In the world of customer experience, the airlines are the gift that just keeps giving.
It's not hard to see why. First, most of us have some form of personal experience with airlines to draw on. Travel is not an experience we usually feel ambivalent about, it evokes emotions both positive and negative. No 7's and 8's in this game.
It's also an interesting industry to study, with all the elements of government regulation coupled with varied levels of competition. It's an economist's dream case study. But the real kicker is this: hardly a week goes by without new grist to the customer experience mill. Here's my favorite, emotion-filled debate from the last few weeks.
The excitement started with United airlines heavy marketing presence during the Beijing Olympics. You couldn't tune into the coverage without being impressed by their beautiful graphics and iconic "rhapsody in blue" soundtrack, signaling the launch of their new business and first class service. Clever stuff. Then the debates began.
Bob Garfield writes advertising reviews for Adage magazine, and duly made his opinions known on this advertising approach. What's interesting here is not his comments on the ad, but his comments on the strategy of advertising this kind of product at all. What Bob is basically saying is, "why bother with the ad if the product is weak?". Put another way, if people are so disillusioned with the flying experience, isn't advertising a waste of money?
Let's get this straight. The advertising industry is making a case that advertising is a waste of money if the fundamental product experience isn't good? Could it be that they are suggesting that investments in a better experience would make more sense? Wow.
The floodgates are opened. Typical comment:
"If there's one thing I've learned in my 40 years in this business, it's this: Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. The spot may leave you with a positive feeling about United...but once you've flown with them, you learn the truth and will never book another United flight ever in your life." –Don Watters, Omaha, NE
In the world of the Internet, customers getting the facts behind your service is not hard. Flyerguide.com's wiki has the data on United's new business/first class. Only 24 out of 192 long range planes actually offer the new service today as the fleet is converted. So, buy into the ad, get your first class ticket, and prepare to join the lottery to see if you will experience the advertised service. The only certainty you can have, apparently, is that if you choose to fly a route serviced by Boeing 777 aircraft you have a guaranteed zero percent chance of the new service, as no aircraft have been converted to date.
How effective is that advertising spend, when the facts behind the service are quickly debated amongst the public and the negative word of mouth so easily fueled by data on the web? I don't know, but my guess is - not very.
I don't have the NPS scores for airlines at my fingertips. But it's interesting that the next day after I read Garfield's article, wsj.com conducted a poll amongst it's readers about their airline experience this summer. Just shy of 60% of the respondents gave them a D or F grade. Not exactly scientific, but not encouraging for the airlines either. And it inspired another long outpouring of issues, all dirty linen washed in the public space.
My point is this. Companies who spend millions advertising products that don't generate positive word of mouth are fighting their customers at their own expense. Cheaper, I would imagine, to invest those dollars getting your product or service right and get some positive word of mouth going. In any case, swimming upstream with advertising dollars looks like hard work.