5 Customer Service Lessons from the Airlines

Last Updated May 11, 2011 7:42 AM EDT

Brace yourself for the predictable â€" and frequently dull â€" "tips" from experts about the upcoming summer travel season.

I've already spotted a few. Here's one from the Better Business Bureau. Here's another one from a fellow columnist. And another one.

Notice anything about them? Most assume the only way to get to your summer destination is to fly there. Actually, only about 1 in 10 summer vacationers board a plane.

But who am I to contradict the "experts"? (And besides, I've been one of those experts in years past, so I know how hard it can be to come up with an interesting tip about air travel.)

Instead, let's turn the tables on this predictable springtime ritual. We know air travel isn't exactly the highlight of a trip. We also know that generally speaking, airlines have a dismal reputation for customer service. Check out their ACSI scores or the latest Consumer Reports survey if you doubt me.

Can your business learn anything from the airline industry's customer service philosophy? Why, yes.

1. If you have an oligopoly, service doesn't really matter. Many airlines have near-monopolies from what are called "fortress" hubs â€" airports where they have a commanding market share. So the next time an airline says, "We know you have a choice in airlines," you have my permission to laugh out loud, even if you're sitting on a plane. The truth is, if you dominate in a market, you can do whatever the hell you want to until the government steps in and mandates minimum customer service requirements be met. (But that's what you have well-paid lobbyists for, isn't it?)

2. Treat your best customers like royalty; the rest are irrelevant. Lavish your very best customers with ridiculously good service. Airlines call this "segmentation" and by golly, it works. You can let the rest of your customers rot in the back of the plane, but by treating your elite-level frequent fliers like royalty, you'll build a small army of apologists who will fight for their right to sit in first class and will spend the last penny of their corporate travel and entertainment budget on you.

3. Tell them you're "transparent" â€" whatever that means. The airline industry claims it is "transparent" when it comes to its highly-profitable but maddening fees and surcharges, among many other things. Of course, its definition of "transparent" (disclosing the fees long after you've made a purchase) and its customers' (disclosing them before they buy) are not the same. Actually, in my experience covering American business, the red flags go up the moment I hear the word "transparent." It's almost always followed by a lie.

4. When you're profitable, take the credit; when you're not, blame your customers. When times are good â€" as they were last year â€" the airline industry wastes no time accepting the credit for its business acumen. When things aren't, it is equally quick to blame soaring energy prices or its own customers, who are too "price sensitive" (a euphemism for "cheap"). The "blame-the-customer" attitude is a license for airline employees to treat passengers like self-loading cargo. Best of all, customers almost never hear this rhetoric, because it's hidden away in conference-call transcripts and earnings reports and whispered among flight crew in the galleys.

5. Make your customers think they asked for all of this. The real genius behind the airline industry's customer service initiatives is that it's managed to convince a significant portion of its passengers and the press that this is exactly the way passengers want it. They like fees and surcharges because they have a choice. They like loyalty programs that separate them from the riff-raff. They even accept the blame for the industry's failings. In other words, customers are to blame for the way they're treated. Absolutely brilliant!

These points aren't meant as criticism, at least not from a business point of view. I mean, if you can fault your customers for higher prices and less service, lie to them, segment them and be successful not despite it, but because of it, then my hat's off to you.

No one does service quite like the airline industry. Something to remember when you fly this summer.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

Photo: as737700/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.