A lot of people pass through airports every day, and that’s not just travelers: For millions, the airport is their place of work. And the average airport as a workplace is unique in that most employees working there don’t actually work for the airport. They are employees of various airlines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), local police and fire departments or food and newsstand vendors.
Here, airports face a unique problem when it comes to customer service. With so many different workforces contributing to a customer’s combined experience with an airport, it can be difficult to control the experience and ensure it’s a positive one.
Officials at Miami International Airport (MIA) in 2007 were looking for a comprehensive training program that would allow them to address this decentralization. They knew that customers tend to equate an airport with their overall experience. When there are failures here, an airport can’t always help, but it can do some things to mitigate the circumstances, which is where MIA began with its multiyear employee training program.
For many years, MIA focused employee training on the basics: values, expectations, policies and processes. Research that uncovered a spectrum of needed training improvements spurred officials into action. The group identified a need to focus training on the following elements:
- Cost control.
- Maximizing non-aeronautical revenues.
- Reassessing the airport’s business model to better meet immediate needs, such as promoting available capacity.
- Creating a passenger-friendly environment.
At the time, MIA’s employee training program was not doing enough to help the airport’s diverse mix of airline personnel, vendors, county employees and federal employees stay on the same page in terms of customer service. Internal and external studies showed that MIA’s customer service standings needed improvement. The MIA team set a goal to increase morale and at the same time enhance and improve customer service by incorporating a holistic approach to employee training and development.
The primary challenge was the mix of individual store policies, company dress codes and business philosophies MIA faced within the airport’s varied workforces. All created barriers for MIA in building a seamless employee training program and unified approach to customer service. MIA officials were anxious to craft practices that could work for everyone. They anticipated that new training course content, coupled with a newfound sense of camaraderie, would be passed through the ranks and help them achieve better employee training and customer service. Working with Disney Institute, the MIA team began to explore ways that they could eliminate, or at least mitigate, barriers to providing exceptional customer service.
“It was a matter of survival for us; it was just that simple,” said Jose Abreu, director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. Abreu directs operations at MIA and four general aviation airports in the Miami area.
The team began by conceiving a shared purpose to create consistency among vendors. It reviewed airport service with the goal of observing and identifying service issues. A key message that came out of this exercise was that even if the airport wasn’t at fault in the event of a service failure, it’s still the airport’s problem as it pertains to its customer service image. MIA sought to emphasize that everyone is responsible and accountable for the passenger experience.
“A customer tends to equate an airport with their airline experience,” said Dickie Davis, MIA’s division director of terminal operations and customer service. “If they get bumped by an airline in Atlanta, they’ll say, ‘I’m never flying through Atlanta again.’ If O’Hare was snowed in, they won’t go back to Chicago even though Chicago didn’t have anything to do with it.
“We can’t always do something about the airline, but as an airport, we can do some things to mitigate the circumstances,” she added. “The concept is that everyone is responsible and accountable for the passenger experience, no matter what their role.”
With the skeletal structure in place, the MIA team began the implementation of a program called Concierge MIA, which established new standards for uniforms, training, service and physical environment. The program was designed to empower employees to help improve the customer experience on their own, without having to first get approval from a manager.
Those points of empowerment would prove helpful to the MIA team as they began to sell employees on the new training. MIA didn’t want employees to feel defensive or forced to change. Rather, the team sought to instill a feeling of pride and commitment to quality service among employees. A key element to achieving this goal was to start small. MIA began by focusing on 400 front-line employees in security and operations, rather than trying to roll out the program to all 35,000 employees from the start. This gave trainers the opportunity to incorporate employee feedback and make adjustments where needed.
Birds of a Feather Fly Together
MIA’s makeover of its workforce began with uniforms. It commissioned pop artist and Miami resident Romero Britto to design a series of relaxed, distinctly colored shirts for front-line employees. With more than 80,000 people a day coming through the doors, the airport staff needs to be visible. The new uniforms help the airport communicate the spirit of Miami, while remaining functional and comfortable for employees.
Next, MIA began training front-line employees to observe passengers carefully to spot signs that they may need assistance. “Our terminal operators are now trained to recognize body language — the pausing, hesitation, head scratching, etc. — that tells them that someone is lost or needs help,” Davis said.
Miami hosts passengers of numerous cultural backgrounds, so airport employees need to know how to deal with various cultures, languages and expectations. In addition to the technical aspect of their jobs, they need to be alert, sensitive and caring. For example, an employee can walk through the airport and see a passenger standing by the escalator and staring at it. That’s when the employee realizes that the passenger has never ridden an escalator before and can offer assistance.
The last piece of the puzzle for MIA was tapping the “influencer” group: those employees who can reinforce positive behaviors. These influencers can help shape the training process and make sure it is successful. The group includes managers, who must understand that if they aren’t modeling behaviors and setting the right example, employees won’t follow suit. Managers cannot expect employees to do anything they are not doing themselves.
“At MIA, you’ll see people from all levels — entry-level staff and middle and upper management, including me — walking through the terminals and not hesitating to pick up paper from the floor,” Abreu said. “It’s all a visible reminder to every employee that there is a sense of pride in serving our customers. We are bringing the level of awareness to where it needs to be. I think this has had a powerful effect on everyone. It has engendered a lot of esprit de corps, and staff members see that this is a serious initiative.”
MIA has shown results from its new customer service platforms, rising to sixth place in J.D. Power & Associates’ 2008 North American Airport Satisfaction Study after ranking 14th the year prior. MIA also has won several awards in the Airports Council International-North America Excellence in Airport Marketing & Communications Contest, including first place in Customer Service Initiatives for the Concierge MIA program.
Demonstrating a long-term commitment to the program, in late 2009 MIA made its customer service training mandatory for all 35,000 employees, including those from the Transportation Security Administration, local fire and police departments, and partner companies that operate facilities within the airport. The new initiative, called “Miami Begins with MIA,” emphasizes how each airport employee plays a key role in the visitor experience from arrival to departure. MIA is the front door to the greater Miami area, welcoming 95 percent of all visitors to the area each year.
Employees have received the new mandate well, primarily because of positive word of mouth from front-line employees who experienced the initial training in 2007 and 2008. It’s not a perfect system, and there are those employees who will never fully embrace the concept. But, as MIA has demonstrated, a strong long-term commitment to training, coupled with a solid execution plan, can help an organization achieve its goals.
“There is still work to be done,” Abreu said, “but we are moving the customer service bar. As we continue to move forward and introduce new programs, travelers will continue to see the change.”
- Video: It’s time to start thinking about long-term skills development
- 5 ways reading makes you a better leader
- Virtual reality and augmented reality: overhyped or new industry standard?
- Combatting impostor syndrome through learning and development
- Intentional servant leaders are the key to organizational health