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Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future foHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

Air travel this summer is not for the faint of heart. Between sky-high airfares, delays, cancellations and lost baggage, many travellers are experiencing moderate annoyances to significant disruptions as they try to get back to some semblance of prepandemic leisure after two and a half years being grounded.

While some of the root causes are out of humans’ control (such as severe weather), and some will take time to resolve (such as staffing shortages), it is important that airlines address issues that are in their control, swiftly, to start rebuilding trust and loyalty among travellers. There is a lot to be learned from the airline industry’s front lines about the connection among customer (and employee) needs, employee trust and empowerment, innovation and loyalty.

A quick story as an example: On a recent flight home, upon boarding, it was clear to ground staff there would be a weight balancing issue. As we approached the jet bridge, the gate agent attempted to convince passengers to check their bags “for free” to their final destination, warning that if not enough bags were checked, the flight would be cancelled. After an hour already delayed, and with no confidence that baggage would actually make it to our destination if checked, passengers were eager to board, with carry-on luggage, as entitled with our ticket purchase.

A game of chicken ensued – everyone boarded, majority with carry-ons, expecting to call the agent’s bluff that the flight would be cancelled. Once we were all boarded, and all bags were safely stowed in overhead bins, the flight attendant made an announcement that we would need fourteen bags offloaded and checked or we would not take off. This was a safety issue. Stalemate.

We sat on the runway for an hour, no one willing to part with their bag. The flight attendants and ground crew then went through the cabin, randomly selecting bags, each one angering the passengers to whom they belonged, each with a reason why they couldn’t part with them, including running late for a parent’s funeral. At which point, an empathetic passenger turned in his bag, and one by one we got to fourteen. An hour-and-a-half delay was fully preventable, leaving many passengers irate and contemplating switching to a different carrier.

What I observed in these 90 minutes has relevant application for our organizations across industries:

  1. Design incentives with customer (or employee) needs at the core: In the current environment, offering to check bags free of charge is akin to offering an ‘extra curricular’ project to a maxed-out employee, without providing reward or relief. The customer does not value this incentive, because they are fed up and do not trust that their bags will make it to the destination, which would cost them time and money. When designing a customer or employee value proposition, it is important to put the customer or employee at the centre, really understand their needs and provide engaging offerings that motivate action (for example in this customer case, handing over a bag, in the employee case, doing great work for the organization).
  2. Want innovation without employee empowerment? Good luck. Innovation happens when people closest to customer needs are trusted and empowered to make suggestions, decisions and change. When I noticed we weren’t getting anywhere with the proposed free baggage check offer, I suggested to the flight attendant that they offer an incentive (for example, a monetary reward or future upgrade) for passengers who check their bags. Even though this idea was derived from a typical airline practice of incentivizing passengers to give up their seats, she looked at me like I had nine heads. “Not my job, we are order takers” is essentially what she said, even after I recommended she escalate to the person whose job it was to make these types of decisions. If we think about this scenario happening over and over in airplanes and other businesses across industries, think about how much could be solved, and how much time and money could be saved, if those closest to problems were actually trusted and empowered to solve them.
  3. Customers (and employees) are loyal when they feel heard. The more transparent and timely companies are in responding to customer and employee concerns, and their plan to address them, the more customers and employees will give them the benefit of the doubt (note: a recent telecom example also comes to mind with regards to what NOT to do). When the voices of the customer and employee are ignored, people come to their own conclusions and take their business or talents elsewhere.

Safe travels to all this summer.

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