CX Flies High At BMI Regional

Colin Lewis, the U.K.-based airline’s CMO, advises fellow marketers to live through their customers’ eyes. “People in marketing are forever mixing up their opinion with their judgment,” he told in an exclusive interview.

CX Flies High At BMI Regional

Time equals money for BMI Regional’s business traveller, so it’s no wonder the airline’s position as the country’s most punctual plays a starring role in its marketing communications.

CMO Colin Lewis joined the airline in 2013, when the company had already been spun out as an independent business, having previously been owned by Lufthansa. The move was a return to the travel sector following a stint at 118118 and earlier roles at CityJet, Aer Arann, and Thomas Cook.

BMI Regional now runs scheduled passenger flights from UK regional airports to Germany, Italy, and Norway as well as routes from Germany to Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Czech Republic. It has code-sharing agreements with Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines and operates 18 aircraft, each carrying up to 50 passengers.

Given its regional focus, we began by asking him how the airline differentiates itself in such a crowded airline market.

Lewis: Our main differentiator is customer experience. We allow business customers to fly like VIPs because our planes are 50-seaters, so you’re not part of a huge crowd and you can get on and off at speed to carry on with your busy day. We’re a full-service airline, and we offer a generous baggage allowance, and we always quote the price you’re going to pay, there are never any hidden extras.

The big message we always try to communicate in our marketing is that we’ve been the country’s most punctual airline in nine of the last 10 years. That is probably the most important point any business person wants to know because our core customers are people who commute to work or fly regularly.

We fly from multiple airports across Britain and Europe, but we don’t compete in London. That’s a market where only the huge international carriers can compete. We’re there for the vast majority of business people who fly regularly but aren’t based in London. Your marketing activities must be localised to your key airport cities, then?

Lewis: You would think that but, actually, we’ve found that local print and local digital is overpriced on a cost-per-thousand basis. We, therefore, mostly concentrate on national campaigns because, in digital, the cost per thousand is a lot more acceptable and, by operating out of so many regional airports, that makes us pretty national anyway.

You might wonder about London but, actually, a lot of our bookings come from people who aren’t flying from where they live but, instead, need to get from one point to another outside London, so we have plenty of customers in London, we just don’t fly from there. What’s your focus when it comes to digital marketing?

Lewis: We mainly look at people who have already got their hand up and are telling us they’re in the market for a flight, so search is a key driver for us. We put a lot of effort into SEO to appear organically when people are searching for flights between the cities we serve.

As a result, search gets the biggest slice of the budget but we do a lot with our email database too, which is a very successful channel for us for rebookings. Alongside digital, we run outdoor campaigns in the cities we fly from and we occasionally run print ads, but they’re normally only used when we’re running a short, sharp blast for a route. Customer experience is clearly important for you. How do you give a consistent experience offline and online?

Lewis: With great difficulty! Customer experience is what truly separates us from the bulk carriers, yet as an airline, a lot of the experience on the day is not down to us. People can have a bad time getting through security or the weather may be dreadful, and if a volcano erupts, then we’re grounded. We just have to accept that, in airlines, there is so much that is beyond our control. The battleground we can control is what happens onboard, and that is an area where we spend a lot of effort to deliver. Loyalty is a battleground for many airlines, what’s your approach to this?

Lewis: We don’t have a loyalty programme where you collect points. If you think of loyalty, you need to think in terms of recognition, reward, and relevance; as an airline, we’re very much focused on recognition.

Our recognition work has been around looking at and segmenting our customers into groupings, such as corporate, SME, and individual, and that work is ongoing as we see if there are ways we can tailor touch points to different types of customer.

We truly believe, though, that it is customer experience that engenders loyalty—get that right, and people will be loyal without the need for points. Automation tends to divide opinion among marketers. Is BMI Regional heavily automated?

Lewis: Two of the most overused terms in marketing have to be CRM and automation—I’m not so sure a lot of people actually know what they mean any more when they talk about these subjects.

With automation, we’re basically talking about tools similar to those we’ve had for a while but now with “go-faster” stripes. There’s just been this incredible explosion over the last couple of years of marketing automation and vendors out there trying to convince you that they have the best package. I used to get a handful of calls a month about martech, but now I get that every day.

I’m sure I’m not the only CMO who feels that many of the vendors rarely understand what they have to communicate. Many conversations start with really basic introductions and often forget about finding out what the customer—in this case, the airline—needs. Have you avoided automation, then? If not, how do you assess which tools to go for?

Lewis: We have invested in the tools we need on an ROI basis. There’s far too many vendors out there trying to sell somebody a Ferrari when a Ford Mondeo will do just fine. We don’t handle the millions upon millions of customers that some blue-chip brands have, so we have to look at the cost of what someone is suggesting we should use. It might be an amazing piece of technology, but if the price is too high and we can’t see the ROI, we’ll not invest.

We’ve tended to shy away from tools that can’t be adjusted for us, we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. We need our automation tools to work in the way we need them to, and not how someone’s set them for other companies. What has influenced your approach to marketing the most? How has that shaped the advice you’d pass on to marketers?

Lewis: Marketers have to get closer to their customers and see things through their eyes. You should never assume you already know the answer to any question, you have to live it through your customers’ eyes. Listen to them, and you won’t go too far wrong.

Always start with the customer and don’t overcomplicate it.

There are far too many people out there mixing up opinion and judgment. They have an opinion already that leads to their judgment. I’ve been told before that email’s no good because people don’t open them anymore. Absolute rubbish, it’s our best channel for driving repeat flight bookings. You only have to look at the data to show it. People in marketing are forever mixing up their opinion with their judgment. As marketers, we must understand, our opinion is irrelevant, it’s what the customers are telling you that you need to listen to.

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