Is your quality management system holding you back?

To improve service quality, airports generally focus on specific touchpoints – the critical moments when passengers interact with the airport and its services. The idea is that by improving certain key services the overall experience will be better. But is this really the best approach? I would argue not necessarily.

Hong Kong check-in hall

Passengers want airports to provide integrated and seamless experiences. The current touchpoint approach is ill-suited for this purpose because it places too much emphasis on individual processes & services at the expense of the big picture and doesn’t reflect what the passenger actually experiences. Rather, airports need to adopt a more holistic approach to managing service quality centred on the notion of passenger journeys.

There are two fundamental ways in which the touchpoint centered approach to quality management is keeping airports from becoming great:

1.   It creates a distorted view of satisfaction levels

The touchpoint approach creates the illusion that each part of the airport experience is independent and can be managed separately. This is not the case. When passengers travel through an airport, they interact with a wide range of different services, processes and companies that combine in complex ways to create what a passenger perceives as the airport experience.

In effect, what the airport is measuring and trying to manage may be quite different from what the passenger is actually experiencing. While this can help the airport progress in specific areas it will not enable it to create an overall experience that passengers enjoy.

To illustrate this, let’s take the example of airport check-in.  You can identify at least 4 very different parts of what constitutes the check-in experience from a passenger perspective:

  • Information gathering: Before going to the airport a passenger will generally go online or use the airport app to find out which check-in area they need to go to.
  • Wayfinding: Then when arriving at the airport they need to find their way so for that part of the check-in journey signage is most important.
  • Facilitating: Baggage carts also play a key part and need to be easy to find
  • Checking in: It is only after going through these first steps that passengers finally arrive at check-in. At this stage, queue management and staff interaction play essential roles.

So what at first glance can seem like a fairly simple airport process is actually a complex journey that starts while the passenger is still at home and involves multiple airport services and stakeholders.

Traditionally airports wanting to improve the check-in experience will focus on improving check-in specific KPIs such as waiting times or staff courtesy. While satisfaction levels with this part of the check-in journey may improve over time, global satisfaction with check-in could still be low if passengers are having a hard time finding their specific check-in area or locating key information on the airport website.

So the narrow focus on touchpoints can be misleading, giving the airport the impression that they are performing reasonably well when in fact they are missing the underlying but fundamental issues completely. Sometimes it is the whole experience that needs to be changed, even if you are achieving good levels of satisfaction across the board.

2.   It encourages silos when you need collaboration

Breaking the passenger experience down into touchpoints is great from a management perspective. It makes it very easy to allocate specific KPIs to each department and task them with improving their own part of the puzzle. If each department improves their performance then job done, quality should improve.

The danger in this approach is that it encourages a silo vision of service quality where each department aims to maximize their own performance but nobody really cares about the whole experience. Each team becomes a master at defending their own territory and running their own process but without giving much thought into how each decision they make may affect the overall passenger experience. This lack of communication between departments quite often leads to dissatisfaction and a sub-optimal experience for passengers which could be avoided through a more collaborative approach to managing quality.

Instead airports wanting to provide an overall journey that meets passenger needs should be trying to foster more collaboration between teams and creating a culture where each team understands the part they play in helping the airport achieve this goal.

Before going further, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating an end to the use of touchpoints to measure and manage service quality. They play an important part in quality management and will continue to do so but the manner in which they are used needs to be adapted to better match the customer experience.

The new approach to managing service quality

To deliver integrated journeys, airports must transform the way they manage quality, moving towards a more holistic approach to quality that transcends individual airport departments or processes and aims to create an overall airport journey that meets passenger expectations.

To deliver an overall experience that passengers love, airports need to take three steps

a)      Identify and map out journeys

The first step in the process is looking at the whole airport experience and identifying the key passenger journeys (ground transportation & parking, check-in, security, shopping for instance).

The broad lines of this can be achieved through the experience and judgement of airport management. But it should be complemented by a quantitative approach based on operational and customer research data to better understand how passengers are currently using the airport, what their expectations are and which journeys are most important. Benchmarking is also useful at this stage, helping airports to better identify their key weaknesses.

Once the different journeys have been identified, they must be completely mapped out and described; showing each step the passenger must go through to complete the journey and how each process or service influences the whole.  Doing this will force airport managers to see each step from the passengers’ perspective and identify any departures from the ideal customer experience.

b)      Create a cross-functional approach to service quality

Once the key journeys have been identified and mapped out, airports can focus on improving them.

To achieve this, airports should move from a system where each department is responsible for managing their own part of the process to a more cross-functional approach where teams are created around each key passenger journey. These teams should be made up of specialists representing the different departments & stakeholders that influence that part of the passenger experience. Each team should be given full responsibility & accountability for their journey instead of fragmenting it across departments.

The use of cross-functional teams encourages knowledge sharing and fosters communication across departments. Because they take into account the perspective of all key stakeholders, decisions and suggested improvements made by cross-functional teams are more likely to create a more seamless & integrated journey.

c)       Align quality measurement systems

For this to work airports need to create a system that incentivizes the delivery of an experience that is globally great. To do so, the quality management system must be adapted to reflect the new emphasis on journeys.

To improve their journey each team needs access to the relevant customer service data. Responsibility for KPIs should be redistributed and each team should be given ownership of the touchpoints which impact their passenger journey. Finally, additional KPIs should be created to better measure how successful the team is in improving the overall customer experience for that journey.

To maximise satisfaction levels, airports need to successfully deliver integrated & seamless passenger journeys. Current quality management systems are not suited to this and tend to inhibit airports from delivering a great passenger experience.

To succeed, airports need to adapt the way they measure and manage quality, moving to a quality management system that centres on the notion of passenger journeys. This is not easy and will take time but the benefits for airports are huge: better collaboration across departments and with stakeholders, greater innovation, higher levels of employee engagement and most importantly customers that are truly satisfied.

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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.

One thought on “Is your quality management system holding you back?

  1. ISO in a Box

    Great article. Airports are a big industry which involve heavy quality management. This is evident through the purchase of London Gatwick Airport (LGW) by Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP). Since the purchase of LGW, the airport has increased its quality management which is reflected by their customer service as there main area. Thus winning UK Airport Of The Year. Meeting quality management and customer satisfaction should be any organisations objectives. This is evident through the last few years at LGW.

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