I am a snob for great service. Whenever leaving a restaurant, my first instinct is to turn to my wife and dissect the finer points of the service we received. No service flaw is too small for me to overanalyze. My criticism can range from the basics, such as “boy, that server wasn’t that fast,” to the more refined, “they sure didn’t know that menu very well.” (on the contrary, I can also be a generous tipper when it goes well.)
This lifelong predisposition played a role in leading me to co-found a software company that makes communication tools for helping high touch service organizations deliver amazing experiences through digital channels. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to serve — and become a student of — some of the most well-known service brands in the world. We work with close to 400 customers — including the leaders in the hospitality and retail markets — and the purview afforded by this customer base provides our team at Kipsu a unique view into what is it that motivates the leaders to make their experience so incredible.
Last week, I was a speaker at the annual symposium for airport customer service executives (the AAAE/ACI-NA Customer Service Symposium), and what I witnessed this last week made me question my basic assumptions behind the motivation that leads to great service experiences.
An overpriced business school education would teach you that customer service is one tactic that a business may use to differentiate itself amongst its non-service oriented competitors — and theoretically charge a premium for that better overall product. Michael Porter’s foundational work in corporate strategy stipulates that the goal of a corporation is to generate superior profits and product differentiation is one generic strategy to accomplish that mission (the other being low cost leadership, where a producer finds a way to achieve a sustainable cost advantage, and, thus, again, attain the goal of producing outsized profits).
What I observed during my conversations with the airport executives flies in the face of those grand theories and the presentations that I saw proved that many of my core beliefs needed to be revisited.
Conventional thinking would say that the more competitive a market is the more incentive an organization would have to try to differentiate through customer service. Some airports have competitors, for example, if you were traveling to or from the Bay Area, you might look at SFO in addition to Oakland or San Jose. Others in the Northeastern corridor might be competing with Amtrak as an alternative. But most don’t have the direct or the aggressive kind of competition we at Kipsu see in the retail or hospitality markets. Instead, what I came to appreciate is that mission can be a powerful motivator that far exceeds the power of competition. These airport leaders took tremendous pride in their role of being the first and last thing a visitor experiences when they come visit their community. At the beginning of many of the presentations, each executive would stop and give a short pitch on their city and give a personal testament about why it was important that every guest view their visit to their home as a positive experience. A connection to something bigger can be a powerful motivator, beyond the need to just stay ahead in the rat race.
Buried in the Porter corporate strategy argument is the assumption that profits drive behavior and a reason to improve. Oddly, most airports are operated by city governments and are part of the public sector. Unlike their for-profit counterparts, the majority of airport executives aren’t trying to maximize profit and many don’t have incentive compensation. It’s true that many of us are “coin operated,” but a drive to deliver amazing customer experiences doesn’t have to stem from profits.
I was also amazed at the appreciation by these leaders that people are an essential component of the service recipe. When I compare that to the for-profit corporate executives in many of the providers we to talk in the market, many of whom often view technology as a way to overcome deficiencies in their ability to train, develop and empower their frontlines, airport executives, again stand out. Many airports have large volunteer programs for providing passenger assistance. The Dallas Fort Worth airport, which has the largest volunteer support team of any airport, has almost 700 in their program. Leaders in guest service view human connection as critical to driving satisfaction and use culture, not control, to establish amazing personal relationships that drive experience.
Another broad-based industry trend we see right now is that post-experience surveys are all the rage. These “voice of customer” tools are oftentimes forced upon an industry by an outsider (think TripAdvisor) or used to measure compliance or provide incentives to service providers that are a part of a brand that the brand doesn’t control or own directly (think of a franchisor managing brand standard compliance over franchisees). Ten years ago, the airport industry actually decided to embrace them and made a strategic decision to create a standard survey. The ASQ or “Airport Service Quality” survey is now in widespread use by most airports and they share performance data with each other and voluntarily compete to drive each other to become better. Rather than viewing post experience surveys as a necessary evil, the airport sector has used them to collaboratively drive improvement.
Finally, managing the guest experience is a C-level function inside many airports. Leaders such as Barbara Yamamoto at the Los Angeles International Airport report directly to the CEOs of their organization. Ever heard of the Chief Experience Officer at J.P Morgan Chase or Walt Disney? You haven’t — because the role, reporting to the CEO, doesn’t exist (these are notable, because according to the S&P 500 they are two of the three largest service organizations in the world). Making customer experience a senior executive leadership responsibility means that it gets attention and woven into the entire operation. The San Francisco Airport, for example, has developed a 246-page guide — called REACH or “Revenue Enhancement and Customer Hospitality” — which it uses to guide employees and vendors that influence the total customer journey. This is particularly impressive when you consider how much of the overall experience the airport doesn’t have direct control over — to a large degree the airlines themselves control the majority of a consumer’s air travel experience. If an organization is serious about the customer’s experience, they make a job for it and that executive has enough clout to integrate it into the entire organization.
The rest of the service industry can learn a lot from the airports that serve us. Providing extraordinary service is a choice, not something that is only dictated by the market or capitalist tendencies. Taking pride in the experience you are delivering and being committed to raising expectations for what awesome feels like are aspirations for which we can all strive.
Christopher Smith is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kipsu, which helps hoteliers, airports, retailers and healthcare providers build amazing relationships with their customers using text messaging and other digital conversation channels. Chris is also a Co-Founder and the Co-Chair of Minnesota Comeback, an education reform network tackling the opportunity gap in Minneapolis. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.