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Great Websites Provide Service & Simplicity

Great Websites Provide Service & Simplicity Mark Naples

"Ding" you are free to roam about the country.

What makes this such a compelling brand message? Is it because of its aural simplicity? Is it because it makes you feel as though you're actually on the plane, so that it is conveying something subliminally? Is it because it's fun? 

Or is it something else-- something that Southwest Airlines gets that almost no other major national brand seems to understand?

While every major consumer service organization pledges its devotion to customer service, some actually try to make it more a part of their brand identity. There are those who have specially chosen colors that convey warmth (like the orange in Home Depot's logo) or dependable, even dogged diligence (what can Brown do for you?) But, in these days of commoditization in the airline industry, one company seems to be executing on the brand-as-service idiom far better than any other, and not just depicting it through their brand identity.

It's not just that Southwest doesn't charge the $100 that other carriers charge for tweaks like switching return flights on the same day, or making changes to your online itinerary. There are more subtle though no less important ways that the airline conveys this simple brand message that the consumer can depend on an uncomplicated, pleasant experience.

The idea is that a company has to be walking the talk every day to be able to get away with as flippant and simple a brand idiom as the Southwest Ding. How -- specifically -- does Southwest do this?

It starts with their website. Do a simple comparison sometime between Southwest's site and American Airlines' site. What do these two convey about the relative service experience that any consumer might expect?

Southwest may be the only major carrier that has a site that compares favorable to the aggregator sites, which have made a science of getting users who search their reservations to stay and make a purchase. Anyone who has ever tried dealing with the customer service team at Expedia may complain to me about simplicity in web design translating to good customer service-- and that's fine. The point is that intuitive simplicity at the point of research and purchase in web design IS good customer service.

And that is a major reason why most consumers, after experiencing the sites, exhibit overall purchase intent at a significantly higher rate on the sites of leading online travel agencies (OTAs) versus those of individual carriers. So says a study conducted in late September by eVOC Insights, a customer experience consulting firm, and RelevantView, a technology provider of web-based research solutions.

As we all know, supplier loyalty programs are a key differentiator when it comes to consumer decision making. The study found, to nobody's surprise, that loyalty members will pay more for hotel accommodations and are twice as likely to return, purchase and recommend as non-loyalty members. But, loyalty membership does not guarantee purchases. The study found, for example, that 48 percent of Marriott Rewards members and 44 percent of Starwood Preferred Guest members would prefer to purchase from Expedia or Hotels.com than the supplier after experiencing each of the sites.

"So many factors affect the purchase decision for consumers, including price, content, functionality and rewards," says Liz Edison, co-founder and managing partner of eVOC Insights. "Expedia wins on all of these counts, and together, they project a very service-oriented face forward for consumers."

If you go to the user interface of these sites, is it any wonder why? Web consumers seek simplicity-- even the savviest among us still tend to prefer an uncluttered interface (see Google) instead of anything complicated. There is a ton of cash at stake. With more than 150 million consumers shopping for travel on the web and more than $70 billion in online revenue forecasted for 2006, competition between online travel agencies and suppliers is fierce. Does that mean that we can expect airline sites to become simpler to navigate?

One of the reasons I have highlighted Southwest Airlines in this examination is that they assiduously have kept their product unavailable in the OTA sites and have consistently undersold all other carriers while remaining the most profitable airline in the business. Obviously, this has as much to do with not having to pay the pensions of hundreds of retired pilots as it does with the GUI of their website. But, as it pertains to their branding, no other company walks the talk better.

What does this mean to those of us who do not work in the airline or hospitality industry? It's pretty simple. Your customer interface -- the service that walks the talk of your brand -- will always be at least as important as whatever product your company sells. This is true no matter whether you're in ad sales or something more arcane-- service and simplicity is what keeps customers happy. 

All successful business solves a problem for someone. If your service creates one for your customers, it probably won't for long.

Mark Naples is managing partner at WIT Strategy. .

Mark Naples is partner for WIT Strategy. WIT Strategy is a strategic communications consultancy serving clients who do business on the web in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. WIT Strategy helps these organizations identify and leverage...

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