Greater Empathy at the Airport

Posted on 25th October 2016


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to continue my occasional series on the impact of greater empathy on specific businesses.

Customer Focus in Commercial Aviation

In this post I quote a story from my recent book to make the point that certain airlines could benefit from paying more attention to customer concerns. This isn’t actually an ‘airborne’ story: it deals with the way that airlines sometimes treat travelers who are waiting for their flights.

“One deals with an airline that I use frequently in my travels around Europe. I’ve noticed over the years that when there are long delays at the airport – and this airline seems to have a lot of long delays – the airline personnel are very reluctant to offer updates to passengers, almost to the point of rudeness. They don’t volunteer any information about the delays or possible missed connections, they don’t apologize for the inconvenience, and even when queried, they seem quite reluctant to share information.

When I once asked an airline staffer why she and her colleagues weren’t more proactive in offering updates to their paying clients, her rather curt reply was a classic example of an organization focused on itself rather than on its customers: “Our protocols state that we don’t have to update passengers until the new boarding time is set. Please take a seat, sir.”

Here we had a situation where paying travelers were already frustrated with an unexplained delay and concerned about missing their connections or meetings, and the airline staffer was quoting the airline’s internal rulebook rather than thinking about empathizing with the customers. For me this is an example of high organizational self-focus leading to low organizational empathy leading not only to breakdown in communications but lost future business.

The good news is that something like this is relatively easy to improve: people just need to be encouraged – and perhaps incentivized – to put themselves in the customer’s position, to think and act ‘outside in’ rather than ‘inside out’. This type of thinking is the essence of empathy: ‘If I imagine myself in his position, what is best for me may not be what is best for him/her. Perhaps I need to change my perspective a bit.’”

Ferocious competition, ever more travelers, and the economics of commercial air travel can make it a very tough business to run profitably. It often seems that route expansion and cost cutting have become the holy grails of the business, with customer care and empathy reserved for the premium-paying elite in first and business classes. Reducing self-focus for the airline and paying more attention to the customer can make a real difference in the customer experience. As I’ve said before, empathy can be good for business.

Good luck, and until next time…