In these times of casual air travel it’s hard for many of us to imagine a Golden Age of Commercial Aviation, when flying was still seen as a glamorous leisure activity of the rich and famous. And yet, exactly such was the case around the middle of the twentieth century, during the economic boom times which followed World War 2. With behemoth brands like Pan American, Trans World Airlines, and others battling for dominance of the commercial skies, the three decades between 1950 and 1980 saw countless unprecedented technological advances. Culminating with the maiden flight of the – now-departed – Concorde in 1976, this period of technological evolution uniquely served to lay the foundations for today’s era of mass intercontinental travel. Nowadays, however, there aren’t many legendary airlines left, so it’s a damn shame to watch my favorite one commit commercial suicide, up close.
Which neatly brings me to British Airways….
As one of only two carriers to ever purchase and fly Concorde, and with its roots dating back to the 1940s, BA’s place amongst the legends of commercial aviation is a given. Building a reputation for being “A Cut Above” ordinary airlines, BA has created a network of routes which spans the globe and services well over 40 million passengers per year.
Indeed, when I joined the company’s “Executive Club” frequent flyer program back in March 2013, it was in the full expectation of getting the kind of customer service I simply wasn’t receiving from other carriers. And for almost the first three years of my membership, I was getting exactly that, a level of service which far exceeded my expectations, at a slightly higher price than “ordinary” carriers were charging.
Then, at the end of 2015 things began to change. Corners were cut. Initially the decline in standards seemed almost trivial… one less slice of bacon in my breakfast rolls, cheaper spirits on offer in the business lounge, that kind of thing. As time passed, however, British Airways’ transition toward mediocrity accelerated markedly. Short-haul boarding turned from being a highly organized affair, into a confused, free-for-all muddle. Free food and drink was removed from regional flights. Short-haul legroom also shrank noticeably on newer planes, while its business class seats became narrower… to name but a few of the “progressive” changes.
Basically, British Airways began to exhibit all the symptoms of becoming a profit-first penny-pincher.
Rather than building on and extending its reputation as a high-end, customer-orientated global air carrier, BA’s board consciously decided to lower the bar, and actively “Compete Downward” with budget airlines such as Easy-Jet and Ryanair, without once reflecting the overall drop in standards with an equivalent drop in prices. The result of this action has been a progressive erosion of British Airways’ brand identity, which not only serves to alienate frequent flyers such as myself, but also less-frequent travelers who expect to encounter the “better than average” level of service BA is famed for. Judging by numerous conversational snippets I’ve encountered at airports and on planes, more than a few passengers have noticed drastic differences.
“To Fly, To Serve” Indeed…
Lesson 1: Think very carefully before stepping out of your own league to attack a competitor.
Unless your business is in a niche where you can expect a lot of random walk-in traffic, it will invariably attract a certain target-audience. Similarly, unless you’re a fly-by-night operator at the bottom of the pile, or the undisputed top dog in your sector, you will always face competitors who rank higher or lower than your own company does, in your potential customers’ collective perception.
For instance, in the world of airline passengers, this “perceived” tier-hierarchy can be roughly illustrated as follows:
Note: This graphic is attached for guidance/educational purposes only, and is not intended to provide a 100% definitive depiction of comparative air carrier standings in the public eye. Further, all Trademarks used remain the property of their respective owners.
So let’s say you’re somewhere midway on the Low-End → High-End Scale in your market sector.
If you want to expand your business, and take customers away from your competition, you have a choice about which direction to carry your offensive in. You can attack the competitors above or beside you, by offering comparable levels of products/services at favorable prices, with significantly better customer support/service, or by working to raise your brand’s prestige in the public eye.
Sidenote: For small and medium businesses, public charity activities can work wonders on the publicity front, if you’re looking for extra brand prestige.
Leading a charge laterally or upward is a fairly safe* undertaking, since you’re not likely to alienate any potential customers in the process. By raising your game, so to speak, you’ll wind up bolstering your brand’s reputability in your existing clientele’s eyes, while quite probably attracting clients from higher up the chain. In fact, short of introducing massive price hikes or hopelessly overselling yourself, there’s really not that much you can do to actively disaffect existing clients, if you’re taking aim at your competitors above or laterally.
Alternatively, of course, you can choose to start gunning for the competitors below you. However, “Competing Downward” almost invariably involves cutting prices, which, in turn, invariably involves making cutbacks of one sort or another. And unless these cutbacks are inconsequential, or go unnoticed by customers**, you’ll end up creating massive amounts of friction between you and your existing clients. So while you may (or may not) manage to snag some extra customers from the tier below, there’s an exceedingly good chance you’ll also manage to lose a fair number of your existing ones in the process. Not only that, but by visibly cutting corners and competing primarily on price-point – instead of on quality and service – you’ll actively cheapen your brand’s value in the public’s perception.
This is basically how British Airways has chosen to proceed, and judging by the subsequent chatter in departure lounges and on frequent flyer forums around the web, it’s managed to upset more than a few of its long-time regular customers and Executive Club members, beside myself.
Before I move on to the next lesson, I want to take a quick look at the way one of British Airways’ main competitors handled a near identical situation.
When Lufthansa, Germany’s somewhat less legendary – yet infinitely more pragmatic – airline decided it was time to break into the budget flight market, it deliberately chose not to cheapen its own brand by “Competing Downward”. Instead, it launched its own budget airline, named “Eurowings”, and allocated part of its fleet to the new brand. Very clean, very efficient, very German…
Lesson 2: Don’t try to sell a Hyundai as a Lamborghini.
Once your customers have come to expect a certain standard of product/service, don’t try to substitute an inferior one while pretending it to be of the same quality.
Allow me to elaborate. On my last business class flight from London to Zürich a few weeks back, my dinner consisted of a “Posh Ploughman’s”. This involved a Mini Pork pie, a Small Wedge of Stilton, two Cherry Tomatoes, a tiny pile of assorted Greenery, and a Crusty Bread Roll. And while the whole ensemble was good, it’s the kind of thing I expect to find in a country pub, not in British Airways business class. On the way back, the offering was “Slow Braised Beef” which translated into “Shoe Leather, accompanied by potatoes and assorted vegetables.” It was the first time I’ve ever complained about the food on any flight I’ve ever taken.
Compared to all my previous short-haul business class experiences with BA, the overall effect was cheap, to say the least.
And yet, British Airways continues to act as though nothing has changed, when the only thing which hasn’t, is the ticket price. Which brings me right back to considering your existing customer-base. As I said previously, British Airways services upward of 40,000,000 passengers annually. A fair percentage of these are repeat customers and/or members of the Executive Club program, who have come to expect (you guessed it), a certain standard of service.
These people are not happy.
So think long and hard about the impact caused by you lowering the bar on what your customer has come to expect as standard. And if, after due consideration, you decide to make cutbacks on one front or another after all, you’d better be prepared to explain them to your client-base, instead of just pretending that it’s “Business as Usual”.
Your customers will notice, and they’ll resent you for not being honest and upfront with them. More of this in a moment, as it ties in with:
Lesson 3: “If you take away their goodies, they’ll gripe about it.”
Always remember that bad news travels infinitely faster than good. So if you do take away something your customers perceive to be a part of standard service, they’re likely to tell other people about it – frequently and at length – producing Negative Publicity Fallout for your company.
In the case of British Airways’ Brand Suicide, this “cheapening” problem is exacerbated by logistical issues. Not only are passengers now expected to pay for food and drinks, but BA has also been known to run out of stock on more than a few occasions. At other times, there’s simply not enough time to service an entire planeload of passengers during a given journey.
Either situation ends up with BA begging for a public kicking from its customer-base.
Here’s why: Though the corporate bean counters may not realize this, passengers are actual human beings, which come ready-equipped with actual human emotions. And when those emotions get aroused negatively, those humans will grow somewhat peevish, especially following a sequence of detrimental events¹, culminating in the absence of anticipated food and drink during their flight.
And quite aside from the common-or-garden drawbacks of this new state of play, let’s not forget that British Airways’ long-term regular passengers are sitting in their narrow, shorter legroom seats, remembering a time when the airline cared enough for their wellbeing to feed and water them, even during shorter journeys.
Yeah… Bad news travels fast.
It’s all well and good to work in anticipation of a fresh income-stream, but if you alienate those who provide your bread and butter in the process of chasing new Dollars, you’re likely to steer your business onto the proverbial rocks… especially if you fail to retain any kind honesty and/or transparency in your clientele’s eyes.
Your client does not and will not care about your company’s internal workings, or about the “Optimal-Profit Process Flow” created by the boffins in your accounts department. Your customer cares about getting the most bang for his/her buck, and about the product/service they’ve come to expect, being delivered by you, without fail.
Overall Customer Satisfaction on every level is vital to your endeavor’s long-term survival, no matter who you are or what you do. Regardless of this simple fact, too many companies still try to aplit their business activities into “new” and “existing” segments, when both form part of a coherent whole, and both have an effect on each other without fail.
If you actively upset your bread and butter clients, there will always be a price to pay. To be fair, that price may well be offset by gains made through new business. However, any negative online fallout created by disgruntled ex-customers is likely to linger for some time, so tread carefully.
Ignore “Word of Mouth” at your Peril…
What’s more, a great many companies further divide their customer transactions into “Stages of Process:”
“Customer visits website and places order → Order gets handed off to Administration → Administration processes order and hands off to Warehousing → Warehousing boxes order and hands off to courier → Courier handles shipping and delivers… Hopefully!”
If something goes wrong with this chain, the blame is almost invariably shifted onto a single link, such as “Otto in Shipping put the wrong ZIP Code on your parcel.” This doesn’t matter to the customer in the least.
To be clear, your client does not give a flying ferdangle that “The courier delivered your parcel to Inverness by accident.” or that “The Airport baggage handlers broke your cookie jar.” Your customer’s interaction with you is a single, cohesive whole to them, regardless of how many third-party providers are involved in the overall process. So when things go wrong, the customer cares that your company screwed up, resulting in them not receiving what they expected.
And if your policies and practices, or your third-party providers, irritate or anger your customers persistently enough, you can sooner or later expect them to go and see if your competitors are doing a better job.
So if you want to prevent your company from committing a slow and lingering ‘Brand Suicide‘, the way British Airways has been doing for the past 18 months, you’d better learn from their actions…
* The word “Safe” is, of course, relative. Always bear in mind that no business strategy/tactic can be deemed as 100% safe until after it’s been thoroughly tried and tested. And even then you’ll sometimes encounter traps and pitfalls with unforeseen edge-cases. Let’s just say that some business tactics are simply safer than others. For instance, United Airlines’ recent approach of beating a ticketed, seated passenger unconscious before dragging him from the plane – without any fault of his own – is likely to prove an unsafe business strategy, compared to running periodic seat sales or doling out bonus air-miles for customer loyalty.
** For instance, some years back, the candy manufacturer Nestlé decided to remove a single piece from packs of its popular Rolo® candy brand, while holding the price steady. Consumers completely failed to notice this fact, which resulted in greater profits for Nestlé as a direct result.
¹ Poor check-in experience, security rifling your bags, jostling at the boarding gate, etc. Negative experiences during air travel are cumulative.
Quick Questions: Have you flown BA lately? Did you switch to another airline for any reason? Do you think things are fine with BA as they stand? If so, I’d love to know about it.