What Airports Can Teach Us About Customer Service

Stephanie Harris Executive Connection, Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

While better known for delays than delights, airports are the perfect customer service muse. American Airlines VP of Marketing Rob Friedman elaborates.


“Rob’s leadership on the American Airlines Brand Modernization was critical to the program’s success. As the link between senior management, the internal teams and the outside agencies, he played a pivotal role making sure the project stayed on track despite multiple challenges. His unique ability to foster collaboration and inspire earned him the respect of everyone involved.”
– Claude Salzberger, President, MBLM

By Stephanie Harris

Success starts with a vision: a vision for an individual role, and how one’s role will support the development of the larger vision of the company.

“You have to lead with your vision because everyone throughout the organization needs to clearly understand what their role is in supporting that vision, and in many cases they need to play a role in helping to develop that vision,” said Robert Friedman, Vice President (VP) of Marketing for American Airlines. “At the end of the day, every person within my organization needs to have a clear view of how they support that vision.”


Early on in his now 23-year stint with American, Friedman was asked by his Managing Director at the time to go to the airport and watch what their organization makes possible for a quarter of a million customers each day. Instantly, he understood why the airline exists: to make things possible for the customer.

“Accomplishing what a customer is seeking to do with a particular trip takes on a variety of roles,” Friedman explained. “It means connecting with business colleagues and loved ones. By just watching our customers and observing the diversity of our customer base, it was impactful in understanding that the customer has to be at the center of everything we do.”

Developing and implementing this customer-centric focus—through his own work as well as the work of his employees—is at the core of everything Friedman does. And he has discovered various successful methods to accomplish this.


Financial Foundation

With a Business-Finance degree from the University of Nebraska – Omaha, Friedman began his career with General Electric’s (GE) Financial Management Program, which provided him a sound professional foundation, including his first taste of marketing. Shortly after completing GE’s approximately two-and-a-half-year training program, and just as his career with GE was taking off, Friedman—who has always had a passion for aviation—pursued a role with American.

While his current role as VP of Marketing is much different than his early plans to pursue a career in finance, Friedman notes that his financial background has proven to be beneficial.

“It has provided me a tremendous foundation in recognizing that everything has to have a return on investment,” he said. “You need to be able to measure a strong return, and then capitalize and leverage those initiatives. As I progressed through my career, the key foundations of my strategy and vision have been to measure our objectives and initiatives so we have a clear understanding of what works from a financial perspective and what does not.”

Friedman also has learned to be creative about the ways via which he measures return on investment. “There are some initiatives that have a significant cost, but in return your customers will provide you with their business and loyalty, which is challenging to measure. It’s hard to put a price tag on a specific customer’s loyalty or their lifetime value, so you need to evaluate alternatives in trying to measure that.”

The best way to do so, according to Friedman, is simply to talk to your customer. “Ask them how they feel about your company or product, and try to gauge if the cost of your investment is going to provide a reasonable return.”


Focus on the Customer

Engaging customers and seeking their input is something Friedman has not shied away from. In fact, whenever his team discusses anything new—a campaign, product, component of a product, or a change to the website—the first thing he asks his team is, “What does the customer think?”
“What is it our customers told us they want? Once we have developed a product, what is their feedback? As we are in the process of developing the product, what has been their input? By continually focusing on that element and asking those questions, it has naturally led my team to seek those answers before I ask,” Friedman said. “By nature, we have formulated that approach over the years. It starts with the customer, and we put the customer at the center of everything we do.”

The airline’s website and mobile apps have provided Friedman’s team the opportunity to test new ideas and illicit customer feedback nearly instantaneously.


“We have 1.6 million visitors a day on the website, so anything we do on the site or changes we make, we can quickly evaluate and pull together a focus group to ask our customers about their response to our changes,” Friedman said. “It is a great way to do real-time testing and experimentation to understand what the customer wants and to what they will be most responsive.”

In addition to customer feedback, experimentation is also at the core of developing a successful product. American is currently in the process of designing new aircraft and updating older models. But before doing anything, they asked for their customer input up front.

“As we thought about the design of those aircraft and what we wanted the interiors to look like, we asked our customers to select from a variety of chairs, lamps, vents, etc., and tell us what they liked about the specific chair or lamp they had chosen,” Friedman said. “The reason we did that is when you think about an airline seat, especially on an international flight when a customer will be in that seat for 12 to 14 hours, that seat acts as the customer’s living room, dining room, bedroom and office. To best understand the type of seating, lighting and comfort our customers are looking for, we get that from our customers’ feedback.”

And Friedman says it has not been hard to find customers willing to provide their opinion on a particular issue or product. A recent example has been their participation in the redesign of American’s business-class seats.

“We developed prototypes and asked a group of customers to attend a kind of ‘slumber party.’ We set up a lab and invited them to test out our lie-flat seats on an overnight visit to our offices,” he said. “Given the passionate customers we have, we were able to fill up the room and get their feedback about the prototypes.”

This activity enabled the airline to refine parts of the product design and several elements therewithin to ensure it will best meet customers’ needs when flying all over the world.

It all goes back to Friedman’s vision of putting the customer at the center of everything his team and organization does. “Understanding their needs and what we can deliver for them,” he said. “It enables us to meet their needs, increase their loyalty and engagement, and at the same time increase revenue.”

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois. 


Rob's Key Partners:
MBLM (Brand Agency) | McCann Worldgroup (Global Marketing Communications)

Stephanie Harris

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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