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Transforming customer experience in the transport sector

5 minutes
Samantha Rowles Operations Director of Transportation, Serco Middle East

COVID-19 has changed consumer behaviour around the world with new attitudes and values emerging as a result. With safety always being a top priority, service providers increased safety measures to ensure that people are not only receiving a great service but are also feeling safe while receiving it.

In the UAE, Dubai International Airport alone has reported that they have welcomed 29 million visitors in 2021, while Abu Dhabi registered more than 5 million visitors and more than 74,000 flights and expect the numbers to grow further in 2022. Countries are opening up; travel restrictions are loosening and people are once again becoming more comfortable with the idea of traveling for pleasure instead of necessity. The travel market is heading for a sharp, unprecedented increase in booking numbers, especially during the summer.

With the number of commuters and travellers increasing, delivering a fantastic customer service where people feel safe and comfortable is paramount.

Providing excellent customer experience is not a new thing to a country such as the UAE, or cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Customer experience excellence is considered a big contributor to how and why the country has been able to adapt to COVID-19 travel norms so quickly and ensure a smooth transition for commuters.

Why is it so critical to ensure that customer experience and journeys establish and maintain a high standard during and post-COVID? Where are we at as a hub that connects the East and the West? What are the challenges and areas of improvement? How does all of this impact you as a traveller?

Feeling safe

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed health, safety and sanitisation at the forefront of the entire customer experience. This will remain in place as airports get busier and travellers continue to return to the skies. The focus of airport operators will be to maintain higher safety procedures to keep passengers as well as the crew and staff safe.

As a result, and two years post pandemic, Dubai International Airport was named the busiest airport for global travel, showing 12% increase in traffic last year compared to 2020, indicating that not only the travel sector in the country is on its way to a full recovery soon, but that keeping the customers at the heart of everything pays off.

Seamless Journeys

While safety is at the top of the operators’ priority list, the journey through the airport is considered another vital indicator of how well a facility is managed. Many passengers worry mostly about flight statuses and changes in safety rules and regulations.

It’s the operator’s job to ensure that the customers are always well informed and up to date with any changes, and this can only be achieved by providing clear directions throughout the facility and ensuring that we have well-trained, well connected, and well-informed staff that are able to assist passengers and guide them through their journey. The only way to accomplish this is via clear and consistent communications between members of the same team, and regularly coordinating between different entities that work in the airport.

It is critical to ensure that all passengers are informed and have visibility on the status of their connecting flights and are aware of public transportation availabilities and schedules.

For example, if a passenger needs to catch a train from the airport to his or her destination, he or she needs to have access to the train schedule. If the train they need leaves at the same time of landing, the passenger will not be able to make it in time, and the experience will create frustration.

It is important when planning the airport experience to look at all the details and put ourselves in the passenger’s shoes to ensure we are not missing on the big details, as well as the small ones.

From adding direction signs within the physical space, to making sure that the on-ground staff is informed and up to date, it’s crucial to the whole experience to be able to provide customers with full support, from the minute they enter the facility, to the minute they exit it.

Providing the right airport experience has a major impact on customer’s confidence, loyalty, engagement and spend. When travellers are in the right frame of mind, they can enjoy their journey at the airport – spending a little more time and a little more money.

Understanding and providing an exceptional airport experience is not a simple task. It’s a task that requires every player and every member in the airport ecosystem to collectively work towards the main goal of deeply and properly understanding what travellers want in order to deliver an optimised experience. This is why airports should consider total airport management, which means outsourcing the airport’s full operations to one provider, who will be able to operate all services within the airport and deliver a seamless passenger journey.

Passengers at airport

Passengers at airport

If we take a step back, we will realise that the airport experience is an interconnected ecosystem of moments, often delivered by different parties, from airport authorities, merchants, food and beverage outlets, duty-free and finally airlines, all contributing to the traveller’s overall experience. Is there a long line to queue for security? Are there any delays in flights or changes in gates? All these are just a few examples of key moments that can and will affect traveller’s journey and impression throughout the airport.

When one service provider handles full airport operations, this means that all information and data are always available to all teams, making the communication process easier and faster, allowing all on-grounds teams to provide their best expertise to all commuters.

Relying on technology

With airports getting busier, there should be no compromising when it comes to implementing and utilising frictionless technologies and systems such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to create the ultimate customer experience.

Taking Airports Operations Control Centre (AOCC) as an example, it oversees that everything runs smoothly from aircrafts and vehicles flow to passengers and baggage flow, which is a huge task, but as a result, on ground operations are run efficiently and smoothly to deliver the ultimate experience to all travellers. This is achieved by placing the right people in the right place, supported by technology, which greatly impacts the travellers’ experience in terms of ensuring queues are moving faster, which decreases the waiting time at immigration, and gives passengers the opportunity to enjoy the rest of their experience, exploring the duty free and F&B section at the airport.

Additionally, technology such as facial recognition and customer happiness surveys at check-in counters are used to gather data from passengers which can help make the customer experience better and more personalised. Even more exciting is that the way data can be used to predict customer behaviour over long periods of time is becoming far more sophisticated, allowing service providers to collect better insights and deliver better services accordingly.

Impact on tourism

According to Skift Recovery Index, the aviation sector’s performance has improved considerably in 2021, but it is still 35% below pre-pandemic levels globally. While the sector is moving in the right direction post-pandemic, it’s more important than ever to reboot the customer experience in order to bring back the magic of travel and boost tourism again.

The challenge here is that travellers’ expectations of what great customer experience looks like have shifted significantly due to COVID, leaving the travel sector and its operators in a game of catch-up. From feeling safe through the implemented safety measures, to having clarity and access at all times to the latest health and safety regulations, travellers tend to look at the journey and how they feel about it at the end of the day, rather than looking deeper at all the details and efforts that go behind the scenes.

It is important to invest in and prioritise the customer experience and be consistent to gain their trust, loyalty and build an experience that can withstand challenges in the future.

While the UAE is competing globally with other leading destinations, customer experience is at the heart of everything the government does, ensuring that all visitors and even residents and citizens receive the best experience. Fundamentally, this creates a loyal population and recurring visitors that choose the UAE as a destination; it will ultimately help to boost the aviation sector, reviving tourism and supporting the bounce back of the economy.

Director of Operations - Transport Samantha Rowles

Samantha is passionate about leading by example and creating high-performing teams that strive to achieve more than they thought was possible. Samantha’s dedication to the use of technology pushes boundaries of normal business practices in the search for differentiation.