Everybody likes to beat up on the airlines for customer service. Bad food was replaced with no food and reclining your seat may get you arrested. And yet it is airlines that have made some of the greatest advancements in customer service. They’ve done so across multiple channels by reducing the friction along the way.

The Airline Caste System

But let's just admit that not everyone is seeing these advancements in customer service.

Personalization begins with ranking the value of customers. The caste system for the airlines is their frequent flyer programs (FFP). First introduced in the 1970s, frequent flyer programs offered recognition and perks. But it was really the launch of American Airlines AAdvantage Program in the early 1980s that ushered in the modern era of FFPs.

Their purpose included recognition, but they fulfilled an even more important role. At that time, travel agents were the primary distribution channel for airlines. Which meant that the travel agents held all the personal information about the customer. The airlines were flying blind so to speak. When people began filling in their frequent flyer cards, they were actually giving the airlines access to their individual preferences, and information.

Fast-forward 30 years. Airlines not only discovered the allure of miles, but were able to stratify their customers according to the annualized value they produced. Customers who flew the most got the highest status. With each tier of status came more benefits, highest among those was premium customer service.

Friendlier Skies 

Today I’m an ”elite” frequent flyer on several airlines. With this status I get preferential treatment going through security, pre-boarding and an occasional upgrade. But perhaps even more important from the customer service standpoint, I get access to a special telephone number, where everyone knows my name.

When I call in to Alaska Airlines MVP gold desk, I’m asked to enter my mileage plan number once, then I’m rapidly connected with a customer service agent who already knows who I am, what my next flight is and is ready and able to take care of my requests. I’m never asked again for my name, FFP number or flight information, unlike a nameless cable company that asks me the same questions two or three times when I try to report an outage or a bill problem regardless of the fact I’ve spent way too much money with them every month for decades.

The key is that the service is both personal and personalized. Alaska has invested the money in the people, processes and technology to allow them to deliver a superior customer service through personalization. But it's not just Alaska and it's not just via the phone.

In 2013, Delta launched an award winning app for the iPad and smartphone. It recognizes me, has all my flight information, miles, profile and status. I can take care of most of my travel needs without much effort. But what is perhaps even better, I can auto-dial the Gold Medallion Reservations number under the “contact us” tab and get service similar to Alaska’s MVP desk. Or I can instantly tweet @deltaassist, its Twitter based customer service support.

Last year, I was traveling to Denmark and got stuck in Amsterdam connecting from Delta to its Skymiles partner, KLM. A freak storm had blown through and shut down the airport for just enough time to screw up flights for the rest of the day. What was supposed to be a 45-minute connection turned into 12 hours. The lines were so long at the KLM customer service desks, even in the frequent traveler lounge, it was going to take almost five hours just to speak to an agent. Since I was overseas, it was difficult to call Delta. So I turned to @deltaassist. They found me another flight. About a month later, I missed a connection in Minneapolis -- a Delta hub -- and again the experience I got from @deltaassist was more personal than speaking to the customer service representative in person.

It all boils down to that what's possible. Companies can deliver personalized customer service experiences via traditional customer service channels like call centers or in-person, as well as through digital channels like web or app self-service and social channels like Twitter. It’s no longer the channel that matters. The decision as to which channel to use is in the hands of the consumer. They may choose one channel this time and another the next time. They may even jump from channel to channel during the same service event. When I’m traveling, I’ve often jumped from app to web to call center to in person, all trying to solve the same problem.

What is important is that regardless of channel, the consumer is presented a contextual, personalized experience. They should only have to enter identifying information once. They should be acknowledged. Their preferences should be honored. Seems simple.

Now if only my cable company would recognize me when I called ….

Title image by Nick Harris (Flickr) via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license