Why don’t airlines call us customers?

Language shapes reality – there’s no way around it. It is evident in the general absence of profanity in children (at least in front of their parents), forgoing certain expressions except among friends (or, for some people, completely) and the selection of particular phrases for impact. Words have meaning, and thus they have power. So, it makes sense for a major company or industry to develop its lexicon around the turns of phrase that will work to its advantage: if words are inherently powerful, then a company should try to harness that power to pump up its revenue and profits.

With all this linguistic engineering, from hotels to coffee shops, airlines still haven’t gotten on board. Rather than even acknowledge the exchange of payment with an appellation like “customer” – and without having to use a word that implies a high level of service like “guest” – the airline industry clings to the relationship-agnostic “passenger” to identify the person who provides payment in exchange for the use of a tiny seat for a specified number of miles to a particular destination. And among the insiders, it often gets shredded down to “pax,” an expression used in public, not just behind the galley’s closed curtain.

Given that the realities of air travel – heavily influenced by market, regulatory and infrastructure constraints – are unlikely to change anytime soon, could an end run via language provide at least a little relief for employees and pax passengers customers?The Power of “Guest”
Perhaps the most famous story of choosing words for a reason is that of Starbucks, which eschewed “customer” in favor of “guest.” It signals the company’s commitment to treating well the people who keep it in business and deliver for its shareholders. Not only is this word, “guest,” a tool for managing internal perspectives, you hear it every time someone steps away from the cash register, when the barista calls for the “next guest.”

The use of “guest,” of course, is reminiscent of the hotel business, which usually has a higher standard than other consumer-focused businesses for customer service. Especially as you move up-market, hotel service levels are the gold standard for every other sector, with guests expected to be greeted by name and the smallest perceived shortcoming remedied immediately.

When I was a hotel software consultant, on one of my first projects, I remember getting a “when in Rome” lecture from my boss while we were in the hallway at the Renaissance Orlando Resort: “Say hello to any guest who’s within six steps.” When I asked why, he explained that that was the hotel standard, and since we were there on business with the hotel, we had to show the same courtesy to guests that hotel employees would.

Oh, and we had to smile – not a natural gesture for me, I confess.

We did this because the property’s employees did this, and I’m sure they had their share of bad days, personal stresses, sleepless nights and compensation complaints. The hotel staff found a way to overcome all that could get in the way and still delivered an outstanding guest experience.

So, “guest” has taken on a life of its own, with powerful implications, thanks to the hospitality industry, that have spread to other corners of the business (and consumer) world. The word indicates to the person writing a check or whipping out a credit card that there is an exchange of payment for services, and that the organization on the receiving end of the payment is more than happy to provide the services – in a manner that is made as enjoyable for the guest as possible.

What the Airlines Have Been Missing
The erosion of amenities and increasing of fees have made an already unpleasant experience worse. Yet, the airlines are doing something we’ve found in hotels for years, from internet access to gym use to spa and resort amenities. It’s starting to feel like there’s a double standard … what’s the deal?

Well, simply, the hotel business has done a better job of making the consumer feel like he’s in charge. Think back to the whole “power of language” discussion above. Would you rather be guest or a passenger? It doesn’t take long to determine which feels better.

The changes in hotel amenities and fees have not gone unnoticed – and they certainly have not passed without criticism. Yet, they haven’t sparked the outrage triggered by similar developments in the airline sector. Some of this, doubtless, is the result of an advantage that hotels have. They aren’t bound by the same regulatory restrictions as airlines, allowing them to deliver a slightly more comfortable and efficient experience (think of how bad it would be to have to go through the equivalent of an airport just to get to your hotel room!). Also, you can leave your hotel room whenever you want, while you’re stuck on a plane until you’re told you can get off.

On the other hand, there are areas where airlines have the space to improve and could. Customer (passenger?) service training for anyone coming close to the consumer should be mandatory, extensive and a major part of how employee performance is evaluated. It must be made a priority, with consequences for falling short (as there are in any other profession). Even when a customer is resisting the rules (e.g., not putting up the tray table right away), there are many ways to respond. The first approach doesn’t have to be curt.

Airlines definitely start out behind the eight ball, but it doesn’t mean they are out of options. There are plenty of small steps that can be taken to make the flying experience a little better … for the customer. And, this starts with how employees think and speak.

Take Control of the Language First

If I were still in the business of collecting a large fee (most of which went to my employer, not me) for giving advice – and were hired by a major airline – I would start by suggesting a simple word swap. Stop calling us passengers, and start calling us customers … or guests. I might even recommend throwing in words such as “valued” and “appreciated” a bit more. It sets the tone for all subsequent interaction.

This is a small step, but that’s often where transformation starts. To carry the concept forward, the airline would then have to realign its services with this concept. Tone of voice, addressing the guest by name and making him feel welcome would implement the linguistic change, keeping it from becoming an empty gesture.

Does it work?

Well, I remember being called “Mr. Johansmeyer” (somehow pronounced correctly, to my surprise) at the Ritz-Carlton Naples back in June 2008. It’s stayed with me. Also, when I was doing my weekly runs from Boston to Omaha in 2002, the gate agent, who had become accustomed to seeing me on Friday afternoons, would greet me with a smile and the sentiment, “Going home, Tom?” It made my flight home even better. If it can reach a perpetually annoyed business traveler (which is what I was in 2002), then I’m sure it would resonate with just about anybody.

By moving from passenger to guest, and delivering on the service obligation implied by the latter, the airlines could make considerable progress toward remedying their reputations with their customers. Before long, small measures accumulate, and real change takes hold. It may sound trivial, but this is a foothold that airlines (and airline employees) could use immediately.

Treat us like customers, and the rest will begin to fall into place.

[photos by joiseyshowaa via Flickr, swanksalot via Flickr, Tom Johansmeyer, Tom Johansmeyer]