Strategic Customer Service

Aug. 26, 2009
Guest author offers some lessons learned for airports that see their role increasing

Recently, J.D. Powers and Associates released its ratings of customer service provided by the North American airline industry. For the third straight year, the industry has experienced a decrease in customer satisfaction. And while many of the changes are driven by airline cost-cutting, it is airports that suffer. Airports have no choice but to partner with the airlines to fill the void in customer service. I am a true believer that a culture of customer service can be created if there is the leadership and the will to do it. I have seen these efforts have a dramatic impact on how customers perceive service delivery, particularly air travel.

Organizations that provide outstanding customer service understand the relationship between exceptional performance and customer satisfaction. They understand the customer, value employees, monitor performance on continual basis, seek customer feedback, and continuously improve services that don’t meet customer expectations. An organization’s performance is closely associated with customer satisfaction.

The love field experience
In April 2006, Dallas Love Field won the first of two J.D. Powers Awards for customer satisfaction. In a previous article [“Innovation Leads to Recognition”, AIRPORT BUSINESS, November/December 2006], I wrote about the steps that were taken to improve the customer experience at Dallas Love Field. The success of this effort was primarily due to a clear understanding of the unique needs of the Love Field traveler and developing strategies to address those needs.

In June 2006, I was appointed to lead a major customer service initative for the 13,000 employees of the City of Dallas. The city took a comprehensive approach for changing the culture of the organization by linking customer service, performance management, and process improvement into a strategy for delivering services.

The results of this effort have been dramatic. The city experienced a double-digit percentage improvement in customer satisfaction from 2007 to 2009, as measured by a citizen survey. The researcher on this project, Christopher E. Tatham, vice president of ETC Institute, concluded, “The City of Dallas demonstrated remarkable improvement in the quality of customer service provided by city employees between 2005 and 2009.  The dramatic increase in customer satisfaction shows that the city’s efforts to enhance customer service have been extremely effective.”

Common approaches
There were common elements to the Love Field and City of Dallas initiatives. Both started with leadership and commitment from top management in creating a culture focused on quality customer service. There was a conscious effort to link strategic planning, customer service, and performance management. There was also a realization that inefficient or outdated processes must be improved. Just as taking this broad view of customer service has made a difference in city services, the lessons learned can be used to improve the airport experience.

Before identifying the elements of a successful customer service strategy, consider how critical customer service is to the future of airports. If the airline industry is going to experience a sustained recovery, it must improve the travel experience of its customers.

I offer the following as essentials of a comprehensive strategy for customer service excellence.

¦ Know the Customer
Determining the profile of the typical traveler using the airport is critical to sustaining high quality customer service. Generally, these customers fall into broad categories such as business travelers, vacation travelers, Generation-Y travelers, weekend travelers, etc..

¦ Understand Customer Expectations
Understanding of customer expectations should be measured on a continual basis. A number of techniques can be used to accomplish this. The City of Dallas utilized two surveys that formed the foundation for gathering information about the customer and their level of satisfaction with city services. Every two years, the city engages a research firm to conduct a survey of citizen expectations and opinions of services. The survey, conducted on a sample population of the citizenry, provides clear insight for how people feel about service delivery and what services are important. A second tool was a survey of internal support departments such as human resources and building maintenance. Having the information from both internal and external stakeholders ensures that city management had the “finger on the pulse” of all customers.

There are other sources of traveler feedback that can be easily used in the airport environment. Focus groups and mystery shopping experiences are very useful methods for gaining insight about customers and their needs. The volunteers who serve customers at the airport have a unique perspective of what passengers are experiencing and areas that can be improved. A process should be put in place to bring this information to management’s attention.

The advent of social networks (blogs, Tweeter, Facebook, etc.) offers an opportunity for learning about customer experiences at the airport, particularly the bad experiences. Monitoring these new forms of communication provides the opportunity to quickly respond to complaints.

The final approach involves encouraging staff to become a part of the customer experience themselves. At Dallas Love Field, employees were encouraged to spend time observing and interacting with passengers. It’s important to have the capability to gauge all aspects of the customer experience from landside to airside. In addition, the feedback of both internal and external customers must be sought. A combination of these techniques will produce valuable information about the customer.

¦ Set Employee Expectations
Based upon the information about the typical traveler, create a picture of the ideal customer service experience. Develop a short message or label that captures that experience. The message should be clear, concise, and relevant. Some of the popular customer service labels at airports are, “hassle-free”, “easy in/easy out”, and “airport of choice.”
One method for meeting this expectation is through customer service standards. This document establishes the standards and performance indicators for which the perfect travel experience is to be based. The standards should apply to all employees of the organization and should be incorporated into customer service training. An area not to be overlooked is planning to deal with lengthy airline on-board ground delays. These policies govern the service that is provided to travelers stranded at the airport due to flight disruptions.

¦ Commit to Employee Training
A common denominator among organizations known for excellent customer service is the importance that is placed on its most valuable asset — its employees. In their eyes, customer service begins with the employee. Training topics to incorporate into a customer service curriculum include the organization’s vision and mission, basic customer service such as contact skills, reward and recognition training, an orientation designed to explain the intended travel experience and the employee’s role in achieving that experience, and a thorough review of the customer service standards. Any stakeholder, vendor, or employee that interacts with the traveling public should participate in the training.

¦ Hire the Right Attitude
One often overlooked aspect of the customer service strategy is the hiring process. Selecting a person with the right attitude can make a significant difference in how customers perceive their travel experience. Southwest Airlines is an example of an organization that practices this philosophy. Its strong customer service culture is the result of the long-held belief that the company hire employees with the right attitude and training for the skills necessary to perform in the job.

¦ Recognize and Reward Employees
Employee recognition programs are critical to the morale of the organization. Employee recognition in an organization needs to be spontaneous, consistent, and pervasive. There are numerous opportunities to recognize and reward employees. Take time to celebrate milestones achieved in the organization. Host a reception for staff when opening a new facility. Host an employee recognition lunch. Establish a special award for those who practice or demonstrate exceptional customer service. Post thank you letters received from customers in a prominent place in the terminal. Write a personal note to an employee, vendor, or stakeholder who contributed to creating an exceptional travel experience. Encourage others in the organization to do the same.

The City of Dallas initiated the Witnessing Outstanding Work (WOW) card program. When an employee observes a colleague delivering outstanding customer service, they are presented with a WOW Card. Each quarter the city manager selects a WOW card recipient to receive special recognition by making a presentation at the employee’s workplace.

¦Performance Management
Measure what’s important. Much of the information that is used to develop a system for measuring performance derives from the organization’s strategic plan. Developing a performance management system begins with establishing goals for the airport.

There are several benefits of having clear goals. First, they define what is necessary to achieve the mission of the organization. Goals also form the basis for developing key performance indicators (KPI). And, the goals are the foundation for building accountability into the organization. The strategic plan’s objectives are the specific targets that determine when goals have been achieved. Performance indicators are the yardstick for measuring success in achieving the objectives.

Many airports utilize performance indicators or metrics covering such areas as business, finance, operations, customer service, and human resources. It’s important to take a balanced approach by developing measures for all of the business units in the organization. It’s also useful to consider indicators that provide information about what has occurred (lagging indicators) and those that indicate what might occur in the near future (leading indicators). Research is being undertaken by a federal agency, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), which will catalog and document the various types of performance indicators and metrics currently being used at airports. This study should be released early next year.

Performance indicators should be analyzed on a regular basis and reported through management. Targets should be established for each indicator that designates acceptable and unacceptable levels of performance.

¦ Create A Performance Management System
Having the technology to monitor and report on performance is an important capability to have in the organization. Performance management systems have the ability to collect data from multiple sources, present historical and current data, display critical information on a computer desktop, and produce both standard and customized reports. These systems also have the capability to present various levels of detail regarding organizational performance. Those at the higher level need to monitor the overall function of the airport. In this case, an overview of key performance indicators is appropriate. Those who are at lower levels of the organization need the ability to “drill down” into the data to determine cause and effect of a particular indicator.

A typical feature of a performance management system is the “dashboard” where critical data regarding overall business performance is displayed. The dashboard, which is customized for the individual user, provides a quick visual reference of how key operations are performing.

¦ Conduct Accountability Session
Leading organizations not only use data as an indicator to show how the business is functioning, they utilize the data to improve performance and ensure accountability. Indicators that measure customer complaints or dissatisfaction can be indicative of a process that needs to be improved. Many organizations are relying upon formalized performance review sessions as a means to hold managers accountable. These sessions are typically presented to top management.

At the heart of these sessions are discussions about organizational performance and improvement. All of the business units of the airport should periodically participate in an accountability session. To lower the anxiety among session participants, the topic should be more than an airing of problem areas. Similar to the strategic planning session, the indicators should be put in the context of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats indicated by the data.

¦ Commit to Process Improvement
Organizations that focus on customer service are continuously improving their processes. There are a number of different process improvement methods. Six Sigma and ISO 9000 are two of the most recognized and effective process improvement tools. The City of Dallas developed a process utilizing many of the accepted improvement techniques.

The city establishes a number of process improvement teams. These individuals consist of employees involved in the process identified for improvement. Facilitating the process are city staff that have been trained in process mapping, group facilitation, and hypotheses testing. Once the process is mapped, it’s analyzed to determine what improvements could be made to either improve customer service or reduce costs. In many cases, the candidates for this review come from customer complaints. Over the past three years, the city has undertaken over 36 improvement projects resulting in improved customer service and reduction in costs.

About the Author
Kenneth H. Gwyn is currently the director of strategic customer services for the City of Dallas in which he oversees customer service, performance management, strategic planning, and process improvement initiatives for some 13,000 city employees. In his previous position as director of aviation for the City Of Dallas, he oversaw the management and operation of Dallas Love Field Airport, Dallas Executive Airport, and the Dallas Vertiport/Heliport. He can be reached at [email protected].