The ever increasing promise of customer focus against a backdrop of ruthless operational efficiency seems contradictory and none more so than our recent experience at a well known Scottish airport. Hardly the bastions of innovation and customer centricity at the best of times, but airlines and airports do have a great tendency to make the difficult impossibly inconvenient. So we ended up at said airport for our intrepid return flight to Southampton armed without boarding passes, but hold luggage. Expecting to be able to walk up to a desk, be met by a humourless and characterless ground service agent acting on behalf of the airline even proved to be a delight too far. Instead, we arrived to discover that ‘digital’ had taken over. So it started by joining a queue to print our boarding passes from one of the distinctly unintuitive boarding pass printing machines. Once negotiated, we joined another queue to ‘self’ check-in our bags. Upon receipt of a baggage label, we joined a queue to hand our bags over to a member of staff (they haven’t all been fed to the lions…yet) who graciously and effortlessly placed said bags onto the baggage carousel. Having now queued three times, we braced ourselves for security, where firstly we queued to scan our boarding passes (except the airport printed boarding passes wouldn’t scan in the airport boarding pass scanner because of ‘poor quality airport paper’) and then joined another queue to strip off and have hand luggage scanned and bodies searched. Feeling delighted that the queuing ordeal was now complete, we joined another queue that meandered through the ‘duty free’ shop to reach the departure area finally resembling that of a developed country (I won’t continue the ‘queuing theme’ by telling you about the gate, on the air bridge, or on the plane…you get the drift and anyway you know; you’ve flown before….)

A customer experience to be truly proud of.

Now we all know about the lean principles of flow and reducing weighting time. We understand the value of the digital age and the benefits of self service (sorry, ‘customer empowerment’). We also appreciate the cost pressures that airlines and airports face; increasing competition, increasing costs, more people, more flights, open skies (for the moment in the UK at least…), but is it customer centric to design a process that creates queuing, avoids customer interaction at all costs and uses digital capabilities obviously not fit for purpose? The holy grail that digitisation appears to be considered as, is backed up through research by MIT, which states that ‘companies embracing digital transformation are 26% more profitable than their average industry competitors’. Impressive, but the case of the digitally focused wealth manager Nutmeg cannot be ignored; a £12.4m loss demonstrates further that while digital may be the future, it is not necessarily the ‘now. So striking a balance is fundamental for organisations looking for digital transformation – evolution not revolution is the answer. Identifying those activities that are truly commoditised and of little value (to the customer!) and where digital capabilities have a comparable or enhanced offering is fundamental to delivering a customer experience that stands up to scrutiny and experience. Digital for the sake of digital (the ‘hey, look at what we can do’ policy) is just asking for trouble. So the question perhaps is:

Can customer centricity and a low cost operating model every truly go hand in hand or are they at odds with each other?

Do organisations have strategies in place that attempt to achieve both? Who are they? As customers would we accept a poorer experience if prices remained low? Do you have any examples of where companies have managed to build both a low cost operating model and a great customer experience?