Airlines: Turn your employees into brand managers

I flew USAirways last month and had something of an unsettling experience.  Suffice it to say that there was a gate agent in Charlotte with a Hitler complex on a power trip.  Not a good combination.

I have a long, long relationship with USAirways, dating back to when I was a kid and it was called Piedmont.  It's pretty much the only airline that has flown consistently into eastern Tennessee, which is where I have to go when visiting Big Stone Gap, Virginia.  And in my experience, USAirways people have always been at the top of the industry in terms of customer service.

Why is this of any consequence in a blog about brands? 

Right now, each and every airline has a huge opportunity in front of it — the opportunity to make itself seem to be the most vigilant, courteous, professional, customer-loving entity in the air.  Because the airlines have had to cut back the amenities, more than ever they must compete on price, schedules and service.  Which means that their brands will be either polished or tarnished by employee behavior.  For the next two years, the primary point of differentiation between airlines will be employee demeanor.

Like my mother always said when we got less than an A in deportment, your conduct is the easiest thing to do right.  Along these lines, some suggestions for how USAirways — and every other airline — can help their people turn service into a recognizable competitive advantage.

1.  Make sure the people you put on the front lines of customer interaction are equipped to handle it — in terms of exposing criminals as well as dealing with a challenge.  I'm not likely to take someone seriously who is either doing standup [American has one of those in Chicago] or has tailored his uniform to gangsta style.  Come up with a test to expose the employees most likely to lose it with passengers.
2.  Edit the content you share with passengers.  Transparency doesn't mean over-communication, it means precise communication.  Besides telling passengers that a screw is loose on the pilot's flight panel, take the time to explain why you shave 15 minutes off the boarding time and must rush them onto the plane.
3.  Make sure that all your people send the same message, whether it's about what type of carryon is permitted on what type of flight equipment or how happy they are to have us as customers.  Consistency in messages and their deployment is critical to good branding — especially in a service business.
4.  Teach your gate agents to think of their jobs as relationship managers, not cargo movers or g-men.
5.  Remind your gate agents that any negative behavior on their part most likely will fall on the flight attendants, which will then fall on an entire planeload of people.
6.  You have a captive audience in the gate area.  Remind people of the rules — example, why a rolling carryon cannot go on a particular plane — and enforce them across the board.  jetBlue is excellent at this — authoritative without  being abusive.
7.  When you say you're sorry, mean it.  USAirways does this very well.  And I don't mean free vouchers here.

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