? Can there be consistency in language/verbiage used across the airline/travel industry? Once I used that to login, I discovered what my Alaska Confirmation Number was. That information would have been helpful to have on my itinerary.

The next morning, I received a notification with the flight status and gate information. Who do you think this email came from? Yea. American Airlines! (Note that I didn't get anything from American Express Business Travel, even though I've got notifications set up there, too. I've used Egencia in the past, and I received notifications and reminders from both Egenicia and the airline.)

Lest you think this codeshare thing is only difficult for the traveler, let's look at it from the perspective of my colleague, who was going to meet me at my gate after her flight landed. It was an experience for her, too! Ironically, airport personnel sent her first to the American terminal, and when she got there, the gate agents sent her to the gate where my Alaska flight was coming in. See, this codeshare stuff even confuses the airport and airline employees!

Our meetings ended a little early, and traffic to the airport was lighter than expected, so I arrived in time to catch a flight that left for home two hours earlier. I rarely have this luxury, so it was quite the treat. I willed my way quickly through security and rushed to the gate, with a few minutes to spare. The gate agent informed me that there were seats available and that it would cost $25. Of course it would! Arrgh! But I was willing to pay it to get home earlier that evening. As I was reaching for my wallet, the agent stopped me and apologized. No can do. She couldn't switch my reservation. Why? Because it was a codeshare ticket!!! Are you kidding me?

OK, so what's the point of this partnership, if it's very fragmented and silo'd? Is this a codeshare for the benefit of the customer or the companies? I think I know the answer.

If you're looking for a great metric for the partner experience, I think Customer Effort Score is a good one. The effort far exceeds the expectations all too often. It doesn't have to be that way, though.

The morals of today's story are:

(1) Your partners are touchpoints, too. Pay attention! 
(2) Customers need those partner experiences to be seamless.
(3) Choose your partners wisely.
(4) You are responsible for the quality of your customers' interactions with those partners; you chose them to be your partner, to represent your brand.
(5) Don't confuse your customers with inconsistent language, messaging, etc., especially across partners and channels.
(6) Don't confuse your customers by making them figure out your discombobulated partnership arrangements.
(7) Take some time to educate the public (and your employees) on the process. Communication is key to the success of partnership arrangements.
(8) Remove policies that make the experience painful. Who cares if I check in with American or Alaska? What difference does it make if I have a codeshare ticket? I should have been able to hop on the earlier flight.
(9) Educate employees of the partnership (your company and the partner's) about the brand experience and what that means to you.
(10) The bottom line: The brand experience needs to be seamless, regardless of where or how your customers interact with you.

If we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided, all will fail. -Winston Churchill

8 comments:

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