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Ben Kepes is an analyst, and entrepreneur, an commentator, and a business adviser. His interests include a diverse range of industries from manufacturing to property technology. As a commentator he has a broad presence both in the traditional media and as an extensive blogger. He sits on the boards of a number of organizations, both commercial and not-for-profit. Ben is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 197 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Airline Customer Service 2.0

02.23.2013
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I’m writing this email 30000 feet or so above the Pacific Ocean upon an Air New Zealand flight to San Francisco. I’m also somewhat agitated because I inadvertently left my wallet (and all of my credit cards and other essentials) at home in my office. As I fly along in an elevated state (both altitude wise and from a blood-pressure perspective), a team of people are (hopefully) working out how to reunite me with my wallet. It’ll be no mean feat and will involve a radio message from the flight deck to Flight Ops in New Zealand, a mercy dash by my wife and handling the passage of my belongings on two individual flights and finally to a central San Francisco hotel. Fingers crossed it will get there but the entire experience made me think about customer service in a hyper connected world. I’m without the benefit of in-flight WiFi and hence have to rely on others to manage the process for me (difficult for this control freak) but connectivity notwithstanding, the next few years will see a massive change in the way airlines deal with customers, both on the ground and in the air.

Recently Emirates rolled out Windows 8 devices to all of its in-flight service staff. The move was heralded with much joy in Redmond, one can only imagine how much Microsoft paid Emirates for the privilege. Anyway – the new system, dubbed Knowledge Driven Inflight Service (KIS) is aimed at helping flight crews to provide the very best in in-flight service. According to Microsoft:

the KIS app is a fully immersive crew and customer management solution that captures important passenger data around preferences and history

Essentially it’s an integrated and mobile-accessible CRM – Emirates cabin crew are able to see which previous trips a passenger has taken and thus gain an insight into their preferences – be it food, wine, seating or whatever. It’s a really interesting play – I fly around 40 long international flights a year and hence have a pretty close perspective on the way cabin staff engage with customers. I’ve had a number of situations where an integrated system could have helped the experience no end. Some examples:

  • I was flying from New York via LAX home to New Zealand with my wife on my 40th birthday. Wanting to surprise her I requested an upgrade to business class. When we boarded there was no record of our upgrade request (nor the fact that it was a special occasion). Imagine a system whereby flight staff had live access to a passenger’s upgrade requests, important biographical information and communications history. Sure they’d not be able to guarantee every request could be met, but they’d at least be aware of what was going on
  • Air New Zealand does an amazing job of making all their customers (and especially their most frequent ones) special. I’m generally specially greeted by the flight service manager which is a lovely touch. Almost without fail however, the FSM has to ask me how to pronounce my last name. While this isn’t a big deal, imagine if the FSM was toting a mobile device which gave them some info about me (like how to pronounce my last name or that while my passport says Benjamin, I far prefer Ben). it’s the little things right?
  • On this very flight, I went to the FSM to explain my predicament re my wallet. The flight staff were incredibly helpful – absolutely top notch. But imagine if the FSM had access to a device which was connected to the internet while in-flight. My current state of agitation would at least be able to be given some kind of answer to, rather than waiting for the understandable busy cockpit crew to put a radio message in
  • I’m something of a control freak and ring the premium contact center on a semi-regular basis to check on small details regarding my travel. Every time I do so, I have to enter my frequent traveller code to obtain priority service (and yes, I’m eternally grateful for the priority service). Imagine a situation where my mobile number (the phone I call from 90% of the time) was known by the contact center and hence I could bypass all the identification steps
  • In the past three years I’ve flown on the day of (or the day before depending on timezones) my birthday. That’s not a biggie and I don’t expect or want any attention, but a smart mobile device in the hands of flight staff would give them access to that sort of important information (even better, I’ve flow home from the US a few years running the day before my son’s birthday- imagine a cheery “Hope your kid has a great day” while in flight!)
  • Air New Zealand runs regular promotional campaigns giving customers the chance to win incredible and unique experiences. I always enter these competitions (you have to be in to win right?) Every time I do however I have to enter the same details (name, phone number, membership number) into yet another system of record. Imagine if I had one global login to Air New Zealand that cross all of my needs (booking, support, marketing campaigns etc). Or, by extension, imagine allowing me to use my Facebook credentials to sign into these services

I’m aware that all of this sounds very much like the first world problems of a well-heeled traveller with a serious dose of entitlement syndrome. That criticism is justified and accepted. I’m not, however, advocating these sorts of services for my own benefit, but rather to help organizations (in this particular case an airline that I’m a loyal evangelist for and, by virtue of my status as a New Zealand taxpayer, a shareholder in) compete and provide the best service possible.

This stuff isn’t actually hard. All it would take would be a central system of record – one that covered all airline operations – flight ops, passenger manifests, booking systems, marketing initiatives and customer support. The sort of platform to achieve all this exists today – it’s called customer relationship management. Now I realize that airlines use complex and critical systems to run their businesses – likely systems running on massive mainframes someplace. Ripping and replacing these systems is as close to impossible as you’re going to get in technology. But it seems to me that these industries in difficult economic and competitive environments (and here I’m thinking airlines, banks and telcos) need to do this sort of thing in order to remain competitive, provide added value to customers, retain a customer base and drive efficiencies across their organizations.

It doesn’t need to be an all or nothing approach either – apparently in rolling out KIS, Emirates will start with 100 devices by January 2013 and plans to have 1,000 devices in use by the end of 2013. The eventual goal is that every Emirates purser will be using a Windows 8 machine by the end of 2013. Sure it’s only part of the puzzle, and leaves some customer interactions disconnected. but it’s a start, and a view of a future to come. I’m hoping it comes sooner rather than later.

Update – so, after some intense work by people on two sides of the Pacific, I was reunited with my wallet. I’m eternally grateful to Air New Zealand for going above and beyond the call of duty to help me out here. None of the situations I mention above would have helped in this instance – I screwed up and it took a huge amount of heavy lifting by the airline to sort that out. Proof, I guess, that whilemuch can be automated, there will still be the outlier situations which require manual intervention.

Published at DZone with permission of Ben Kepes, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)