Nearly every DMV wait I’ve experienced through the years has been annoying, hot, boring and lengthy, so not much has changed there. In fact, I recall one especially memorable clerk in Connecticut back around 1970 whose snarl was genuinely world class. She did not enjoy being helpful. But most DMV clerks I’ve encountered have been helpful. Just recently, a young woman here in North Carolina was not only helpful but pleasant as she sorted out my registration/ inspection mix-up, despite the long line of grumbly folks awaiting her attention.
To be sure, life can dish out far greater unpleasantness than waiting in line at the DMV. But the experience of traversing a busy airport these days apparently is running neck and neck with the DMV for customer dissatisfaction.
Flying used to be fun – back when airliners had propellers and you were eight years old and didn’t know any better. In 2014, flying commercial (as distinct from renting or owning your own airplane and getting to fly whenever and wherever you want) can be a white knuckle experience, from the check-in line to the security line to the boarding crush to the two-hour delay on the tarmac to maybe getting to your destination on time or maybe not but still having to deal with the baggage crap-shoot no matter what. Unless, that is, you're a passenger on Southwest Airlines, which has managed to fly above its competitors by offering a straight-ahead, efficient, value-priced product with fewer customer surprises.
Of course, in between the many hassles that greet the flying public today is the flight itself, which has morphed into a crammed-in-your-seat, uncomfortably public experience that nobody in their right mind would recall fondly unless they maybe lucked out and hooked a spot next to Harrison Ford or Angelina Jolie who had been forced to fly coach because this was the last flight out to East Sagebrush, Texas, where they were shooting a Western first thing in the morning.
Every business has its challenges, but some provide a greater sense of reward than others – compare the commercial airline business to selling flowers, for example. The big challenge of flower selling may be running out of red roses, but as long as the stock holds, delivering bouquets of happiness can be fun. Ideally, the airline business also should be about delivering happiness. Instead, the challenge of most airlines these days appears to be annoying as few customers as possible. Although I’ve never done it, selling flowers seems like it might be a pleasure compared to working an airline ticket counter.
From the time you go online to buy your ticket to the time you and your fellow passengers have to wait as some unthinking clod attempts to stuff his slightly oversized carry-on into the slightly undersized overhead bin while the harried flight attendant tries to introduce some discipline, pleasure is not usually what comes to mind when thinking about commercial air travel, with its ever-skinnier seats and the exorbitant fee they charge to make sure your extra suitcase actually gets on the plane with you. I’ve even read lately that some airlines are considering shorter lavs to save space – you don’t mind bending over to do your mid-air business, do ya?
It makes you wonder, What are they thinking?! when airlines slight passenger comfort or convenience to shave a buck or two off their fares.
“Offering our low fares requires doing some things that some people complain about,” Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza recently wrote in a letter to Bloomberg Businessweek, “—more seats on our planes with a little less legroom, no Wi-Fi or video screens, and no refunds without insurance; however, these reduce costs which gives our customers the lowest fares in the industry. Judging by the number of customers on our planes and repeat customer rate,” he concluded, “most people like this tradeoff.”
This strikes me as long-range customer service suicide.
So back to the comparison between flying and the DMV.
“Forty-two percent rated the DMV as worse than a busy airport, while 40 percent said being in a packed airport is worse than standing in line to get a new driver's license,” according to an article by CNBC.com’s auto and airline industry reporter, Phil LeBeau. "No doubt the airline industry is doing a better job of pleasing passengers, but there still is a lot of room for improvement," LeBeau writes, quoting J.D. Power's Rick Garlick. "Satisfaction is improving, but it's a stretch to say passengers are truly happy."
Now there’s an understatement.
It’s also an understatement to say that the airline business is tough and complex. Margins are thin at best and beset by high fuel costs and other profit-munching expenses. As Richard Branson so wryly put it, "How do you become a millionaire? Start as a billionaire and then buy an airline.”
Even so, the knack of the airline business to rile up its customers astonishes me no end, despite the often herculean efforts of individual employees to do the opposite. In light of this unfortunate reality, I have created a pair of taglines to dramatize the difference between the two nearly equal customer service experiences.
DMV Tagline: Bear with us, it will be over in 15-20 minutes.
Commercial Airlines Tagline: Bear with us, it will never be over – and have a nice flight.
TakeAway: When the service in your industry descends to joke status, there’s an opportunity for somebody to break the mold and create real competitive advantage. Will that be you … or your competitor?
Content © by Brian E. Faulkner
About Brian Faulkner:
Brian also is a three-time Emmy award winning Public Television writer and narrator of UNC-TV’s popular Our State magazine series, on the air since 2003.