28 May 2020
Focus groups are a common tool for airlines and hotels to test new product elements to ensure that the ideas correspond to the needs of their best customers. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to remember these focus groups now?
While the use of focus groups might be debatable from the pure perspective of statistic science, many companies regularly gather small groups of their best clients to test new service features before rolling them out. They usually consist of top elite members of their loyalty programs, applying the logic that it is critical to secure the buy-in of these customers for any new service features (and avoid that they potentially even turn away from the company otherwise) and, secondly, that these customers usually represent the most relevant external view on the company one can get.
So while the average customer may wonder why airlines change all of a sudden an in-flight service element or hotels change their blankets, this is often the direct result of the opinions expressed by a handful of top customers having validated a suggestion by the management of the company or have even inspired the company for such a step. That average customer might consider the choice strange, but it has been « approved » by customers being more relevant to the company’s bottom line. Such practice makes hence perfect business sense.
It is though strange that airlines and hotels seem to have forgotten about these focus groups in this current critical time, where the industry might be to change for many years ahead.
Without any statistically viable evidence, it appears that top customers have only limited comprehension for some common measures being put in place now, such as wearing masks along an entire journey from arriving to the airport until destination (imagine that on a 10-hour overnight flight…), limited in-flight service, closed lounges etc. The comment I read from some frequent traveller on social media the other day might be symptomatic, saying in a nutshell « I don’t want any new normal, just the normal. » My gut feeling is that such sentiment is shared by many frequent travellers.
While there is no doubt that the mass of population worldwide got scared by media etc. and is still in fear, is it really wise to try to reassure those people by such measures – who might not return immediately nevertheless (since such measures might also send out the unwanted message that there is indeed a risk!)? And if ever they return, they will basically be one-off customers at low yields.
Wouldn’t it be wiser for the industry to stand up and say, yes, we are safe (air filtration, cleaning processes etc.), but we cannot be held liable for the individual health of millions of clients? And if a client really insists on social distancing to feel safe, fair enough. We have a product for him, called Business/First Class or in-room dining. So, looking at social distancing just as another added benefit of premium cabins? You pay less, you get less. Less in-flight service, less baggage allowance, less miles and less social distancing?
The gamble to try to cater for the mass of customers with a more than uncertain response from them might be too risky if this comes at a price of alienating the best customers, those ready to return to the skies and hotels as quickly as possible and give their money to companies. My personal decision set to choose an airline has so far been similar to those of many others: Frequent Flyer benefits/membership, price, schedule. But now there is one going to be added, by avoiding any airline implementing measures I personally judge too harsh/not adapted to the real risk. And yes, this will probably even become my first criterion before anything else.
Airlines, hotels, airports and others might be well advised to remember who they financially rely on. While it is unlikely that you lose many customers by introducing a « wrong » blanket, there is a high risk here for something like that to happen by going beyond acceptable limits. And the industry really doesn’t need anything in addition right now to complicate their lives further.
So, what about remembering all the virtues of focus groups you’ve explained so often to your CEO? And especially remembering them now at that critical crossroads of the industry?