What Comes First: Customer or Employee Experience?

Krystyna Pokholchuk by Krystyna Pokholchuk | Aug 2, 2022

Can you imagine airports becoming the customer experience standard? What if leaders from other industries, companies like Amazon, Zappos, or Disney were looking at airports for best practices, and visiting airports to learn from the best?

Airports need to catch up

It could come as a surprise to some of you, but airports are quite new to the concept of customer experience. Lagging behind hospitality and entertainment industries, for example, the majority of airports were just until recently confusing customer experience with customer service or using these two terms interchangeably. While customer experience leaders like Amazon and Netflix have placed their customers at the center of their strategies for some time now, excelling in removing pain points and personalizing experiences, airports are just warming up to these ideas—dipping their toes in customer centricity, learning to really listen to the Voice of Customer (VoC), and developing detailed and personalized passenger Journey Maps.

Of course, we cannot compare customer experience champions like Apple, Uber, or Ritz Carlton with airports. For obvious reasons, the former are in a much more advantageous position: it is significantly easier to design and deliver an omnichannel experience that is seamless, consistent, and unique throughout all touchpoints and for all customers, when you actually own all the touchpoints and control all the channels. For airports, however, the sheer multitude and diversity of stakeholders with various and sometimes opposing objectives and interests makes it challenging to align all interactions with customers for a consistently seamless experience at all touchpoints.

Yes, airports are complex, but this can no longer serve as an excuse for ignoring global trends. Focus on customer experience is critical to the sustained growth of any business. Even governments worldwide are embracing treating citizens as customers, focusing on improving their experience and satisfaction. In today’s dynamic world, besides comparing experiences at different airports, passengers also compare their experience with different industries. Moreover, airports are losing significant portion of their workforce to other industries. While this could be a temporary issue, the airport community cannot afford to sit and wait.

Where do we start?

ACI’s Customer Experience Accreditation is a tool that helps airports develop customer experience programs and improve their customer experience management practices. This unique program was built in response to a global need and in collaboration with customer experience professionals and a task force comprised of airports of different profiles, resulting in a comprehensive common framework for airport customer experience management. The program highlights specific practices that airports should implement to enhance the customer experience. This multi-level accreditation guides airports in improving their customer experience management techniques, and helps to build cooperative relationship with stakeholders and improve communication.

Customer Experience Accreditation
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The Airport Customer Experience Specialist (ACES) online training is included as part of accreditation process. This self-paced course covers the basics of airport customer experience management, and it can also be taken as a standalone training.

Employee experience? No, never heard of it.

Employee experience, as an integral part of customer experience, was even less prioritized by most airports before the pandemic. As we can see now, the importance of prioritizing employee wellbeing, and improve the employee experience is more important than ever. Employee experience goes beyond HR policies and remuneration, it comprises all their interactions with the employer starting with job candidacy all the way through their exit from the company, and just like customer experience, it goes deeper than satisfaction. Measuring employee satisfaction is a great initiative, but it won’t help you understand how to improve their daily lives, make unnecessarily complicated things easy, provide the right tools and encouragement to help them do their job better, more efficiently, with joy and a sense of contribution to the common goal of providing excellent customer experience regardless of which position they occupy.

Employee experience is essentially a framework for creating engaged employees. Employee engagement is the strength of the emotional connection employees feel toward the work they do, their teams, and their organization. Employee engagement affects every important aspect of any organization, including profitability, revenue, employee turnover, and of course, customer experience.

Urgent is an understatement

COVID-19 hit our industry harder than others. Mass furloughs, layoffs and forced early retirements during the pandemic are followed by the so-called “Great Resignation” which is common across multiple sectors, but is more impactful, and dramatically more noticeable at airports. As predicted, traffic recovery is not gradual, and in some cases, traffic has returned in waves exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Sudden variations in traffic have in some cases overwhelmed understaffed airports resulting in delays and degraded customer experience, operational disruptions and even limitations to airport capacity, making headlines in some parts of the world. Knowledge gaps left behind by layoffs, early retirements of experienced staff and high turnover puts airports in a very difficult situation, further aggravated by the perceived unattractiveness of aviation industry as a career path in the aftermath of a pandemic and other unrelated global trends.

Now more than ever, airports need to attract, engage and retain employees. We understand that employee experience is just as important as customer experience, yet we rarely apply the same tools we already use for our customers. If you ask any airport executive of expectations or pain points their passengers might have, they most definitely know the answer, and are usually able to back it up with quantitative and qualitative data. That’s great, but do we know as much about our own employees? Do we know what our employees go through in their daily interactions, do we listen to their voice, do we know their expectations and priorities, and work to identify and eliminate their pain points?

Enhancing employee experience is a definite priority. But where to begin?

Employee experience programs cannot be built in a day, but the good news is that it’s never too late to start. Below is a list of action items that should be included into every employee experience program:

  • Begin with identifying and improving the most impactful touchpoints. Known as moments of truth, certain interactions and steps have more weight than others. These touchpoints typically include onboarding, more specifically the very first few days of employment. Your goal is to improve the experience of new hires, and to eliminate pain points and stress during the onboarding process. What do employees not like the most, and how can you support them and build foundations for mutually beneficial long-term relationship?
  • Include customer centricity aptitude in your hiring and performance evaluation practices.
  • Measure and aim to improve employee engagement. Check ACI’s Employee Survey for Customer Experience, it is designed to determine if all on-airport staff, employed by the airport or stakeholders, customer facing or not, are aligned with the airport’s customer experience objectives.
  • Identify Employee Personas and develop Employees Journey Maps. One size does not fit all: Millennials and Gen Z have different expectations and motivations from Baby Boomers, and the same is true for office vs. front-line employees, entry-level positions vs. executives, etc. Employee Personas are fictional characters representing real people with respective goals and needs. Employee Journey Map per each Persona entails depicting typical key interactions that employees have with the organization. These employee experience tools uncover pain points, and opportunities, and help to empathize with different types of employees.
  • Implement an employee recognition program. It is important to publicly acknowledge and recognize employees for their contribution to improving the customer experience.   
  • Do not stop! Just like with customer experience, your employee experience program is not a one-and-done project. Embrace the concept of continual change where you listen to your employees, take steps to implement improvements, measure how they work, and continue to listen to and come up with new ideas to implement, and so forth.
  • Above all, be human! Listen, empathize, and do what’s best for your employees, and they will return the favor.

Learn from the best

Many airports around the world are already succeeding in building fruitful relationships with stakeholders and the public, putting the customer at the center of their strategy, and implementing successful employee experience programs. September 13–15 in Krakow, Poland will be your chance to meet and learn from these leading airports. The ACI Customer Experience Global Summit is an annual gathering of industry leaders sharing ideas and best practices. It is one of the most significant annual events dedicated to customer and employee experience.

CX Global Summit
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Don’t miss the session on Airport Customer Experience Accreditation on 15 September. It is a unique opportunity to learn from CEOs of five accredited airports: Incheon, Quito, Malpensa, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, and Blaise Diagne International Airport about their vision and airport experience strategy. These accredited airports continuously demonstrate their focus on customer experience, and work tirelessly to improve it. Find out why these airports joined the program and what it taught them in the process.

The summit’s Gala dinner will feature the prestigious ASQ Awards ceremony recognizing airports that have provided the best services according to passengers based on ACI’s renowned Airport Service Quality (ASQ) surveys, and airports that have successfully achieved ACI Airport Customer Experience Accreditation.

Krystyna Pokholchuk

Krystyna Pokholchuk

Manager, Customer Experience Accreditation and Administration
Krystyna Pokholchuk, Manager, Customer Experience Accreditation and Administration, Joined ACI World in 2014 to insource Airport Service Quality (ASQ) program. She was instrumental in establishing relationships with members and business partners, developing processes, tools and deliverables, onboarding, and customer care. Currently oversees Airport Customer Experience Accreditation, helping airports enhance their customer experience management, identify, and implement new practices, and improve customer satisfaction. She has over 15 years of multifaced international experience and proven success in cross-functional roles including business development, process improvement, change management, and customer experience.
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