The Power of Selective Excellence
How airlines can create value through experience innovation
A hard product “arms race” is underway in aviation
But it’s a costly endeavor, disconnected from what customers want and are willing to pay for. With the lines between full-service, hybrid and low-cost carriers blurring, numbers continue to grow while competitive pressures intensify due to innovative market entrants, deregulation and massive infrastructure investment — particularly in the Middle East and Asia. Airlines, vying to keep up and differentiate, are making costly investments that are disconnected from what customers want and are willing to pay for.
Now more than ever, it is critical for airlines to not only get the basics right, but to innovate the passenger experience more broadly, both in flight and on the ground, spanning soft product, service behaviors, ground services and digital experiences. When it comes to building brand connection, it is often these elements that are significantly more important to customers than flying the “latest and greatest product.”
There is a new way to win: experience innovation through selective excellence. Many of the world’s most successful airlines are using this approach to enhance customer satisfaction and brand preference in a way that drives business performance by reducing operating costs, eliminating unnecessary investment, increasing satisfaction and building customer loyalty.
Selective excellence means driving business performance by playing to a specific set of strengths and bringing them to life through the experience. For Virgin Atlantic, that means focusing on their people and the human connections they create. In contrast, Ryanair focuses on high operational efficiency to deliver not just low prices, but also a market-leading record of on-time departures.
More with less: Being selectively excellent
While each airline faces its own challenges, there is a simple fact that almost always rings true: An airline shouldn’t attempt to excel in every way if it wants to deliver an experience that aligns with what customers truly value. Moreover, it’s unsustainable for any airline to actually deliver in practice through fleet and infrastructure renewal cycles. Instead, the key to success is to create an experience that is selectively excellent — choosing where to innovate and excel in order to offer distinct value, and where to deliberately compromise in order to ensure good value for money spent. This “tacit agreement” with customers follows the logic of many leading brands from other sectors, as they create clear value propositions that excel in some areas and only satisfy in others, in a bargain to which their customers are willing parties.
Consider the furniture retailer IKEA. Many consumers are happy to shop in a warehouse environment and self-assemble furniture. They knowingly accept a trade-off that compromises convenience and personalization in the buying experience to get quality and design at an affordable price. In the same way, shoppers know garments from fast-fashion brands such as Zara aren’t always made for durability. It is an explicit compromise they make to affordably obtain the latest fashion while shopping in an exciting, uplifting environment.
When Virgin Atlantic set about defining a differentiated customer experience, they recognized their people as one of their greatest strengths. Therefore, they focused on creating experiences that would promote personal moments of interaction — from the Upper Class bar to the ritual of walking beside customers as they took their bags from the car to the check-in point. The objective was to provide a uniquely Virgin brand of hospitality and service personality that would connect with customers on an emotional level, rather than relying on the hard product alone to provide differentiation.
Overall, success involves recognizing when enough is enough. In terms of allocating investment dollars, it means avoiding overinvestment on features that don’t resonate or deliver on the brand promise while excelling in areas that matter the most to customers, the brand and the business.
A new approach to experience innovation
Airline executives often assume that a cost-driven, portfolio-based approach to optimizing touchpoints will suffice. Possible investments or savings are evaluated on a matrix of impact (on customer satisfaction or net promoter score) versus feasibility (a measure of affordability and practicality). While this type of analysis helps determine areas of focus, it misses the chance for true innovation.
Unlocking the potential of experience innovation requires a new approach: one informed by cost and customer, but inspired by an authentic idea to unearth special and unexpected experiences. The result? Opportunities that really bring a brand to life across the customer experience.
This approach can open up new possibilities and challenge dogmatic thinking, while remaining realistically grounded in prioritizing investment where it will move the metrics that matter. Fundamentally, this leads to solutions that allow airlines to do more with less.
Ultimately this approach creates value by:
- Delivering a clear brand idea, tuned to the expectations of customers without being passively led by them
- Combining creativity and data to determine the most powerful innovation opportunities
- Producing a long-term road map, not a point-in-time solution, to align short- and longer-term investment cycles with an overall vision for the experience
Building from a clear brand idea helps create experiences that are both authentic and vital: The brand defines what makes you distinct and why consumers should invite you into their lives. While customer preferences and operating realities play a role in determining trade-offs in the experience, these factors alone won’t illuminate a distinctive brand personality.
Southwest Airlines’ brand idea guides every aspect of the experience they deliver — from their overall value proposition and business principles to hallmarks such as allowing flight attendants to inject their own personality into on-board announcements. The brand helps the organization focus on what Southwest needs to deliver, to create and to sustain emotional connections with customers.
The brand idea needs to clearly distinguish between experience elements that are “generically good” — the ones customers would typically expect of any airline in a given market and at a given price point — and those that connect people to what is authentic and different about a brand. These distinctive elements reflect not just current realities and achieving parity with competitors, but they look forward to future possibilities.
These elements generate a set of simple, actionable and tangible principles that guide all aspects of the customer experience design. Critically, these principles need to be:
- Grounded in your story — who you are and what makes you different
- Unique to you — distinctly defining you and only you
- A directive force — guides to decision-making
Beyond prioritizing investment decisions, these principles should inspire and shape every aspect of the brand expression and experience. They should reveal opportunities for signature brand moments — those elements of the experience that become your hallmarks. They should also help your people embody a brand idea and personality, driving the intuitive service behaviors that deliver the brand idea.
Understanding the customer mind-set is key to guiding investments across the experience. This requires both a detailed understanding of the elements customers value most, and areas where compromising the customer experience could, in fact, be advantageous.
Investment by airlines in the customer experience is usually apportioned according to what customers say they “need” and “want.” Stated preference only gets you so far. Seat comfort is, for example, usually of great importance to customers. But our deeper research for one Skytrax 5-Star Airline indicated that additional investment in this area would only achieve marginal improvements in customer satisfaction, because the degree of comfort was already in sync with expectations. Allocating investment towards more impactful moments in the customer journey made possible innovative, future-minded changes across the soft product and digital experience.
Delta Air Lines has also mastered this over the last decade, being ahead of the competition in solving customer hassles such as charging their devices at the gate area and enabling internet connectivity on the plane. Providing the critical insight to make the optimal trade-offs, this analysis shows which experience elements could be changed, added, or even eliminated or reduced.
The right combination of analytics can demonstrate how investing in experience innovation does not require higher costs. Many experience innovators reduce costs as they create better, cheaper ways of connecting with customers and uncover new opportunities to promote self-service. Seeing the experience as one connected whole makes it easier to find efficiencies and cost savings that enhance the brand experience. Ultimately, this allows an airline to answer the crucial question: What can be achieved with the same or reduced budget?
Applying the principle of selective excellence requires a detailed understanding of both the costs involved in delivering elements of the existing experience, and how new experience innovations will impact the cost structure. Examples abound of airlines that have relied too heavily on cost analysis without calibrating the relative efficacy of the customer journey, damaging experience perceptions and customer advocacy. This is why utilizing touchpoint metrics, in combination with cost breakdowns for delivering discrete elements of the overall experience, is critical to effectively evaluating existing practices and innovating new experiences.
Airlines have a broad set of opportunities to innovate the experience across the entire customer journey. Looking beyond the aviation sector can help find the most powerful insights, particularly in areas such as digital and hospitality. Experience innovation is a creative process, and the principle of selective excellence can provide a tight brief within which that process can thrive.
Rather than creating a point-in-time solution, the most effective experience innovators blend a short-term view of immediate opportunities with a holistic view that guides experience investment in the long run. Start with a broad and detailed exploration of the customer journey and how it could be different. Don’t ask customers what they need, but observe how they behave and what makes them elated or dissatisfied. Watching how customers behave and react at every step of the service experience helps imagine new opportunities and pushes management to think of new spaces in which to innovate.
After mapping what customers do today, imagine what they could do. What will they notice and remember? Can entire steps be removed from the process, the sequence changed, and new value added in unexpected places? Adding to an already complex challenge, the redesigned experience will often need to remain flexible across the network in different competitive scenarios — from premium international long haul to economy short haul — without breaking the brand promise. To inspire internal teams and set a broad direction for innovation, create a vision of the brand experience that is bold and forward-looking. Think in terms of a portfolio approach in execution by balancing simple changes that build momentum with longer-term investments that require more resourcing.
It is a fallacy that a great experience that connects with customers costs more money to deliver. While some product upgrades, e.g., better seats, food offers or new planes, require significant investment, many don’t. Small innovations can be powerful emotional drivers.