SMPL Q&A: 3 questions on brand experience in airline travel with Jenna Isken

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SMPL Q&A is a blog feature in which we interview experts on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. In this Q&A we speak with strategist Jenna Isken about the customer journey in airline travel.

How can airlines deliver a great brand experience when technology fails? 

For over 100 years we’ve had passenger air travel, and for the majority of that time, it’s been happening without the aid of computers. While today we’re more connected than ever, a network going down isn’t an excuse for not sharing information. If the intranet goes dark, implement a good old-fashioned employee phone tree. If you’re unable to send personal notifications to passengers, stand on a soapbox, use a loud speaker, and get the general information out en mass. While in most cases going back to the dark-ages will never be ‘Plan A,’ focusing on a highly advanced network without investing any time or resources in a ‘Plan B’ may leave you in the lurch when it matters most.

In 2016, Delta had to cancel over 740 flights and delay 2,400 due to a computer malfunction. While there was a lot of room for improvement in the way Delta made passengers aware of potential delays before getting to the airport, it was to their credit that they had a plan in place that allowed gate agents to make announcements via bullhorn and handwrite tickets for the passengers who needed them. It wasn’t perfect, and while there was still frustration, it did help them ensure that the majority of their travelers got to their destination. As one passenger said, it felt “like the old days and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

What is a brand’s most important asset in times of crisis?

If “life is 10% of what happens and 90% how you react to it,” then employees who live your brand are extremely valuable in a time of crisis. When Southwest suffered an internal system failure, they used the Internet to directly empathize with the masses. Taking advantage of Facebook Live, Southwest issued a series of videos that helped answer general customer questions in an unfiltered, authentic way. Having real employees convey the sincerity of their apologies and informed passengers explain what had happened and how they were fixing processes hammered home Southwest’s commitment to their values. Southwest treated their passengers as human beings—ones who had missed important events that would be irreplaceable. Executives took responsibility and were honest about how they were working to help everyone move forward. A little transparency and humanity can go a long way.

How can airlines achieve a consistent customer journey across every touch point?

It starts with airlines taking the time to own and invest in their passenger journey. From the ticket booking process to tracking a lost bag, every touch point is a brand and relationship-building opportunity. On their website, Alaska Airlines states, “The experiences of our customers define who we are—and inspire us to keep getting better.” Here Alaska Airlines communicates a clear commitment to their customer journey, which ultimately lays a foundation for trust. With the highest-rated airline loyalty rewards program, keeping an open line of communication with their customers across social media channels not only pays off when it comes to engagement, but also provides Alaska a first-row seat to their customers’ experiences.

Alaska Airlines has a history of firsts. In 1995, they were the first to sell online tickets. In 1999, they were the first U.S. airline to offer online check-in. And in 2013, they created a department whose sole objective is to make travel easier for customers. Their dedication to innovation and technology leadership is another exemplary strategy, which empowers Alaska to consistently delight their travelers from start to finish with simpler and safer journeys.

Jenna Isken is a strategist at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @jennaisken

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