Andrea Lennon
Oct 25, 2016

Can airlines glimpse their future by looking at fintech?

Andrea Lennon of Critical Mass issues a plea for airlines to emulate fintech players that are getting their online customer experience in order.

Andrea Lennon
Andrea Lennon

Have you ever noticed that booking airfare is like a miniaturised version of taking out a mortgage?

The two actions are not identical, per se, but in both cases, great life experiences (travel in one case, home buying in the other) are befouled by a process-laden customer experience—one that receives no fanfare when it goes right and ignites fear and loathing when it goes badly. And it’s so very easy for things to go badly.

As someone who works for a digital experience design agency, I spend a lot of time thinking about customer experiences. And as someone who works directly with banking and fintech brands, I’ve found that CX analogies between finance and aviation are more than skin deep.

Airlines have a lot to gain by taking stock of how different players in the financial-technology industry have both stumbled and prevailed in the face of their customer experience challenges.

Here are some areas to consider:

1. If you don’t fix your CX problem, someone else will fix it for you.

Just ask big banks struggling with silos and legacy platforms. Financial service disruptors are rebalancing power in favour of customers, and the industry as a whole is ripe for upheaval.

Airlines should watch this with a sense of existential urgency. Google Flights is just the beginning, and brands like Airbnb may not be direct competitors, but they’re raising the CX bar to untold heights. So even if fintech-for-airlines has yet to take hold, the disruptors of the airline industry are cleared for landing.

2. Deliver on your promise, or prepare the way for future rivals

Banks and airlines alike have become adept at marketing an experiential narrative to their customers. Travellers, like finance customers, want something authentic—a promise of how a brand will make their life better and more fulfilling.

But if an organisation is fragmented and siloed, even the world’s most resonant brand campaign will start to feel dissonant when a customer starts interacting with it. For instance, it’s too often the case that loyal banking customers get treated as just another application by a bank’s mortgage department.

As opacity, inefficiency, errors and headaches ensue, banking customers start thinking that fintech alternatives that are newer and nimbler look really good, especially younger customers.

This pitfall is not unlike the criticism of airfare bookings, seat selections and even the quality of in-flight entertainment. The traveller journey falls apart when the customer experience breaks down.

3. The lower funnel is the biggest pain point for customers

The lower funnel is where fintech brands reigns supreme over banking brands, because they make transactions nice to use and overtly simple. They do it by keeping complexity out of sight with smarter data, advances in AI, and cloud computing behind the scenes.

This focus on function is a lesson airline brands should take to heart. It’s paramount for them to do the functional pieces of customer experience really well (booking, re-booking, seat selection). At present, entering most airline websites is a surrender to a mundane booking process, which is fraught with airline-centric priorities and painfully visible complexity.

4. Great interaction design exists—get it

The advice to innovate and deliver better customer experience is easy to file under the “easier said than done” pile. But inaction isn’t a viable strategy, despite steep challenges and high costs.

Banks are struggling to catch up with fintech start-ups like Seedly and Canopy that give users a holistic perspective on what’s happening with their finances. Well-designed interfaces and at-a-glance visualisations can answer the question “How is my money doing?” faster than traditional bankers can. They use best-in-class design principles, such as personalisation, intuitive navigation, contextual relevance and connected experiences, and they use them well.

The lesson for airlines is clear: follow suit and design with purpose. Ask yourself if your digital design is simplifying, reassuring or informative? If there’s room for improvement, then start improving today.

5. Tomorrow’s tech exists today—seize it

Disruptors owe their very existence to how well they can use new technology to make life better for customers. Airline brands, look at what fintech brands are doing with technology right now:

  • APIs help deliver a more value-added customer experience.
  • SaaS platforms and cloud services help cut time and cost.
  • Real-time social commerce lets customers shape the services they purchase.
  • Advanced analytics combine geo-data and location-aware sensors for more relevance.
  • AI interfaces offer comprehensive, consistent and personalised customer service.

The takeaway? Fintech proves that the most excellent customer experience is an invisible one, and it’s what customers crave more than ever (especially in industries that are slow to deliver it).

And an airline brand that can get a customer excited about both the final destination and the customer journey itself will be leading the pack on all fronts (and well-defended against disruption).

Andrea Lennon is SVP and APAC general manager at Critical Mass, and a member of Campaign Asia-Pacific's 2016 40 under 40.

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