While studying the psychology of waiting in line at grocery stores, David H. Maister of Harvard Business School came up with something called the Satisfaction Equation. According to this very complicated calculus, a customer’s satisfaction is equal to the difference between her perceptions and her expectations, or:
S = P − E
In the sluggish and often frustrating world of air travel, this equation might as well be called the JetBlue Equation. JetBlue’s well-known customer service efforts (especially on social media) deliver high-quality experiences when passengers are expecting the worst.
For example, last week, traveler Rebecca Joffrey was irked by the loud music playing over the P.A. system near her gate at JFK Airport. She turned to Twitter to vent; a few minutes and five tweets later, JetBlue got the airport crew to turn the volume down. (You can see the full interaction below.)
This type of organic (and immediate) response is what JetBlue strives for — approximating “people talking to people,” as their head of social media Laura Meacham puts it. It comes as no surprise, then, that the airline consistently scores highly in Consumer Reports’ annual airline satisfaction ratings.
Where is this customer satisfaction coming from? If Maister’s equation holds, the best airlines are those whose service can most dramatically outpace travelers’ expectations. And when expectations are routinely exceeded, we can expect there to be fewer people grumbling in the corner about how miserable their experience was.
This common sense seems to be confirmed by the data. After plotting customer satisfaction ratings against how often complaints were filed to the DoT, we got a fairly strong correlation– the lower the complaint rate, the higher the airline’s customer satisfaction:
As expected, Southwest and JetBlue (as well as Alaska Air) are the cream of the crop, while legacy carriers Delta, US Airways, American, and United reek of mediocrity. Meanwhile, way out by its lonesome on the bottom right is Spirit Airlines.
Perception vs. Reality
But this is where things start to get very interesting. While crunching the complaints and satisfaction data to see which airlines migrated to the top-and-left of the graph, we realized there was a fairly large assumption being made– that if customers aren’t complaining, then surely we must be treating them right.
But what if that’s not true? What if the perception of good service is overpowering the reality? Just because passengers aren’t complaining doesn’t mean that an airline is actually delivering on that specific service.
Take a look now at mishandled baggage rate v. baggage complaint rate. As many of us can attest to, losing a checked bag is one of the most annoying experiences any traveler can have. So we expect to see the worst baggage handlers to have the highest complaint rates:
As it turns out, there is no significant correlation between how often bags are actually mishandled and how often baggage complaints are filed. Which makes us wonder if there are certain airlines being unfairly complained about (or not complained about enough). So let’s break it down by airline:
Poor Frontier Airlines. It has the highest baggage complaint rate (in blue), but it actually handles bags pretty damn well (in black). Only Virgin America has a better mishandled baggage rate.
Notice something else that’s bizarre?
Southwest Airlines has the highest rate of mishandled bags. And also the lowest baggage complaint rate. How does that work? Southwest has been known for years for its high levels of engagement with its customers, a poster child for extremely strong customer service.
At least with respect to bags, though, Southwest’s customer service is a reality distortion. Its low complaint rates (and high customer satisfaction ratings) don’t reflect the reality that they aren’t so great at handling your bags.
The Halo Effect & Reality Distortion
Why is there no significant link between how much people complain about an airline mishandling a bag and how often that airline actually mishandles a bag?
One theory is that customer service is very subject to the Halo Effect. Psychologist Solomon Asch defines it as “a tendency of certain personality traits to have an overwhelming effect in impression formation, even influencing the interpretation of other traits associated with the person being judged.”
As it applies to airlines, the Halo Effect seems to be at play when it comes to front-line customer service. As Martin Lariviere of the Kellogg School of Management puts it:
“When your bag doesn’t show up, your immediate recourse is not calling the FAA; it is speaking with an airline employee. If that employee can show a little empathy and try to help, no one will be rushing to call the Feds. Said another way, well designed recovery processes matter and that is true independent of niches the firm targets or how it prices.”
So if Southwest is treating us well at the help desk after they lost our bag, we might think they’re doing whatever they can to retrieve it. And we don’t bother to file an official complaint. Even if they’re playing hacky sack with our luggage. Weird.
Another theory is a bit more sober: that we love discounts more than we love good service. Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly lays it out like this:
“I don’t want to accuse people of lying, but sometimes they say one thing and their actions suggest something else. Consciously they might really believe they hate Spirit, but a lot of them on some level have decided that they actually do like Spirit because they don’t like paying a lot of money and they are willing to put up with the things they don’t like about Spirit in exchange for low fares.”
So customer service (especially on social media) might amplify great all-around service for some airlines. Or it might blur reality and make people think an airline is doing a better job than it actually is. Or, in the case of Spirit Airlines, customer service takes a “zero f*cks given” approach: outsource social media management to a robot.
Whatever way you cut it, though, how a company chooses to connect social media to in-real-life customer service can have large effects on its brand.