Forrester’s Tom Mouhsian argues that airlines have a major role to play in the fight against COVID-19 and they must focus on delivering on customer experience and meeting expectations while planning for a post-pandemic future.
Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis
This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.
As with every other major crisis facing the world, whether a global war or a pandemic, humanity prevails through unity, empathy, responsibility, and leadership. Tactical and momentary actions alone will not be enough, because we must be prepared for a sustained period of strife. Governments and private sector organizations have a shared responsibility to collaborate, setting aside differences, and look beyond their individual stakes.
Here is a mix of strategic recommendations specifically for airline executives and customer experience professionals:
1. Focus on reverse loyalty. It means an airline’s loyalty to . . . passengers, staff, partners. Especially during a crisis such as this, the question of loyalty — but in the opposite direction — will come to the fore. This is the best time to earn loyalty, and it is the worst time to lose it. Only a short-minded strategy would concentrate all the effort on survival and neglect its subsequent recovery and growth.
2. Use this time to create differentiation. After the crisis ends — and it will end — the market landscape will be different, and some of its current participants may not be there. How will your organization enter that post-COVID-19 world? As someone that carries a certain pride for what your organization did for its customers, employees, and partners during the crisis, or as someone who managed to stay afloat by getting a loan?
3. Learn from this pandemic and develop new working habits for the long term. This pandemic is teaching us all a lesson about how to be safer, more disciplined, more socially responsible, more adept, more collaborative, and more respectful to others and to complain less. This is a brilliant mix of traits that if concocted into a special pill would make a great vaccine against terrible corporate cultures that stifle the workplace. Absorb these habits!
4. Embrace new processes and technologies. The term “digital transformation” just got a big boost. Organizations are learning what it will be like if they had the ability to deploy processes and technologies that allow cross-border, real-time, remote data access and team collaboration, nonstop, 24x7x365, with almost no down time and end-to-end capability to identify and solve virtually every problem on the fly. This doesn’t sound so futuristic at all now. Post-COVID-19, this is another thing that will help organizations to excel at what they do.
5. (For airlines:) Anticipate an eventual and massive ramp-up of demand and be ready to serve it. One major feeling of relief may be that people (i.e., customers) actually understand and empathize with their service providers. If you are in the airline industry, know that people are going to get extremely travel-sick as a result of the prolonged period of isolation. Once the world has dealt with the pandemic, hordes of passengers will flock to airlines and happily fly again. Airlines need to have immediate ramp-up plans in place, by country, by route, and by sales/service channel. Imagine going from zero to 4 billion passengers (as was the number of air travelers globally prior to COVID-19) in a matter of a year. Yes, more planning will be required for that.
Leading airlines display compassion, resilience, and good old business sense
It is a collective responsibility to get the world back on track, and that involves the government, the industry, and the people. Despite the unfortunate initial delay in doing so, the world is instinctively banding together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Airlines have a major role to play in this fight because they are part and fabric of this interconnected world, carrying people and cargo. Some may argue that airlines were part of the problem behind the rapid spread of the virus and much more so than before, during SARS in 2002, owing to near tripling of air passenger traffic (2012–2018). However, airlines are undeniably part of the solution also. Here is a modest list of how airlines are helping:
1. Braving the risk to evacuate passengers from virus-affected regions. Despite massive flight cancellations around the world and often at the risk to their own staff, airlines are helping to bring people back home. Moreover, all aircraft carrying passengers with suspected infection are thoroughly disinfected, sometimes taking 36 hours for the turnaround, and the crew members are thereafter asked to serve a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine, representing a substantial toll on people, operations, and finances (see here and here).
2. Adapting to new working conditions with self-sacrifice and adaptiveness. Airlines are making significant sacrifices by grounding their fleets and standing down their crew. Imagine if crew members had the virus and continued to fly. Furthermore, airlines shifted their support and operational staff to home-based work mode, which is helping to reduce risks of exposure but making the day-to-day even more challenging. Although, as one senior airline technology executive shared with me, “we are not used to working like this, but we are discovering an unexpected opportunity here by trying new tools and solutions that didn’t matter before.”
3. Leveraging their cargo capacity to deliver much-needed medical supplies. As global transportation networks shut down, preventing human travel, airlines are stepping up efforts to deliver cargo. Unlike other modes of transportation, airlines like AirAsia are able to transport large volumes of freight quickly and efficiently. This is particularly relevant at this time given the extreme scarcity of medical supplies and protective gear in places like Africa, where Ethiopian Airlines was able to step in to help. Even aircraft manufacturer Airbus is contributing to the solution by directing its test flights to transport the much-needed cargo.
4. Working with partners to help local communities, building brand equity. A good deed is twice as good when it helps communities in need and makes good business sense. For instance, Qantas Airways decided to help Woolworths, its frequent flyer program partner and Australia’s largest grocery chain, by redeploying some of its furloughed staff. While Qantas doesn’t have enough work to occupy its personnel due to its fleet’s grounding, Woolworths has the opposite problem — it doesn’t have enough workers to respond to the growing demand. Meanwhile, KLM received generous aid from its three Chinese airline alliance partners containing tens of thousands of face masks and gloves intended for the Dutch healthcare system. Two months prior to that, it was the other way around when KLM had sent aid to China. The bottom line is this: Partners helping partners to help their communities creates stronger bonds and better business in the future.