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While most of the world’s airlines have generally been forced to keep a low profile during the pandemic, Alaska Airlines decided to lean into its reputation for world-famous customer service and dance.
In December, the fifth largest airline in the United States released a television commercial that riffed off the popular 1980s pop song Safety Dance. The one-minute spot features actual customer-facing front-line Alaska Airlines employees – pilots, flight attendants and ground crew – dancing and lip-synching to the song, which was given new lyrics that stressed the airline’s rigorous health and safety protocols.
The ad is frank and fearless in delivering a message that could be difficult for some travelers to accept. But its playful and humorous approach makes the new health and safety demands seem much less threatening.
“If your friends don't mask, why don't they mask, well they won't fly this airline!” the song proudly trumpets.
The commercial – which was also broadcast during the Superbowl in early January – has since gone viral. And in so doing, drawn well-deserved attention to both the unique culture of customer service at Alaska Airlines, and its stoic attempts to improve and expand on that culture even while navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Charu Jain, SVP, Merchandising and Innovation, said that while price point has always been the major driving force behind customer purchase decisions, the focus has clearly shifted during the pandemic to health, hygiene and overall safety.
Jain said a shift in focus of that magnitude might have presented an insurmountable challenge to many other airlines. However, the keen focus that Alaska Airlines has had on customer service and employee engagement proved to be difference makers.
“Right now, our customers are concerned about safety and hygiene,” Jain said during a recent LHH Conversation Series live stream event on how to build a culture of customer service. “So, our Next-Level Care has focused on making our experiences safe and almost entirely touch-free. In doing that, we didn’t just look at our guests, but also our employees.”
Jain said Alaska Airline’s deep commitment to customer service has helped everyone navigate the new pandemic-era reality of air travel.
The entire flying experience – from kiosk check-in to boarding and deplaning – has been made completely touch free. That, Jain noted, is a tribute to the commitment Alaska employees have to customer service and to the airline's commitment to involving both customers and employees at all stages of designing and implementing those safety protocols.
Vikram Baskaran, VP of Information Technology, said Alaska Airlines has created what it calls the “Feedback Loop” for its customers and employees. Employees are provided with a “toolkit” that helps them make real-time decisions to address customer issues. Customers are then asked to provide feedback on their experiences, both positive and negative, which is then looped back to the employees.
Particularly when it comes to pandemic health and safety protocols, the airline felt it was essential to get employee buy-in on the front end and then carefully gauge customer feedback. “We involved our people in all the innovations,” Baskaran said. “We tried them out on certain flights and then gave the employees a chance to offer their feedback before rolling it out to the entire airline. This helped employees really embrace the solutions because they’ve been part of the development.”
And what of the customer experience? “Over the past 11 months, our (customer service) scores have actually gone up about 11 points,” Baskaran said. “Honestly, it was a little bit of a surprise. In the time of COVID, when there are less people flying and we have doubled down on safety, it directly translated into some fantastic scores that our frontline is very proud of.”
Jain said being able to offer enhanced customer service at a time when the whole notion of customer service has been completely disrupted by the pandemic is a testament to the strong cultural foundation that existed before COVID-19 arrived.
For example, Jain noted that Alaska Airlines was able to minimize layoffs and furloughs – it is by far and away one of the least-affected airlines in terms of separations – largely because so many employees agreed to take leaves and retirement. “Thousands of our employees have taken leaves and retirements so that their co-workers can keep their jobs. That selflessness, how everyone is pulling together, is pretty amazing.”
Although the future is uncertain for air carriers, Jain said that she believes Alaska Airlines will come out of the pandemic stronger than it was going in. “It all goes back to our culture where we take care of people,” she said. “We take care of our guests and we take care of our employees.”