It was in the sixties when the airlines took customer service to another level by introducing helpful, smiling stewardesses in mini outfits. The times have changed since then, and while stewardess are still in charge of making a passenger’s trip pleasant, the situation on the ground might be much different. AeroTime talked with Ville Levaniemi, the co-founder and Executive VP of HappyOrNot, a company that provides customer service improvement solutions, to find out the best principles of good customer service in the aviation business – and to answer why is it important?

Can you briefly introduce to our readers your company and what you do?

Our service, used in multiple industries, helps our clients to continuously measure customer and employee satisfaction, including the analyzed and interactive feedback data accessible 24/7 via our web-based reporting service. The insights gained from the feedback helps our clients improve their customer service performance and employee morale.

How is your service applicable in the aviation industry?

We have multiple clients in the aviation industry, the biggest group being airports.  For instance, Heathrow Airport, UK, Dallas Fort Worth, USA, and nearly 200 others worldwide. AENA, Spain, has over 500 HappyOrNot Smiley Terminals in their airports across the country, applying our tech solutions for their service management and passenger satisfaction monitoring.

There are many ways an airport company can use the HappyOrNot service, but the most common case is in security check. What is easy to forget for a security employee is that they are actually in the service profession. They are supposed to provide good customer service, alongside ensuring that things are being managed to code.

Companies also use our service to motivate employees to provide good customer service in all points of the service experience. The HappyOrNot Smiley Terminals are normally installed at the end of the security check lane, and operating 24/7. The simplicity for the passengers to give feedback – including negative ones, if they receive it - is why it works so well, taking only seconds to read the short question, in this instance “How was your security experience?”, press a button and keep walking. The feedback is automatically transferred to the reporting service and made available to the organization. Summary reports are also sent via email to the manager who is responsible for security checkpoints, but can also go to the airport management. The most important thing is that the feedback is shared to the employees themselves so they are able to understand if they provide good customer service to passengers.

Other airports use HappyOrNot to monitor the restroom cleanliness throughout the day. They want to ensure that service provider – internal or external – performs their services dutifully, during every hour of operation, so that visitors have an overall pleasant airport experience. These are the most usual cases, but many airports also monitor every possible experience that people can have at an airport, such as baggage claims, transport shuttles, car rental, retail, food and beverage, and more.

Why is it important to provide good customer service in all parts of an airport?

There are multiple clear reasons why it is extremely important to provide good customer service, especially at sensitive experience points like security checks. Why? Because after the security checkpoint passengers enter the duty free zone, and if they are feeling upset after security check they are not going to spend much, if any, money at the duty free, causing the whole airport ecosystem to suffer.  

You company provides a solution to ensure good customer service. How do you personally understand what good customer service is?

I think it starts from requirements and expectations. All employees are hired to provide good service, yet different cultures and different organizations have their own perception of good service. The airport environment can be challenging for local employees because it is an international environment, but passengers can compare airports around the world. If I were an airport operator, I would try to understand this global passenger experience - to understand how good the “norm” is.

Of course, the basics of customer service also apply. People want to have a cheerful, pleasant encounter. People want to feel that they are being served personally. The security check is, by nature, a more stressful experience, but nothing prevents a security employee to turn it into a positive experience by telling a customer “have a good trip” and smiling while they do their job.

 

Do you see any areas in aviation that are lacking good customer service? What areas still need improvement?

I think there are differences among airports. For instance, some airports have a challenge because of an old design. If the lay-out does not allow a fluent passenger experience, say, if corridors are too tight or way signs are poor, it is much harder to make the experience better even with good and friendly customer service. However, especially for such places, it is important that their staff are working well and that they are treating people well. Even in a challenging environment, exceptional service is what can really leave a positive impression on the passenger for the rest of their trip, and determine their behavior - like spending more money while in the airport.

Many airports are currently moving to customer on-ground service automatization (for instance, facial recognition at U.S. and some Asia terminals are becoming routine). Do you think the elimination of human interaction will help to solve the issues related to customer satisfaction?

I support digitalization or automatization. What we are doing is also part of digitalization, by making it easier and faster to collect customer feedback via the HappyOrNot Smiley Terminals, as compared to a person standing at the exit trying to solicit responses. However, there are certain things in aviation where customers expect to be treated as human, by humans, and that also constitutes the customer service experience.

Your company is all about customer satisfaction. But in aviation, recent years have seen an upsurge of low cost carriers and ultra-low cost carriers that really suggest that customers are willing to sacrifice a lot of convenience for cheap tickets.  Does good customer service fall in this category as well?

I think there are passengers who believe they are ready to sacrifice service experience for better cost. But I know many people who have done it once, and don't want to do it again. I think there is a market for low cost carriers, but there are even more people who actually expect good, fluent, and personal service. And despite how low cost carriers are marketing themselves, there are still many things they need to comply with. In the end, they also need to be professionals at what they do.

You have mentioned employee engagement and motivation. On the HappyOrNot website, there is an example about one unidentified airport that had a problem with a group of rude and unprofessional employees. Can any employee be motivated and engaged to do their job well, or is the solution to fire people who are not performing well enough?

If people understand the importance and impact of their job, they tend to perform well. However, challenges in the workforce are usually inevitable, but how they can be recognized quickly and managed before causing an impact to customers is the defining factor of successful people management.

Having access to credible workforce performance information and data helps employers recognize issues early on and implement corrective actions, such as additional training for staff, rescheduling of work shifts, or professional development. Commitment to making your workforce a productive, effective and happy one helps reduce customer complaints, boost motivation and engagement, and also save on recruitment costs (from not firing and rehiring!)

Can you give any advice for companies that are considering to upgrade their customer service? Where should they start?

It all starts by really understanding how well things are going. Whether it is finding out what your own service is doing during any time of the day, or whether it is using benchmark information available from key aviation businesses (airports, security, cleaning, airlines, baggage handling, etc.). It's a good start, and that's how we usually start. Our customers want to know the global or regional benchmark level of different operations so they can set their target based on it.

It also entails making passenger experience accountable: understanding how things are working during every hour of operation, understanding what is an average level within the industry. Then, based on the company’s ambition, it can set targets - whether they want to be the best, meet the average, or be somewhere in between