30.10.2009

Little Things, Big Difference

Public opinion is unusually important in the aviation industry. Surveys carried out by experts in customer research reveal that consumers discuss aviation and computing more than any other two types of industry. Travel can be emotive – business people do not quickly forgive and forget missing a vital meeting, or being too tired and frustrated at the meeting to function properly.

Executive aviation is, of course, synonymous with bespoke customer service. We operate with a fundamental goal that everything is possible and no request is a problem. We want the passenger to arrive refreshed and at their best to conduct the day’s business. Of course, all executive charter operators pursue these objectives, but self-evidently not all operators are the same. What makes the difference?

Great staff are made, not born. Throughout the company, from office staff to pilots, customer service training should be valued as highly as operational training.

When the personal assistant telephones the operations department for a flight quote, the charter company’s representative on the line needs to be more than just polite. He or she should be able to respond quickly and comprehensively, supported by a suitable customer relationship management (CRM) system. Don’t ask a past passenger if they have any particular needs or preferences; you should already know.

Equally, however, charter operators should not lazily assume that past requirements apply again, nor should they be afraid to ‘challenge the brief’ with informed, practical advice. Regular customers might not think to explain their exact requirements for this specific trip, merely requesting the service to which they have become accustomed. The operator therefore always has to be thinking creatively. At London Executive Aviation (LEA), for example, we operate seven bases around London. Our regular customers who live and work to the west of London may have become used to flying from Luton or Farnborough. As arrangements are being made, we need to ask whether the customer is aware that we now operate flights from London Oxford. Would that airport be more convenient? And, equally, has the customer previously always flown, for example, with a group of four or five people in one of our Cessna Citation Bravo aircraft? If travelling with only one colleague on this particular trip from, say, London to Paris, we need to point out that the Citation Mustang might be a more appropriate option. Great customer service does not mean unthinkingly doing whatever the customer suggests. Great customer service means understanding the customer’s requirements and wishes and then doing everything possible to meet those objectives, perhaps by offering options of which the customer was not even aware.

As the flight arrangements will probably have been made by a personal assistant, the customer’s own first and main point of contact with the operator will be the pilots (and cabin attendant on larger aircraft). These visual first impressions really matter. Captain and crew are ambassadors and should be well-groomed and well-presented in every possible way. Interaction with customers must be utterly professional, of course, thoroughly covering all the key aspects of safety, but should not be cold and mechanical. Pilots who move to executive aviation after a career flying for commercial airlines, where customer interaction is minimal, often struggle with this transition to a more comprehensive blend of professional and personal skills. Again, training can help with that transition but, even so, not everybody makes the grade. I am always amazed when I see pilots standing by (but never LEA pilots, I hasten to add!) while the passengers carry their luggage.

The cabin environment is essential too, which is one of the reasons why we are never shy of investing not only in new aircraft but also in new types. We were the first UK operator of the Citation Excel and the Bombardier Challenger 300, and the first European operator of the Citation Mustang. New aircraft naturally look and smell pristine, as well as offering the latest standards in cabin comfort and design, but the older aircraft in the fleet should look and smell new too. Regular refurbishment of the cabin interior will help ensure that even long-serving aircraft continue to offer the latest in passenger luxury.

Too often, when the flight has been completed, the customer is forgotten. We firmly believe in the value of the post-flight relationship. This follow-up can be a very effective process, both in securing customer loyalty and as a means to improve service through feedback. In these recessionary times, maintaining strong relationships with existing customers is arguably more important than ever before.

Every company, in any line of business, should have a unique selling point. After all, executive aviation, despite its connections with luxury and glamour, remains fundamentally a mechanical exercise. In so many ways, therefore, any two operators will be almost identical. You have to strive to make the difference. As a recent example from LEA, we were the first European operator to offer an inflight spa service for passengers on our larger jets, with fully-trained clinicians providing beauty therapies and massages. And spa or not, the passengers on our jets should feel as relaxed as if they were sitting at home.

The differences between two operators may only be small, but that is why those differences are so important. In customer service, detail is everything.

Article written by Patrick Margetson-Rushmore
Originally published in P1

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