- By Sherril Hanson
- February 23, 2023
Denver International Airport (DEN) is the third busiest airport in the world and served more than 69 million passengers in 2022. Customer experience (CX) at DEN is described as a guiding principle and core business with the goal of exceeding the needs and desires of travelers.
Dash Research interviewed Marco Toscano, Director of Customer Experience at DEN, and discussed positive strategies and projects that help smooth out customer journeys, challenges CX practitioners face at major international airports, and future projects.
Can you provide some background on your personal or professional experiences that have shaped the way you approach your role of Director of Customer Experience?
I started with customer experience with an airline, where I oversaw CX for 14 years before coming to DEN. When I started at the airport, I was the director of customer service. I eventually moved into CX when we started to carve out what customer experience means to DEN versus customer service.
It helps to have a broad picture when you are in aviation—being able to know airports and having the perspective of the customers interacting with the airlines operating there. My background helps paint the whole customer picture since I know the inside workings from an airline perspective, including customers finding a flight, picking times, and booking. I also know broader challenges from an airline perspective, such as understanding boundaries and regulations and how the airport can complement that and ease some of those situations.
There are parts of a customer journey that the airline is responsible for. Then that experience gets handed over to DEN when they enter the airport, and then the customer experience goes back to the airline as they begin their flight. Being familiar with all the touchpoints along the way helps bring some closure to a long journey map that encompasses entering the airport, boarding the plane, and everything in between. Knowing that entire spectrum helps me be a better customer advocate, and helps to identify pain points a customer may experience.
The term “customer experience” can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to DEN?
DEN has a customer service team and a customer experience team. I think it’s important to have both these distinct areas. We view customer service as a one-on-one interaction with a customer. This could be a customer call center, information booth, or our ambassadors who are volunteers roaming the airport to help with wayfinding. Customer service is helping with questions like where is the nearest bathroom? Where is the shuttle to the rental cars? How do I get the bus downtown?
Customer experience is the overall bigger picture. It’s journey mapping for the customer and looking at the facility as a whole, as our customers make their way through. And it includes how we help resolve the issues that turn up. CX for DEN includes:
- Customer insights and voice of the customer data reporting
- Working with third-party vendors for customer data collection
- Journey mapping
- Innovations that touch the customer space
- Being an overall customer advocate
- General enhancement of the customers enjoyment of DEN, our offerings, and our facility
For example, every time a customer interacts with an agent, whether at a booth or on a phone call, these are logged. We use a customer relationship management (CRM) platform that has been modified just for us. I can then go back and look at the types of questions that are being asked. For example, if we are getting certain questions about a particular part of a concourse, we might need better signage or there is a problem that needs to be addressed because it’s driving customer questions. Our CX tools and activities give us insights into those challenges.
We see ourselves as customer advocates, helping to make sure that as decisions are being made at DEN, we keep customers in mind throughout the process and ensure that our executives are listening to that customer’s voice. We have regular presentations to leadership and airport partners on insights customers are giving us. We partner with ACI and get ASQ scores (an airport customer satisfaction index). We poll about 750 customers per quarter with a particular set of questions. We also have QR codes around the facility so customers can provide feedback. For actual customer interactions, we use a system that helps capture feedback across various channels, including social media. All of the data is exported into Power BI, which helps us get to the one source of truth.
It’s a big undertaking, as our feedback runs the whole gamut. If it affects the customer’s travel, we will hear about it regardless of whether it’s an actual DEN program or an issue with an airline or concessionaire. We take all the feedback and try to resolve it as a whole, but we do work closely with all our partners. Our data is categorized and shared. For example, if someone is having an issue with a particular rental car agency, we will send that person over to that company, but the issue gets classified and documented, and we share this data with our partners quarterly.
The travel industry has had a lot of challenges over the past few years and pain points during the course of a customer journey seem to be multiplying. Can you provide some examples of positive strategies and projects that have been implemented at DEN that have helped smooth out some of these rough edges?
During the pandemic, we were in a unique spot where we still had high traffic volumes. We had some reductions, which weren’t as significant as other airports. In 2022, we surpassed our 2019 pre-pandemic passenger traffic.
But this sustained traffic did present its unique challenges. During the pandemic, people were concerned about crowds, waiting in line, and paying for items face-to-face at concessions. We implemented a few things to help with this. One was food delivery from a mobile device, where you can pay from your device. Runners would bring the food to the customer. No waiting in line, no counters, and it was contactless payment. Post-pandemic, the demand for this service went away.
We also increased the availability of virtual meetings. We implemented a product called LiveAgent which allowed customers to interact face-to-face with customer service agents. This could be accessed at home, from the website, or on a mobile device. At the airport, we have QR codes and kiosks at the information booth so customers can have this interaction. This has stuck and is a popular option for passengers to connect with our agents. Calls are still a primary means of communication, but many are moving over to this video option. Pre-pandemic, texting was really growing as a means of communication, and now there is a broader acceptance of video.
This LiveAgent rollout also helped with labor shortages during the pandemic and even now as we continue to face a tight labor market. Maybe we can’t staff an information booth, but we have many other means for customers to reach us and feel like they are still getting a one-to-one interaction. We can really expand our reach. No matter where a customer is in the airport, they can still reach a human.
The technologies that developed during the pandemic and provided convenience to the customer – things like contactless payment and digital menus – are sticking. Most DEN customers check-in online and use kiosks and automated bag services. These efficiencies and conveniences are here to stay and will continue to shape the airport experience moving forward.
What are some of the toughest challenges facing those responsible for CX at major airports such as DEN? How do you work to overcome them?
All airports are unique and have their own challenges. During the pandemic, some airports could take advantage of lower volume to make facility improvements, perform deep cleanings or take on projects that were on the books waiting to be implemented. Some of these projects were completed with minimal customer impact.
Our airport’s sustained volumes didn’t allow us that luxury. DEN has had a lot of construction going on, which constantly affects experience, and we still have those large passenger volumes. So, we have explored ways to mitigate some of these pain points. We have worked hard to educate customers and provide a lot of communication. This could be helping find checkpoints that are less busy, using digital signage to direct people, and measuring lines.
We are revisiting our journey map. We refresh it yearly. We paused this during the pandemic but are back on our normal cadence. We are looking at it from the perspective of what has changed since the pandemic. What are new congestion points we didn’t see before? We are also identifying changes in passenger behavior and if we need to look into certain improvements.
We have also created a new CX team, ACES, which stands for Airport Customer Experience Specialists. These agents are out and about with customers 100% of their shift. They have no office or desk. Their desk is the concourse. It allows us to see what customers are experiencing that day firsthand and because they are live out there, they can address some facilities issues head-on and immediately. If they see signage that doesn’t make sense or a facility issue that needs addressing, we can have a work order put in quickly. We started it on Jan. 1, and we have already received great feedback.
To sum it up, being able to continue innovating and working through customer challenges with high volumes has been challenging, but we have made significant progress.
What are you most looking forward to in terms of current or potential CX projects in the coming year?
Obviously, our CX will be significantly improved once our construction is complete. We have already seen some of that success with our gate expansion areas that have opened – we expanded all three of our concourses and added three outdoor patios. We have polled customers about the new gate areas, and all of the pain points that customers brought up with existing gates were resolved with our expansion. The gate expansion project helped to enhance the overall feel of gate areas by improving seating comfort, including lounge seating, and adding charging stations.
More immediate is investigating customers being able to make reservations for security checkpoint wait times. A handful of airports have implemented it, including LAX, and have had great success. We sometimes have checkpoints that are overloaded, while some aren’t busy at all. Reservations will help us to better plan passenger travel through the airport and will also improve CX by lowering line wait times.
On a lighter side, we have just announced contracts with new artists, and we have some big new art projects in the works. Our data shows post-pandemic, most passengers arrive 1.5-3 hours before a flight and are mainly in a gate hold area. How can we make that time more enjoyable? As I mentioned, better seating options help. Also, getting creative with entertainment and using QR codes so people can learn more about how art in the airport was created. We are also looking at musical performances. Basically, branching out to provide other options for the gate area other than food and beverage.
As we continue to unfold what our airport will look like, it’s more like these expansion areas. It excites me to think about what will come once construction wraps up. It will be amazing, and DEN’s customer experience will really be brought to a new level.
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