Managing stakeholders – lessons from a two year old

Angry toddler

I’ve got a two year old son. Like kids of his age he is starting to want to do things his own way – mainly things I don’t want him to it seems. And so I regularly find myself having to tell him “no”, “stop” or some other variation of the same theme.

While this approach worked at first it doesn’t seem to have the same effect any more. As soon as he gets over the initial surprise of me talking with a much louder voice he simply starts doing the same thing all over again with a smile on his face.

Recently my wife pointed out that I wasn’t getting anywhere this way and I should try a different approach. Instead of going straight to “no” and becoming more threatening she suggested that I try talking to him, explaining why what he was doing wasn’t appropriate and why he should stop doing it. I’ve started trying this and while it doesn’t work in all occasions I do have to admit I am getting better results this way.

What does my parental incompetence have to do with managing airports? Well, the whole thing got me thinking about how airports manage relationships with their stakeholders.

Third party companies play a huge part in shaping the passenger experience in airports. Yet most airports still treat stakeholders if they were dealing with a two year old: instead of listening to their needs and finding a common ground to create a better airport experience together they behave as if they were mere problems that need to be managed through service level agreements and threats of penalties.

And as with my son, I don’t believe that this attitude is helping airports get the best from their stakeholders. The problem with playing the penalty / incentive game is that it doesn’t really solve fundamental service delivery issues but simply encourages stakeholders to minimize their bad habits to meet their target. And it definitely doesn’t make them feel like they are playing a key part in the airport experience.

This creates a situation where things work OK until the next big crisis comes along and shows just how poor your relationship with your stakeholder really is. Because that’s the thing with relationships: you usually get what you give and so if you are not investing in your stakeholders how can you expect them to give it their best at your airport all the time.

If you are serious about wanting to improve satisfaction levels at your airport you can’t continue this way. All it takes is one poor experience to give passengers a negative impression of your airport and all of your efforts to improve the passenger experience will remain in vain if you are unable to get stakeholders to be a part of your drive to improve customer service.

Instead your goal should be to find ways to get the most out of your 3rd party stakeholders. From my experience the best way to do so is not through contracts, penalties or SLAs but by giving them a real reason to do their best while working at the airport. In short to inspire them and show them just how important a part they play in the passenger experience and how the success of the airport as a whole can be beneficial to them. In other words seeing the relationship as a mutually beneficial partnership.

How do you accomplish this? As with my son it comes down to three things: communicating your vision or goal, giving them a say and making sure they have the tools to achieve it.

  1. Give them purpose: The best way to motivate people to excel is not through financial initiatives but by giving them a sense of purpose, making them feel they are part of something greater. Share your vision as to what you want the airport to be and show them how they can be part of this so that they come to the airport every morning feeling proud of what they are achieving. Communicate this regularly if you want the initiative to last in the long term.
  1. Show them that they have an impact: Simply giving them vision is not enough. If you want to achieve longer term improvements in satisfaction you need to involve them in the process. Hold regular meetings to share key information, show progress and openly discuss problems and issues the airport is facing. When stakeholders feel like they truly have a say in key decisions they will feel much more involved in trying to improve the passenger experience. And don’t forget, they are on the floor day in and day out and see things that most airport managers are unaware of since they spend less time in the building. Start asking for feedback and who knows what kind of useful insight you will get on your airport.
  1. Empower them: Finally, you need to invest time and energy into the relationship. If you want to set high standards for the airport you also need to show that you are willing to invest in your stakeholders to help them achieve them, to put them in a situation where they can excel. In other words adopt the mentality that by helping your stakeholders succeed you are helping the airport succeed whether it is by providing training or the tools that they need to do their job better.

In short you need to create a sense of community, a feeling all parties working at the airport are striving towards the same goal. One airport, one customer, one goal and one measure of success. This is the sort of attitude which I have seen at all of the world’s top performing airports and which I believe is central to their success.

Now all of this doesn’t mean that there is no room for SLAs. I believe there is. As with my son, your role is to set the boundaries of what is not acceptable and so you need some sort of agreement as to where the limits are. But SLAs, penalties and so on should remain there only to show the limits and not as the only way to manage the relationship.

So from our experience what sets the best airports apart from the rest is that they:

– Are transparent and share key information with stakeholders

– Try to develop strong relationships with them

– Include stakeholders in decision making – especially in areas which impact their work directly

If your airport is not managing stakeholder relationships this way it might be time to rethink your approach and consider if you are really get the most out of third party companies working at your airport.


James Ingram

James Ingram

Director at DKMA
James has extensive expertise in airport market research and specialises in helping airports improve their passenger experience. After several years managing the ASQ Survey, James is now in charge of marketing & communication for DKMA. He regularly travels to present research results & findings to airport management teams.
James Ingram

About James Ingram

James has extensive expertise in airport market research and specialises in helping airports improve their passenger experience. After several years managing the ASQ Survey, James is now in charge of marketing & communication for DKMA. He regularly travels to present research results & findings to airport management teams.