To Win Customers, Get Out of the Way
Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 11, 2011 8:54 AM
by Charles Nardello
Superior operational excellence cannot be achieved or maintained with an iron fist. It needs to be organically grown and fostered throughout the company.
I oversee all aircraft, flight and customer service operations at Hawaiian Airlines. For any company, and especially any airline, operational excellence and customer service go hand in glove. I’m thankful that those I work with are predisposed to hospitality — it’s a feature of Polynesian culture. But although our company has been known for its high standards of personal care for the past 82 years, we haven’t always been known for our reliability. However, we are now routinely ranked first by the US Department of Transportation among all airlines for on-time performance and fewest cancellations as well as garnering top marks for best baggage handling and fewest customer complaints.
So how did we improve company operations, while maintaining the excellence in service that was already second nature? Through my experience, I believe a company must do three things especially well in order to maintain an unbeatable level of operational excellence: 1) Get very close to their customer; 2) Benchmark against itself on a consistent basis, and 3) Empower employees to address the unexpected.
On the first point, I have learned that if we cut corners on our customer experience, we’ll be seen as disingenuous by our customer base, which will in turn cut into our retention figures. So for every decision we make, from the most basic (e.g. choosing the right kind of cutlery for our in-flight meals) to the complex (e.g. expanding into a new market), the customer always comes first — they are the driver of our decision-making and strategic planning. Since we fly internationally, we view ourselves as ambassadors, not only for our company, but also for Hawaii. We want our uniquely Hawaiian customer experience to begin the moment our customers approach a Hawaiian Airlines kiosk.
Now to my second imperative: benchmarking. Each month Hawaiian Airlines works with an independent agency to survey a wide swath of our customers on the entirety of their experience with us, including reservations, check-in, boarding, the flight itself, and arrivals. The results are factored into every employee’s bonus pay, from our ground crew to CEO Mark Dunkerley. Every employee receives a scorecard rating them on how well they’ve performed in interacting directly with the customer or, in the case of senior executives, on decision-making and strategic planning.
Today, companies who want greater insight into their customers can turn to social media, which can be seen as the grandchild of measurement surveys. Rather than just monitoring social media separately, say through our marketing department, we give our employees real-time customer reaction via a news ticker on the lower-thirds of screens and televisions in employee break rooms and crew lounges. We take this unedited, unfiltered commentary seriously and use it to adjust our service and nip problems in the bud as soon as they arise.
I am grateful for complaints. Although it’s never fun to see a tweet about a poor interaction you may have had with a customer, it does provide immediate feedback about how our customers perceive us so that we can address problems immediately. I have learned that the worst response is waiting for a monthly or quarterly management meeting to address customer complaints. Instead, in order to figure out what went wrong, we initiate a conversation with everyone involved, including the employee who received the complaint, as soon as possible. While it may seem like a minute issue to us, it is not small to the customer; our speed in addressing the problem could make the difference between retaining that customer for future flights or losing him or her forever. After identifying the problem, we make a proactive move to fix it, so that we can avoid repeating the mistake, putting greater retention in jeopardy. For example, we have a daily operations meeting to discuss any departure delays that might have occurred — anything longer than a minute — and figure out what could have been done to avoid them.
Finally, although it is always important to plan and troubleshoot, it is vital to recognize that there isn’t a blueprint for every conceivable customer scenario. Since good service is an especially American demand (and embodied culturally by Hawaiians who take it a step or two further) we believe employees perform best when empowered to improvise and bring unmatched service to their customers in a sincere, personal way.
At Hawaiian Airlines, we are proud of the superior service we provide our customers, and I believe by following the steps detailed above, any company can create their own culture that thrives on superior service.
Related Harvard Business Review Links:
Subscribe to Harvard Business Review
Sign up for Management Tip of the Day free email newsletter
Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.