“No, Bill. You don’t want wider seats.”

At a recent dinner party I explained what I do for a living. One attendee responded, “Well, then can you please call Delta, and tell them I want wider seats?”

I responded, “Actually, you don’t.  People say they want wider seats, but their behavior says that they really don’t.”

“Oh, you mean the hypothetical general public doesn’t want wider seats?”

“No, Bill.”  I responded. “I mean that you specifically don’t want wider seats.”


Surveys Don’t Tell the Full Story

The problem with many customer experience surveys is that they recommend the equivalent of “make my seats wider.” It’s a common practice to ask customers to rate importance for different factors, then compare that to satisfaction. But it just doesn’t work.  Since you measure each item in isolation, everything is free.  And so there’s nothing to ensure that respondents’ answers match their actual behaviors. Expensive things like wider seats have just as much weight as free peanuts.

To show what I mean, let’s play this out.  I call Delta and somehow find the magical IVR prompts to reach the right person. She hears my plea and responds, “My goodness – you’re right!  We’ve been looking at this wrong! We’ll fix that immediately.”  So they remove one chair from each row to allow for wider seats.  What will happen? Will travelers flock to Delta to take advantage of the space?

Well, probably not. To make up the revenue shortfall, Delta now needs to charge 20% more.  Rather than driving more business, they chase away more customers than they attract.*

Let the Data Do the Talking

Asking customers to rate importance feels intuitively like a good idea. And sometimes it’s your only option.  But there are usually alternatives. By analyzing stated  importance, you don’t get a balanced viewpoint. It’s better to forego asking importance altogether and instead use business metrics to derive importance.  Don’t ask how important things are, bring in sales or usage data and use that to find out what actually drives your customer loyalty.

If you’re Delta, link satisfaction scores with revenue, and use this to derive true importance.  If increases in satisfaction with seat width correlates with increased spending and loyalty, then you start tearing out seats – at least as a test. But, more likely you will find that increases in seat-size-satisfaction have little link to loyalty. When you see that, you know that you need to focus elsewhere. If revenue isn’t available, then at least link it to your high-level relationship scores, such as NPS or satisfaction, then find what factors drive these scores.

This isn’t just a B2C issue. In fact, I find it even easier to do this analysis for B2B customer measurements.

In my review of the 2012 Temkin Award winners I found that most of the winners incorporate business metrics with their customer experience measurements. For example, JetBlue has linked on-time departure to NPS. By understanding this linkage, they were able to better allocate staff at airport. And while Oracle did not give any detail, they apparently link drivers not only to their NPS scores, but also to financial results.

Unfortunately, most of us are using the easy and intuitive approach of assuming that ranked importance matches behavior. And it often isn’t true.

Your turn.  Are you taking the time to determine whether your metrics actually matter? Or are you telling your teams to create wider seats?


*No, I’m not saying that a company cannot be successful with a premium offering.  Simply that this offer does not match Delta’s value proposition, so will be unsuccessful for them.

3 replies
  1. Shawn Phillips
    Shawn Phillips says:

    This is a very good point you make. Individual items must be taken into context. However, you chose an unfortunate example with Delta. Delta has the highest ticket prices of any US Domestic Airline. It seems Delta takes the approach to have higher prices AND narrower seats. I speak from weekly experience with Delta flights for the past year. If you compare the same routes on US Airways to Delta you find that Delta charges a premium. US Airways also has far better customer service.

    • Jim Tincher
      Jim Tincher says:


      I would argue that Delta has done a good job of analyzing what is important to you. Low prices are not your key driver (since you’re expensing your costs) nor, apparently, is service (since you’re still coming), but instead the ability to fly direct to Pittsburgh each week is most critical to you personally. Presumably, they are the only ones flying direct. Since you value that more than low prices or strong service, they are investing appropriately.

      That’s what a good customer analysis will tell you. Setting aside whether or not they offer good service, an effective customer intelligence system will show you what is most important to your customers – in your case, a direct flight. You value the direct flight more than cost savings, so what they are doing is what it takes to make you a loyal customer who has spent tens of thousands of dollars with them in the last year.

      Now, before the hate bombs come in, focusing everything on product (the direct flight) is risky, since if there are enough people flying to Pittsburgh, another airline could come in and undercut their price. Ideally, Delta is looking at more than one driver. But price does not have to be that secondary driver – it could be flight times (another product driver), conveniences (pretzels and Mountain Dew for all passengers), or effective self-service options.

      My main point is that everything in business is a trade-off. Delta focuses on their product, whereas Jet Blue and others focus on their people as a key differentiator. But notice that Jet Blue doesn’t fly to as many places – that’s not their focus. Instead, they choose the most popular routes to fly, leaving the less desirable MSP-Pittsburgh route to Delta.

      So long as Delta has a core set of customers who value product over friendly people, they will continue to exist. Your choice is whether you wish to continue accepting poor service and high prices in order to save six hours of travel every week.



Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] via “No, Bill. You don’t want wider seats.” – Heart of the Customer. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *