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January 30, 2011

Putting the “R” back into marketing

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

I don’t like flying. No really, I don’t. The pills help, but let’s face it – it can be a pretty unpleasant experience. It’s not so much the prospects of spending eleven and a half hours in the back of an Airbus 380 with over five hundred and fifty of your closest friends that makes for a dreary experience, but rather airlines’ attitudes.

Now let’s hark back to the nineteen thirties (just before the Marketing Fundamentalist was born). ‘Flying boats’ transported just 8 to 10 passengers at a time in total luxury. Cocktails in the lounge (err yes, on the plane not at the airport) before a formal dinner (chicken or beef?), then retiring to your bed for the night. You get the impression that airlines cared. I am certain they knew the names of that handful of passengers on the plane. Just look at those art deco travel adverts of the period, all glamour and excitement. I could really enjoy that sort of attention.

Back to today’s reality. With literally billions of passengers flying annually, airlines are in the volume business. Tied into large groupings of frequent flier programmes, and with many corporates consolidating their travel through a single airline, there is often little free choice by the actual passenger.

Bring on the low cost airlines – taking passenger rights to a new low as Ryan Air introduces a ‘toilet charge’ -“Stephen McNamara, spokesperson for the airline: ‘By charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behaviour so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight. That will enable us to remove two out of three of the toilets and make way for at least six extra seats on board.'”

So imagine my surprise while rushing up to the check in line to be approached by a member of the airline staff, apologising for the delay (a passenger further up the line is checking in a modest fleet of prams and push chairs). Whisking us through to another counter she rapidly starts processing us, and then it appears that the travel agent has managed to book us somewhere between economy and business class, a sort of travelling purgatory. No problem, within moments, it’s all sorted. Concluding the check-in, she hands me her card and urges me to call if ever I need help when flying with this particular carrier. And she followed up with a polite email!

So to the fundamental point. In a world where brands claim they build relationships with their customers (remember “CRM” – that’s what the R actually stood for), what customers really want is a relationship with a real person. The reason call centres are often unpopular is that you don’t get to build a relationship. You can’t call them back and ask for the agent you last spoke to, by name. So you don’t feel they really have to take responsibility. No matter how many amusing ads, apparently personal emails or social media interactions we marketers impose on our customers, to form a relationship with a brand, what it really needs is a human face and a name.

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