“Customer experience” is a widely used term, the definition of which can vary depending on the industry. For airports, the customer experience, or perhaps better labeled the “passenger experience,” refers to the thoughts, feelings, interactions and sensations travelers have when they engage with all aspects of the airport itself. It is a dynamic and fluid process that produces memories that extend for years and shape the perceptions of not just the airport, but also the region, city, state, and country it serves. The passenger experience involves everyone at the airport, including frontline employees, support and administrative staff and all stakeholder employees. By creating a positive passenger experience, airports become places where travelers feel a warmth and welcome that may not occur elsewhere along the course of their travels, making the airport a place of respite and refuge from the stress and fatigue that often accompanies travel.
Lately, there has been tremendous focus on what actionable steps airports can take to enhance the passenger experience. At the same time, there seem to be few conversations around engaging with the actual people who are charged with creating this experience—the frontline employees and back office support staff. Frontline personnel are often hourly-wage individuals who work for the multiple stakeholders that fall under an airport’s umbrella, yet they are not airport employees themselves. As a result, their personal investment in the airport’s mission and wellbeing may be limited. This unique airport organizational dynamic creates a situation where knowing the “whos and hows” of employee engagement becomes incredibly important, for without high engagement levels, even the most well intended passenger experience goals will prove elusive.
According to the book Human Sigma: Managing Employee-Customer Encounter by John Fleming and Jim Asplund, employee engagement is defined as “the ability to capture the heads, hearts and souls of your employees to instill an intrinsic desire and passion for excellence.”
A 2014 study of employee engagement published in “Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences Journal” by Madhura Bedarkar and Deepika Pandita pointedly makes a case for increased employee engagement, with benefits that include employees who “will consistently outperform and set new standards” and possess “positive health and positive feelings towards work and organization.”
While these results are certainly desirable, the nature of an airport’s organizational structure, with so many employees at an airport not under an airport’s direct organizational authority, makes it challenging to ensure consistent degrees of engagement across the board. In spite of this challenge, there are specific actions airports can take to bring engagement to the forefront.
The first step is to actually reach out, fully recognize and appreciate the frontline employees themselves. No matter the stakeholder, their frontline employees are typically the ones who set an airport’s tone via their interactions with travelers. These interactions are an airport’s heart and soul, and what Vineet Nayar, CEO and author of the book Employees First, Customers Second, refers to as the “Value Zone.”The Value Zone is the place where the most significant organizational value is actually created for the customer. Nayar goes on to state that “experiences have necessarily emerged to create new value. The company no longer offers goods or services alone but the resulting experiences, rich with sensations, created within each customer.” Additionally, it is within these Value Zone employee-customer interactions that significant airport passenger experience problems can be identified and their accompanying solutions found. Through an employee engagement lens, it then makes perfect sense that to help ensure outstanding passenger experiences, creating equally outstanding frontline experiences is paramount.
Ultimately, it is through effective and highly developed communication practices that high levels of employee engagement can occur. Both frontline employees and back office support staff need recognition, appreciation and support. They need to know that the airport supports them as human beings, and appreciates the efforts they make and the hours they commit. Doing this sends the message that they matter, and given that not all airports are able to offer all staff performance-based financial incentives, this sentiment goes a long way. Without regular dialogue among all airport personnel, engagement will remain an elusive task.
Airport executive and management team members need to make efforts to circulate around their airport and meet with the various stakeholder frontline personnel on a consistent basis, as well as with their own back office teams. They need ask questions about their job, their experiences and what the airport can provide to help them do their jobs well. This is what Nayar refers to as “reverse accountability,” where leadership is held accountable for creating an environment in which personnel can successfully fulfill their duties, just as these personnel are held equally accountable to leadership.
A good start towards increasing employee engagement is the new ACI Employee Engagement Survey for Customer Experience (ECE). It serves as a trusted and powerful tool that airports can turn to when measuring employee engagement. The survey is designed to determine if all on-airport staff, whether employed by the airport or other stakeholders, or whether customer-facing or not, are aligned with the airport’s customer service objectives. The results provide a clear roadmap of how to align all stakeholders toward the common goal of passenger service excellence. The benefits of the ECE survey include:
Now is the time to expand the airport experience circle. We’ve gone a long way toward enhancing the passenger experience. Now let’s bring the back office staff and frontline personnel into the mix so that the entire airport community is having exceedingly positive experiences. Sure, it takes some effort, but the rewards are more than worth it.