Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, could easily have painted this picture of the Jet Airways boardroom responding to the Indigo onslaught – ‘After much debate, the management has decided to take the consistent punctuality of competition head-on, by being consistently delayed as a strategy for differentiation’. A hypothesis proven by many recent personal experiences and anecdotal accounts of how this pioneer of civilised aviation is descending rapidly from cruising altitude, on most parameters of service.
The greatest strength of Jet Airways was its delivery of a smart new world to the Indian customer just tasting liberalisation, two hours of excellence that could be anywhere in the world. It helped improve our self-esteem when we were infrastructurally challenged, with neither road nor office even remotely comparable to the benchmarks. We were happy and proud, our colleagues and friends from abroad visibly impressed by graciousness way superior to Western standards and comparable to the Asian super-carriers. Equally smartly, the management understood the timeless fancies of the privileged Indian, the need to be constantly feted by visible symbols of stature, the Jet Premiere tag a permanent part of briefcases and then laptop bags. The ritual of upgradation was handled with clever sensitivity, according the breathless aspirant a whiff of untimely privilege, a trailer as if to the front-row corporate stature he sought so deeply. Thus, the ‘Babu2.0’ was born as an outcome of this culture, savvy and dynamic but unabashedly fond of the recognition he received.
Increasingly acclimatised to our multi-brand lives, every global manufacturer setting shop gleefully, our expectations from experiences began to change bit by bit. The sheer presence of a world-class service or product was not sufficient evidence for loyalty nor was the fawning acknowledgement of societal strata by consumption, say, of a business-class product. In tune with global precedence, fuelled by the technology boom and the start-up situation, we were happily becoming comfortable with positions of power, firstly ignoring and then disregarding symbols of overt elevation. What began with casual dressing in business meetings led swiftly to the frenzied adoption of Uber or the Metro and most notably of Indigo Airlines. An entire generation of successful and aspiring folks converging on the values of efficiency and productivity, an open disdain for illogical luxury as apparent as the love for truly international experiences.
Which is exactly why the casual operating practices of Jet Airways, leading to a love-hate relationship with flyers, is truly dangerous for the brand. Delays are callously routine, the cuisine in economy has dipped, the aging fleet losing its famed sheen while the service standards are inconsistent and irregular. Those who have tasted the glory of the JP regime are fiercely loyal, overlooking the flaws as if an indulgent brother, while the switching customer finds little reason for repeat patronage. While many have moved to Indigo for its timely convenience and a ridiculously high number of connections, those seeking a premium flavour are in love with Vistara; as routes increase so will the rate of migration. As mentioned earlier, the Jet loyalist is still motivated by a certain historical gratitude and the ability to encash points on a large international network, transactional considerations that are dangerous for brands. For the day when competition offers a comparable rational value, like a truly competitive FFP, their experiential superiority will accelerate the switch.
The case of Jet Airways offers some valuable learnings for the management of customer loyalty, the stock-in-trade of such sectors, in terms of necessaries and the avoidable. JP is a truly spectacular Customer Loyalty Programme, nurtured with love and intelligence for decades, definitely relevant today with logical amendments. However, that must be the creamy topping for brand adoption while primary affiliation is due to a delightful service experience; including punctuality, service and food. When the latter is perceptually scoring way lower than every player, the brand is operating on a dangerously unsteady equilibrium, in a consumer era where current performance is the gold standard. Valuable assets like JP can get significantly eroded having to bear a disproportionate brunt of the equity, which would be quite a pity for everybody.
It seems quite incredible why in a process-driven category like civil aviation, a seasoned player is unable to deliver the basics, unless there is a deficiency in management will or operating cash. If the current pattern of customer disservice were to continue then even the most-staunch loyalist will shift allegiances, driven by forces of efficiency like every other category. The joy of flying needs to make an urgent comeback else it will be rapidly overwhelmed by the new feeling.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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