Smart companies recognize that both their marketing and their broader business strategy need to be informed by carefully gathered customer insight. But what do you do when your customers disagree—especially if their disagreement echoes throughout your various social media channels? What if their needs or desires are mutually contradictory?
That’s the situation the airline industry may soon face, thanks to the FCC’s reconsideration of in-flight mobile phone use. Customers have long been clamoring for in-flight phone liberation, but since its announcement the FCC has also been flooded with comments from passengers who dread the prospect of noisily chatting seat mates. Should the FCC move away from its pervasive ban on in-flight phones, those conflicting views will become a problem for individual airlines—or even individual flight attendants.
When you’re faced with a decision that’s going to make some customers angry no matter what you choose, it’s hard to know which voices to listen to, or whether to listen at all.
There is no more valuable time to listen to your customers than when they disagree, however. If you take the time to dive deep into a controversial topic—ideally with a group of customers who have been providing ongoing input into your business—you have a better chance of identifying strategies that will either help you satisfy competing interests, or focus your attention on the most crucial customer groups.
In a survey of 1,014 Americans who weighed in on the topic last month(January 2014), we heard the following about mobile phones on airplanes:
- 44% of respondents agree that the FCC should permit the usage of cell phones on planes in flight, while 45% oppose the idea.
- 40% of respondents say they would be very likely or somewhat likely to choose airline carriers based on their in-flight mobile use policies. Of these, the majority (54%) would choose a phone-fee carrier; 29% would choose a phone-friendly carrier, and 17% would prefer a carrier with lower mobile rates for in-flight phone use.
- 55% say the regulation of phone usage should be a joint responsibility of both airlines and FCC. Only 12% thinks it should be the exclusive responsibility of the FCC, while 15% thinks the airlines should establish the guidelines.
These survey results reflect the public divide on this issue—and also show that rules on cellphone usage can indeed sway people’s ticket-buying decisions. If you’re in the airline industry, you better be tuned in to your customers.
So what should a business do when customers have conflicting opinions? Often the answer lies in looking more closely for nuances and patterns other than the overarching disagreement. For example, our data shows that while customers are divided on the issue of whether cell phone use should be permitted in flight, they do agree on some issues. Most notably, a full 70% think that airlines should have at least partial responsibility for determining the guidelines, so airline carriers can’t stand on the sidelines and let the FCC sort it all out.
Here are best practices to help you find the best path forward among your battling customers—and that could help airlines navigate through this turbulent issue:
Find a middle ground. While the public is evenly divided on whether cellphone use should be allowed in flight, most passengers (80%) object to voice calls. At the same time, most would-be in-flight cell users primarily care about texting (72%) Internet access (69%), and email (65%); only 28% are interested in making voice calls.
Almost half (43%) of all respondents think that if cell phones are allowed in flight, it should be for data use only, and only 18% think phone use should be totally unlimited. Allowing data in flights but not calls therefore appears to be a potential middle ground.
Figure out which groups of customers feel which way. Only 25% of would-be in-flight talkers say they’d be prepared to pay roaming rates for in-flight phone or data use. But if these consumers fly more frequently than other consumers, it still might make business sense for airlines to try to meet the needs of these consumers. They should explore providing different offerings for different groups. Failing that, they will need to determine who their most valuable or strategically important customers are and target their approach accordingly. If they know that some customers are alienated by phone use, but others are prepared to pay richly for the privilege, you can at least make an educated decision.
Educate the opposition. While the overwhelming reason (80%) for opposing cellphone use in flights is that people don’t want to hear other people’s calls, half of those who disagree with in-flight phone use also worry about safety (54%). These stats suggest education on actual risks could soften opposition. If you end up making a decision that you know will make one set of customers unhappy, look for opportunities to change their minds. For example, the data-only solution may still make customers unhappy if they are worried about safety, but evidence suggest that the risks are low , so airlines may find that passenger education can relax some of those worried opponents.
Equip your employees. Flight attendants are right to worry about what cell phones would mean for their workload: 55% of people who believe in setting some limits on in-flight phone use think flight attendants should be the ones to help enforce those limits by warning violators. While many also think that signage (44%) and signal jamming (41%) should be part of the picture, there is clearly a widespread expectation that flight attendants will be a key part of enforcement. This highlights the need to educate your people in the front lines: Whichever consumer group you end up siding with, equip your employees (including your social media community managers) with the information and the tools they need to answer people’s questions and address opposition to your decision.
Ultimately, any business dealing with conflicting customer opinions will have to understand the factors driving people’s attitudes. Should the FCC change its rules on in-flight phone use, the airlines that will benefit will be those that understand not just the broad dimensions of disagreement among their customers, but the specific preferences, concerns and purchasing patterns of each group—otherwise they will be flying blind.