Air Currents: How Airlines are Disrupting Railways

Time and again I see new customer experience strategies rolling out in the form of digitalization. For ages I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops: “Customer experience is not user experience!” Without a real-world experience that lives up to expectations, digitalization can’t possibly live up to its billing. As long as we are physical beings in a physical world, our customer strategies need to look beyond the digital.

Here’s why.

I travel a lot, and as a tall man, I don’t like airplanes — unless I’m in the pilot’s seat, but that’s a story for another day. We’ve all experienced the noisy and stressful experience of flying and airport security, but for those with long limbs, flying is especially tortuous.

Though they might not move as quickly as planes, trains boast every other advantage. They are quiet, comfortable (i.e., roomy), and they are an ideal place to open the laptop and get some work done — a far cry from loud and cramped airplane cabins. I’ve always found them to be the ideal way to travel relatively short distances.

During a recent holiday, my wife and I had planned to travel from Madrid to Barcelona by train. When I checked online, I found tickets, but they couldn’t be purchased through Renfe’s app. When I arrived at Atocha (the largest station in Madrid) the day before my departure date, the electronic ticket kiosks were equally uncooperative. I was informed that I had to wait in line to talk to an agent. I printed out a queuing ticket and began to wait. I watched the ticker above the counter for what felt like ages. It didn’t move. The line didn’t budge.

Enough was enough.

I pulled out my phone and used an aggregator to find the best deal for a flight from Madrid to Barcelona. The price was marginally higher, but I had my ticket in less than five minutes. I had a problem with checking my baggage, but that was solved within a few minutes by downloading the airline’s app and paying a nominal fee for my suitcase. All told it was 15 minutes. When I left the line, it still hadn’t moved an inch.

This was the moment that Renfe lost me as a customer.

On the surface, it might look as though I’m advocating for something out of the digital playbook (Renfe’s digital customer experience was a failure, while the airline’s was a success), but that’s not the takeaway I want to focus on here. It’s important to remember that physical and digital go hand in hand. It wasn’t just the problems with Renfe’s digital experience that led me to look elsewhere. It was a failure in the more traditional forms of customer service. If the digital experience comes up short, your customer service needs to be there to pick up the slack.

If, for example, you are running a restaurant, digital can add an entirely new dimension to the customer experience. But if the walls are dirty and the food looks like remnants from the oil spill cleanup, you’re playing with fire. Your clientele will quickly move on to your competitor who understands the importance of the traditional ways of satisfying customers.

Renfe failed in precisely this way and, as a result, they lost me as a customer. Airlines are disrupting railways by digitizing the customer experience but also (and more importantly) by focusing on how the customer physically experiences travel. Even though airports are bustling and stressful places and cockpits are cramped and loud, airlines are better at navigating the twenty-first-century world of travel than their rail-based counterparts.

The airlines are proving that it’s not about user experience. It’s about customer experience.

We help companies create new products and services that go beyond features and create an experience. We provide customer experience consulting.