How to destroy Customer Experience

When you have a premium product or service but the whole experience doesn’t measure up – don’t waste your time and money. Like a wise old master once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” That is not how you build a fantastic Customer Experience.

Airbus launched the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the A380 in 2007, it made aviation history. The Airbus A380 entered service with much aplomb and celebration. Designed to replace the queen of the skies, the Boeing 747, the A380 was designed to carry up to 800 passengers just a far as the 747 but quieter, and cheaper. It is still a marvel of modern engineering considering a hundred years earlier, humanity just barely got off the ground and start flying.

Many airlines launched the A380 with premium service and the branding and marketing went with the premium approach. Middle eastern carriers like Emirates and Qatar envisioned beds, bar service, inflight showers, and more. The premium label was its unique selling point. Many Asian airlines also did likewise. Soon, however, with rising fuel prices and the fact that passengers were not keen on the hub and spoke model, it quickly lost its shine and profitability. We, passengers, wanted cheap airfares and direct flights. We hate spending hours in transit and wanted more flight timing options instead of one or two high-capacity flights a day. The A380 relied on large hubs with thousands of passengers plying between them before moving to smaller aircraft. We didn’t like that and many airlines were soon put off the A380 with some exceptions.

Malaysia Airlines had six A380s for long haul routes that are frequently flown with the older Boeing 747 such as between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and London. Once the initial appeal waned, the flights were not profitable as they were never at capacity. So much later, the airline considered selling or leasing out the planes. With limited success in selling back the planes, they started using the giant superjumbo for routes that had seasonal peak demands. They were trying to fill sudden peaks on certain routes. So happens, I was on one of them recently. The Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok route isn’t very long. It’s only 1,100km, a bit over a tenth of the KL to London distance.

So this became an interesting study in branding and customer experience.

The KL-Bangkok route is usually serviced by 737s carrying around 140-150 passengers. The only way you can use a large aircraft like the A380 is to combine 3 flights into one. The advantage is you free up some aircraft for other routes but you reduce the options available for passengers. This already delivers a negative customer experience. Imagine, for me personally, I wanted to arrive in Bangkok just before dinner time (7 pm Bangkok Time). Not too late but not too early. I booked myself on the 5:50 pm flight which meant that I arrive just after 7 pm. It is a 2-hour 10-minute flight but in Bangkok, being one hour behind (GMT+7) I would gain an hour. My now consolidated A380 flight was now the result of merging the 3 pm and 5 pm and 7 pm flights. I would think that passengers with an evening appointment in Bangkok from a 3 pm flight would be seriously upset. I ended up arriving at my Airbnb in Bangkok at 10 pm as a result of the 7 pm departure. The large aircraft also posed the added delay of embarking and deplaning over 450 people and luggage.

I got to Bangkok much later than I expected despite a business class in-flight meal to make up for it. I for one would have preferred exploring some good eats in Bangkok.

Not exactly premium service!

To further add to the injury, there was no gate at Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok International Airport) to accommodate the aircraft so we ended up disembarking on the tarmac and using buses to the terminal. The whole experience suddenly just feels like a typical low-cost carrier. If you were a passenger on this flight, how would you rate the experience? Imagine a business class ticket on a premium aircraft but you need to brave the heat to walk up the stairs to your plane from your bus? It was a jarring mismatched experience, to say the least.

Unfortunately, the same thing repeated itself on the return flight.

My 6:50 pm flight actually left at 10 pm! I’ll put aside the last-minute text message schedule update that I received en route to the airport but now I had an extra 3 hours to kill at the airport! Good thing I have the business class lounge to get some work done and write this article. The result was the same mismatched experience, moving from the comfortable lounge to the gate, going down a flight of stairs to a bus, and boarding the aircraft parked some way on the tarmac. I think that most business class travelers don’t expect to be cramped in a bus in the hot humid airport is a pleasant flight experience that one expects in business class. This is more so when you are on a full-service airline on what is supposed to be a premium aircraft. The best summary was by one of the business class travelers on the bus with me. “This is just like AirAsia” they said, referring to the low-cost carrier flying out of budget terminals. Budget terminals don’t have aerobridges so buses for the passengers are the norm.

If you have a premium product, then by all means please ensure a complete end-to-end premium experience. If you look at Apple, for example, they go great lengths to dictate the feel from the stores themselves to the packaging, including materials and the unboxing experience. Similarly, take a look at a designer product store. Rolex or Coach are going to give you a good experience before you even purchase the product. A banking customer with a platinum card and premiere customer status should have a differentiated service. Many banks reserve parking spaces, offer refreshments, and usually, a nicer lounge to wait for premium customers. After all, if you spend all that effort with branding and marketing, consistency is the least you can do. It makes a difference.

“Customer experience is the sum of our interactions with the brand.”