Three Customer Engagement Lessons from the Airline Industry


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Happy customers have always been a mandatory ingredient for profitable businesses. But as the rate of technology innovation accelerates and consumer preferences evolve, maintaining happy customers is no longer as simple as training friendly call center representatives or guaranteeing an efficient checkout process.

Brands across industries are shifting their customer service operations from focusing on transactions and basic support requests to emphasizing the full customer experience-some more successfully than others. And while there’s no silver bullet strategy that will work for all organizations, certain organizations in the airline industry illustrate how to master the modern customer experience.

Consider these three lessons other sectors can learn from airlines’ innovative approach to managing customer relationships in a digital world:

1. Lead with a mobile-first mindset: Airlines were some of the first to introduce customer-facing apps, with three out of four currently offering check-in capabilities and boarding pass access from fliers’ smartphones or tablets. Many carriers are investing in more sophisticated mobile services that go beyond pre-flight processes: Delta, for instance, recently added GPS functionality to its app, allowing customers to track their luggage. And in late 2015, Frontier equipped its flight attendants with custom tablet apps to expedite in-flight purchases.

Unlike other industries, airline companies treated mobile technology as a core component – rather than an accessory – of their customer experience, and one deserving of continuous improvement. Looking ahead, 80 percent of airlines plan to make additional investments in passenger service via smartphones over the next few years.

2. Transform data into personalized service: In many ways, frequent flier programs (which date back to the 1970s) were a precursor to the personalized customer experience efforts so many brands strive for today. Airlines continue to capitalize on customer data, turning information such as trip preferences, destination histories and demographics into fuel for tailored interactions.

By making analytics a priority, airline brands have been some of the first to adopt advanced customer technology such as smart IVR calls (using machine learning to automatically route callers to the right place) and chatbots (like KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ integration with Facebook Messenger).

The industry’s data-centric approach has also made it possible for airlines to partner with brands across the hospitality space (including hotels, rental car companies and restaurants) to offer custom digital promotions based on flight details. As a result, airlines’ websites become a one-stop hub for customers to book their entire trip experience, not just airfare.

3. Handling grievances in the social media age: As most B2C business leaders know, inferior service travels at the speed of social media – from a YouTube video detailing an unhelpful employee to an onslaught of Tweets from fliers stuck on the tarmac.

The airline industry is no stranger to customer complaints, but rather than shy away from the power and reach of social platforms, most organizations have embraced them. Delta launched its first Twitter account, @Delta, back in 2008 (just two years after the platform debuted) and now engages customers everywhere from Facebook and Instagram to Snapchat. KLM treats social as a natural extension of its contact center, employing more than 130 social media “agents” to assist customers 24/7, in multiple languages.

Airlines have long understood that the customer experience is not limited to what happens between takeoff and landing. Over the last few years, these organizations have developed a blueprint for how to engage customers across a diverse set of scenarios and touchpoints.

Rather than impose new processes or initiatives onto customers, airlines use technology to meet customers wherever they are – whether they’re planning a new trip or trying to reunite with their suitcase – through whichever channel they prefer.

No business is immune to this digital revolution. But going forward, brands’ growing reliance on technology will be matched by consumers’ rising demand for tailored interactions. The challenge for all industries is to deliver consistent, effortless and (most importantly) personalized experiences that treat customers as people-not order numbers or identification codes.

By following the airline industry’s lead, more brands can begin to strike the right balance between technology and the human touch.


  1. Hello Vikram,

    Thanks for your post, I am so glad that someone is finally saying that AI, automation and martech are just tool, not solutions in their own right.
    They need to be underpinned by a cultural mindset that is customer-centric and genuine.

    Thanks again,
    Peter Strohkorb


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