CRM in the air

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CRM in the air: illustration

CRM in the air: title image

Airlines can capture more value and hang on to more of their customers by focusing, once again, on their CRM programs.

The McKinsey Quarterly, 2002 Number 3

In the 1980s, airlines introduced frequent-flyer programs to increase the loyalty of their customers, thereby pioneering a new approach to marketing that has come to be known, more broadly, as customer relationship management. Today, CRM programs are used in a wide variety of industries to identify and retain valuable customers, to encourage fickle ones to spend more, and to cut the cost of serving those who are less valuable. But the pioneers have failed to keep pace with CRM innovation – to their detriment.

A survey of 17 major airlines around the world reveals that even the most sophisticated among them have only a rudimentary understanding of who their most valuable customers are or could be, which factors affect the behavior of these customers, and which CRM levers are most effective in ensuring loyalty.1Airlines fell behind best practice in CRM because they were complacent, attached little importance to nonoperational and noncritical systems, or didn’t grasp the financial implications of getting things right. The result: today, airlines know only marginally more about the people who fly on their planes than they did ten years ago.

Given the troubled condition of many airlines,2they urgently need to make better use of CRM. Effective implementation of such a program can increase an airline’s revenue by as much as 2.4 percent a year, representing a bottom-line annual impact of $100 million to $250 million for a large carrier (Exhibit 1).3Industry experience suggests that up to a quarter of this amount represents low-hanging fruit and can be harvested within a year through campaigns to win back customers who have gone over to competitors, for example, or to target occasional passengers who have been identified as high-potential ones (Exhibit 2).Chart: Good for the bottom line

 Chart: What

Most airlines lack the systems and processes to implement a CRM program and thus don’t have complete or consistent data on customers. For instance, although airlines come into contact with them across a range of channels – not only telephones and the Internet but also airports, customer service desks, and airplanes – data aren’t collected consistently or accurately at any of these interaction poin ts. Best practitioners do keep records of times when customers had poor flying experiences and analyze whether they affect the frequency of flying. A special-handling service (access to a lounge that would normally be off-limits, for instance) the next time such a customer checked in could work wonders.

At some airlines, data of this sort are stored in up to 20 different internal systems and 10 external ones (which might include the databases of the airlines’ marketing partners). The process of consolidating fragmented data is difficult and prone to error. Fixing technological-infrastructure problems is a long-term challenge, but such an investment alone would not guarantee results. One US airline spent $25 million on a new data warehouse and associated tools but failed to use the resulting information profitably, in part because after it had been collected the airline realized that it wasn’t complete and in part because not all divisions of the airline’s organization had signed on to the project’s goals.

Many airlines can’t identify their most valuable customers, because their frequent-flyer programs are little more than general-ledger systems that track accrued and spent miles. Although a general correlation does exist between the tiers of a frequent-flyer program and the value of the customers enrolled in them (meaning that in most cases a frequent flyer in the elite category is the most profitable kind of customer), further analysis can prove illuminating. Customers within the same tier often represent widely different levels of value to airlines, and a small but significant number of passengers in the lower tiers – regular travelers who pay full fare, for example – could be of greater value than passengers in the upper ones.

Another big problem for airlines is the fact that they rarely know how much their customers spend with competitors. A passenger who traveled infrequently on a given airline, for example, might travel extensively on one of its competitors and would thus be a more fruitful target for marketing than its own frequent travelers. One airline analyzed one-segment (one-way) flights taken by its passengers and discovered that they were flying the other segment on competing carriers. A different airline used records from its co-branded credit card to determine where its customers collected their frequent-flyer points. It then targeted passengers collecting points in hotels and restaurants in countries where no corresponding flights had been taken.

Several factors influence the behavior of passengers (Exhibit 3). The challenge for airlines is to understand the actual and potential value of each customer and to pinpoint the actions and incentives needed to maximize it (Exhibit 4). Best-practice CRM demonstrates that it is indeed possible to capture the lost value of these customers.Chart: What influences travel decisions?

 Chart: Keeping passengers happy



Urs Binggeli is a consultant in McKinsey’s Zurich office; Sanjay Gupta is an alumnus of the Johannesburg office; Carlos de Pommes is a consultant in the Amsterdam office.

1Nine European, five North American, and three Asia-Pacific airlines responded to the survey, conducted in 2001.

For more on the state of the airline industry,seePeter R. Costa, Doug S. Harned, and Jerrol d T. Lundquist, “Rethinking the aviation industry,”The McKinsey Quarterly, 2002 special edition: Risk and resilience, pp. 88-100.

3The underlying analysis is based on pilot CRM campaigns by airlines. These estimates were extrapolated to an airline’s total passenger base.

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