Service Lessons for Retailers from the Airlines

October 2, 2011


Three Lessons Retailers Can Learn About Service From the Airlines – 09-16-2011

September 16, 2011

As a frequent flier with over 1.5 million Aadvantage miles (how about that!), it struck me on the way home from that the retailing industry should use the airline industry as a cautionary tale. It’s a business that could do SO much better, but doesn’t, and has devolved into a commodity industry whereby the definition of success is safely transporting passengers from one place to another. And, God bless them for that! U.S. airlines, at least, have a stellar track record on safety.

But airlines have optimized the logistics end of the business to the point where it’s all about cramming as many passengers as possible onto as many flights as possible, moving them from point to point efficiently, and calling it a day.

Three Retail Lessons

1. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Simple enough, right? The old adage of under-promise and over-deliver applies, and yet the airlines do it in reverse 99 percent of the time. Returning from, I traveled on a jetBlue flight that was delayed 90 minutes due to weather plus a slight (if there is such a thing) mechanical problem. Here’s the rub: jetBlue announced a 40-minute delay and delivered a 90-minute delay. Traveling for 30 years, as I have, this is almost always the case. Any ultimate delay will actually be worse than originally announced. Retail Lesson: When there is a problem, give your customers a realistic assessment of the issue right away, and then try to do better than that.

2. Don’t try to go from full-serve to self-serve. Since I hadn’t flown on jetBlue in 5+ years, I noticed the difference, so I’ll pick on them. When jetBlue first started flying, they had free snacks and free TV. While they still offer those two things (sort of), they have downgraded to an a la carte menu where you have to pay for movie channels on the “free” TV, pay for a headset, pay for “premium” snacks, pay for a pillow/blanket “kit,” pay for a few extra inches of leg room, etc. In short, they are now a regular airline and the TVs are in need of updating, too. Retail Lesson: When your business is founded on offering “free” extras, don’t start nickel and diming customers. If you are a full service retailer, be careful when you start trying to get your customers to check themselves out, use kiosks to find merchandise, help themselves at the meat case, etc.

3. You didn’t have me at hello! Does anybody but me remember the “good old days” of flying when flight attendants and gate and reservations counter attendants actually greeted you and maybe even spoke a complete sentence or asked how your day was going? It’s been well over a decade since I got more than a “good morning” from an airline employee. (Side note: I have had better luck on the phone and almost all airline employees have been civil if not friendly when asked a question). Retail lesson: Just think of the extra business you could garner if your associates were actually friendly and engaged each potential customer.

For retailers, commoditization could mean the industry degrades to the point where a handful of retailers successfully delivers products to consumers more or less on time, with an optimized supply chain, but with minimal to no service and differentiation. And, we don’t want retail to be like the airline industry, do we?

Discussion questions:  What’s the best way for chain retailers to motivate their employees to offer superior service? What’s your air travel tale of woe, and what can retailers learn from it?

My post:

The number of posts clearly indicates that the airline situation strikes a nerve with almost everyone.  For most routes, the choices are few and the airlines know it.  So in a financial model driven by high fuel and labor costs and meager profits dependent on pure price and supply chain efficiencies, it is no wonder that expecting anything other than arriving safely in your destination is futile.

On the retail side, the sobering reality is that a model built purely on supply chain and pricing efficiencies will deliver an awful experience over time.  And unlike the airlines, there are usually other options and the customer will go elsewhere.

It has always been this simple:  Retail interesting and innovative products in a compelling environment (virtual or physical), staffed by caring, knowledgeable people who love what they do.  Hire for these talents (merchants, store leaders and staff alike), pay well, invest in development, and authentically engage them in the business.  Unfortunately too many retailers over-complicate the formula and chase each other down the uninspiring product and price-driven path to boredom and irrelevance.

Mike Osorio, your Dare to be Contagious! ™ strategist

What do you think?  Please add your comments and add to the discussion!

Go to the full discussion at  Three Lessons


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