There’s a Twitter conversation between a traveler and American Airlines that perfectly exemplifies the overall negative customer experience of the airline industry. The traveler gives a one-line review of American’s newly refurbished, fuel-saving 737 jets from the passenger perspective. The key line is “Bad seat pitch and less room for writing on a laptop.” (Seat pitch is the distance from seat back to seat back–a higher number means more space.)
Of course, American Airlines and all the other legacy carriers understand the seat pitch is bad. They purposefully arranged this to fit more passengers on each flight to contribute to profitability. In all likelihood, they examined and measured just how densely they could fit a person for a particular pitch, and found passengers wouldn’t go postal at 31″ (a low bar indeed). What they likely did not measure was how content, or even happy, the passengers were. Because if they had, they may have discovered a competitive advantage, one that could have potentially overcome the higher per flight costs.
How does this relate to every other single business in the world? The airlines have made their base purchase–the one product or service without any bells and whistles–something the customer dreads experiencing. In order to have any semblance of satisfaction, the customer now has to purchase a premium product in order to achieve contentedness (note I didn’t say delight, we’re just talking about getting to a baseline experience here). In the customer’s mind, this leads to understandably resenting the business for not offering a reasonable product without having to pay “extra”.
I recognize the real cost of the basic airline seat hasn’t changed much in decades, and downward pricing pressure in competitive markets kept prices low, but the airlines had a choice during their bankruptcy reorganizations–pack in passengers like sardines, or pack them more tightly but still give them a little more space and thus a little more happiness, and compete with a combination of cost-cutting and customer experience.
So far, just about everybody has competed solely on cost-cutting and local market domination. Not exactly what the customer has in mind when they choose a brand.
When you’re choosing your combination of cost-cutting and customer experience to remain competitive, I urge you to consider the customer’s overall experience. Ask questions (here, the airlines could do this at baggage claim where everyone’s waiting around anyway), observe their behavior (like with the passenger above, discover how easy it is to use a laptop for a particular seat pitch with the forward seat reclined), and do the math necessary to find that sweet spot between keeping a smile on a customer’s face and providing a product or service at a profitable level. It’s there, and you can find it.
Don’t take the cowardly approach the airlines have done–you can do better. And if you don’t, one of your competitors inevitably will.