The Airline Passenger Feedback Paradox

By: Dale Roberts

October 17, 2017

Clarabridge Engage
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Clarabridge released a report, Customer Experience in the Clouds, last month that looked at the airline industry through the lens of passenger expectations. One of the more surprising findings was that almost three quarters of travellers don’t bother complaining to airlines when things go wrong.

With Ryanair and Monarch back in the news, the study received a fair amount of media attention and I had the opportunity to speak for Clarabridge on BBC World News where Aaron Heslehurst, presenter of the World Business Report, had a pressing question. Why, he asked, when passengers have social media, apps and review sites, are they not complaining more rather than less.

On the face of it, it’s a puzzler, but the answer is straightforward enough. Passengers have given up. The study found that they are not complaining because they do not feel listened to. And with good reason. According to the study, an unsettling 46% of passenger complaints went unrecognised and unaddressed.

In social relationship terms, passengers have entered the silent phase. When one party believes they simply cannot improve the quality of their relationship with another, communication shuts down. It is beyond the easy flush of a new partnership, beyond the give and take of the longer term and beyond the troubled but frank exchanges of a relationship in trouble. It is the taciturn throwing in of the towel. This is not good.

And the root cause is in Heselehurst’s question. Airline customers are being heard less precisely because they are saying more. Businesses are struggling to keep up with their customers who are communicating on their own terms. They don’t sit patiently in a queue listening to hold music anymore. They express their delight, vent their anger or simply tell it how it is on Tripadvisor, Twitter and Facebook amongst others.

Some industries though, are further ahead. They have pulled together teams and technology to respond to the communication deluge. They can digitally hear everything that has been said, respond in real-time to the urgent and make strategic decisions on emerging patterns. They respond to the signal and filter out the noise. The hospitality sector one example. Many businesses in this sector know exactly what an extra star on Tripadvisor or a point of NPS is worth to them. They also know, because they listen hard, how to earn it.

The airline problem seems desperate. One party in this relationship has given up. The study identified that almost a third of consumers in the UK and a little over a third in the US have no loyalty to a brand. They are going where it is convenient and cheap. This is a race to the bottom in silence.

The way out for airlines can also be found in the study. One of the most common drivers of positive reviews, loyalty and even recommendation, according to the study, is staff friendliness.  The response at this critical stage is the human one. Listen, pay close attention to what your customers want you to fix and then fix it. Oh, and keep on listening because customers are not standing still. But don’t wait to start creating a culture of helpfulness and friendliness. Many Clarabridge customers have been surprised by what they find in their customer feedback but no one has ever found that staff helpfulness was unwelcome. Attitude will always matter most.