FlySafair is the most on-time airline in the world! They began operating in October 2014, which makes the airline one of the latest additions to the South African skies. What most people don’t know however, is that Safair Operations, the company behind FlySafair, has been around for over 50 years.
Safair is one of Africa’s foremost specialist aviation companies, offering a wide range of specialist airlift services, geared toward large and bulky cargo to obscure places with some interesting runways. The other side of their business has been leasing and cargo business.
When they launched FlySafair in 2014, their vision was simple; “We want to be South Africa’s favourite airline.” That is not an easy vision to have, however their efforts have definitely contributed to reaching that goal.
The airline has stayed true to their mission as well, to provide a low-fare, hassle-free and on-time travel experience. So how do they do it…How do you become one of the favourite airlines in South Africa while staying true to your mission?
Speaking to Kirby Gordon, Head of Sales and Distribution at FlySafair, we aim to get a better understanding, and how they managed to create and maintain one of the most impressive customer journeys both on-and-offline.
- FlySafair has a very sleek online booking experience, however, you currently just use browsers, is there a reason you didn’t opt for a mobile app like most other airlines?
Building a mobile app has been a key consideration for some time. The basis of the decision has actually been around costs. As a low cost airline, managing costs has to be part of our DNA. The creation of a Mobile App property creates a new product that needs unique maintenance beyond wat we currently invest into our site. To date the development of a really slick responsive site, with a great mobile experience has provided us with a strong mobile solution without the costs of maintaining a unique IT product. That said, the big clincher has always been the ability to create an app that goes beyond the basic functionality already available on our website. Our belief is that an app, which we are working on, needs to deliver something special, meaningful and unique to users. When we release an app, we want it to be a first screen app, something that people value and use – not just a replication of the same functionality on our website with the added marketing tool of being able to send push notifications.
- When it comes to customer behaviour and general analytics, what do you guys look out for when analysing the stats?
That cost management discipline that we referred to earlier is something that is pervasive throughout our business. We are driven by the numbers and the results, so analysis is very important to us. That said, we’re conscious to not “nuke the fridge” to reference the famous Indiana Jones faux pas. What I mean by this is that we try to keep our analysis high level enough to not get caught in the minutia. This way we’ve managed to find approaches that have allowed us to make significant impacts on our performance. Of course, when we start struggling to find those “needle movers” we’ll start to dig deeper into the details. Thus far this philosophy toward data analysis has served us well.
- FlySafair is known to come up with some amazing and wacky promotions, what has been your favourite one in recent times and why?
Our massive R1, R2, R3, R4, and R5 sales have always been epic. I’m not a long distance runner, but I imagine that they represent much the same challenge to us as the Comrades does to a runner. Once a year we embark upon this epic mission which tests our everything: our technical infrastructure, our ability to communicate to customers with perfect brevity and clarity, our capacity to deal with an impossible barrage of customer calls and social media queries. These sales are a phenomenal adrenalin rush, but then after the fact you get to sit back and appreciate the fact that we have now sold well over a 100K seats at prices that don’t even cross the threshold from coins to notes. The fact that we’ve given that many people, many of whom might not have had the opportunity to fly without that offer, does feel good.
- How important is Social Media to FlySafair? Would you say there is a correlation between Social Media and online sales?
This is a really interesting question actually. Social Media is essential to us from a customer query and experience management perspective. It’s a key one-on-one communication channel, so it’s an essential part of our mix from that perspective. If you’d posed this question to me 5 years ago as to whether it was a valuable marketing channel I would have scoffed, but Facebook has started to change in the last few years. Social generally is a good conversion assistor and awareness channel, but we have seen Facebook in particular start to emerge as a key channel in conversion. Naturally this insight it metered by the fact that the vast majority of Facebook activity is still mobile and mobile conversion rates are traditionally lower. Developments in cross-device tracking are also illuminating.
- You encourage your customers to go share their experiences on social media when flying with FlySafair. How have you managed to use feedback you received to improve or innovate?
We literally access customer feedback on a daily basis. I believe it’s too simple to get too close to your work and lose sight of the bigger picture. Our customers keep us honest, and every now and then, we get a great idea. When I say they keep us honest, we often look to feedback and monitor calls and queries when evaluating things like communication and UX. We might make a UX tweak with a particular intention, and then realise after the fact that customers are interpreting it and using the site somewhat differently to what we imagine. Another great thing about this research is that it’s free. Research and analytics companies offer brilliant services, but everyone has to earn their lunch and so they come with a price tag. This feedback is not only from the horse’s mouth, but it’s free. You can’t beat that.
- You recently introduced WhatsApp as part of your communication strategy. How have users embraced this feature?
I’m tempted to say that the adoption has been overwhelming. Fortunately it’s not actually overwhelmed us, but it has grown phenomenal. WhatsApp as a customer management tool has surpassed email and DM channels, while literally replacing online chat. Users love it, and they love the boarding pass functionality which really does mean you have to juggle fewer things at the airport when boarding.
- Your customer base seems to be loyal. Would you say this is because of your low-fare strategy, or is it because of your whole customer journey?
It’s both, and it’s because we’re punctual. Our on-time performance last year was just under 95% putting us top in the world. When designing this airline and the concurrent experience it was really tempting to get creative and craft all kinds of unique things, but what we’ve discovered to be key was just to invest time and effort into getting the real basic things right: Be affordable. Be on-time. Make travel easy using technology. Keep your staff happy and friendly. Answer the phones on time. Don’t keep people waiting at the airport.
- With regards to loyalty programmes, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on loyalty and rewards, what is your approach on that aspect?
There is and it’s complex because there’s an airline benefit as part of a third-party loyalty program like eBucks and then there’s the airline itself having a loyalty program. I guess the key question is how to get a program that works. If we think about I’ve no doubt that we’d agree that a good program increases sales, from customers with a propensity for loyalty, thereby growing revenue and doing profit in excess of the cost of implementing the program. Ultimately it has to net you in a positive position. Most classic builds on a program increase costs, because the program has to be administrated and the benefit has to be funded. Our product is highly commoditised meaning that the price elasticity of demand we face is pretty steep. The result is that increasing the price of a ticket to reward the loyal will mean more sales from the loyal, but there’s a steep cost in the “non-loyal” market because you’re now more expensive. The economics haven’t worked yet. But loyalty is a key thing so what we’re looking at are means to improve and personalise the service. I might not be able to give you 20% off all your flights, but I do believe that I can ingratiate myself if I greet you by name. We’re going to give that a go.
- Being a low-fare airline, do you find that travel fare aggregator websites have impacted your sales positively, or do you find most of your sales come direct?
Aggregation sites are key partners in our sales mix. There are customers segments who come direct, there are those who aggregate and there are those who will always opt for a face-to-face integration with a human travel agent. For us what’s key is making sure we’re on all of those shop shelves. Aggregators also serve an essential purpose in our world because they provide a platform for direct comparison to the rest of the market: that’s important to keep us honest too.
- What has been some of the most tech-disruptions that you had to keep an eye on or caused you to adjust your own strategies? If any…
I think there are loads, but they’re not always as sexy seeming as people might hope them to be. Often with this question people want to hear things about VR or drone technologies, but for us it’s some of the simpler things. Movements and adjustment in mobile habits, particularly evolving confidence in financial transactions on mobile devices has been a key evolution. New mobile payment methods like Zapper have been important for us. The evolution of Facebook and the explosion of WhatsApp as a primary communication channel have changed the game. Then there’s also the adjustments in consumer psyche. Historically customers planned air travel in advance and the global demand-based pricing model is geared to reward customers who book in advance with lower fares. In this age of instant gratification and on-demand services, customers are no longer living that way. We don’t make a specific place and time to meet on a landline anymore – we rock up at a location and WhatsApp “where are you”. We don’t book taxis or shuttles anymore – we call an Uber and get annoyed if is ETA is more than 5min. I believe that this subtle shift in expectations is squeezing our industry: customers are resisting price escalation for short-lead departures and booking curves are contracting. That’s hair-raising stuff for airlines.
- Finally, if there was anything you could do differently since starting in 2014, what would it be?
The benefit of hindsight. It’s actually something we chat about often and the answer is always “everything and nothing”. Being the first South African carrier to follow the international model and unbundle our fares offering checked luggage as a separate entity to be added to a cheap airfare, was a challenge. South African consumers had to adapt to the idea and consumers are resistant to change. Five years down the line though, we have a huge proportion of customers travelling without checked luggage and saving with cheaper fares. It’s been a win, but it was tough. Another thing is that I think we would have been less resistant to offline channels. Our aim at first was to build a brilliant site where people could purchase and maintain their bookings themselves with ease and speed. What we were naïve to is the fact that there are plenty of consumers who are still deeply intimidated by “the internet” and specifically by “putting my credit card into the internet”. Building a strong call centre for inbound sales has been important.
With the introduction of online banking in South Africa, we saw a major shift toward online transactions. Booking flights online have been one of the forerunners as an online shopping category, and is till today one of the biggest e-commerce categories.
It’s noteworthy that the level of engagement that airlines have with their customers; they really define the Omni-channel strategy. From buying a ticket online or at the counter, reserving your seat, checking in luggage, specifying special requirements, going through the final check, the safety briefings, serving snacks and ultimately disembarking. They have to think of it all! It’s a massive convergence where customer sales, customer engagement, customer service, customer safety, customer satisfaction and customer retention become one. The word that screams out in this convergence: “Customer”!
FlySafair managed to enter a highly competitive market by being operationally exceptional and superior to the competition. They realised that one of the most important considerations for domestic travellers is time; people want to be on time and don’t appreciate their time being wasted. People value their time more than most things in life, and therefore, if you as airline also value their time, you make big strides in becoming “South Africa’s favourite airline”.
Follow “The 3 Rules”
Companies often revert to price wars to gain customers and market share, however for the biggest part, this strategy is not sustainable. According to the popular book called The Three Rules by Michael E. Raynor and Mumtaz Ahmed, there are only three rules among highly successful companies that have proved their longevity and profitability:
- Better before Cheaper (Don’t compete on price, compete on Value)
- Revenue before Cost (Don’t grow by cutting costs, instead grow your revenue and volume)
- There are no other Rules! (The first two rules are the only rules there are)
FlySafair has, knowingly or unknowingly embraced these three rules. I am keeping a close eye on this dynamic airline and can’t wait to see what they will come up with in future. Expert Ecommerce wishes Kirby and the team all the best and would like to thank them for their participation and sharing their insights with Expert Ecommerce, and making our skies a friendly and on-time space.
Cassie van Wyk is the main author of this blog and has years of experience in the field of channel marketing and e-commerce respectively. He has a passion for writing and sharing knowledge, and does a lot of research in order to bring factual information to all the blog visitors. Feel free to reach out at any time!