National Academies Press: OpenBook

Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research (2021)

Chapter:Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program

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Suggested Citation:"Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26444.
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Suggested Citation:"Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26444.
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Suggested Citation:"Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26444.
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Suggested Citation:"Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26444.
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Suggested Citation:"Part III - Developing a Customer Research Program." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Guidebook on Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26444.
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Developing a Customer Research Program Introduction Parts I and II of the guidebook have presented general and specific guidance for conduct- ing research at airports. In contrast, Part III concerns the organizational context in which the research is conducted. No matter how well it is designed, research will have minimal impact at airports where managers pay little attention to the results, where research consultants are ineffective, or where the implications of the results are communicated poorly. Part III consists of a single chapter that describes how airports can take concrete actions to build a mature research program. Sound research is much more likely to become an effective and valued part of the organiza- tional culture when it is conducted, communicated, and applied thoughtfully. P A R T   I I I

214 16.1 Introduction In airports with mature research programs, the development and use of research findings are part of the organizational culture. Managers at all levels recognize the power of research to inform decisions, and there are established procedures for conducting and using monitoring and ad hoc or targeted studies. Research results are communicated effectively, and their use in making management decisions is clear. Research programs rarely grow to maturity through a linear set of steps. Instead, they develop through repeated internal interactions and feedback loops surrounding the identification of information needs, completion of research products, and communication of research- based insights. Ultimately, these shared experiences facilitate develop- ment and improvement both of airport services and of the research program itself. 16.2 The Role of Airport Managers Upper-level managers may serve as research champions based on their experience, training, or inclinations, calling on staff to conduct and use the results of research studies. In order to be effective, this championing will be consultative rather than directive or simplistic and will take into account that different airport teams may have different needs. Mid-level managers can serve as research influencers when their departments use research effectively to achieve success. Other departments are likely to take notice when positive out- comes are clearly identified and showcased. Proponents of research in other areas may have more success if they ally themselves with the champions or influencers, particularly when a research program is not fully mature. 16.3 Setting Goals Often, airports set explicit performance goals for metrics such as overall satisfaction, combined satisfaction ratings across several performance dimensions, and specific areas that are of particular importance to customers, such as restroom cleanliness or security wait times. The upside of such goals is that they represent an explicit commitment to making airport management empirically driven. They also create an atmosphere that drives the organization toward research-based decision making. C H A P T E R   1 6 Developing an Airport Customer Research Program Using the Research “Our airport is small. So, we have weekly senior leadership meetings. We sit down, we discuss strategic-level projects, and we are guided by a strategic business plan, an annual plan every year so we do know what our priorities are. And that’s where a lot of research is driven from that plan. We have discussions, and if we need to pull together an ad hoc committee to analyze potential changes that need to happen, that’s what happens.” —Research participant

Developing an Airport Customer Research Program 215   The main downside to setting numeric goals is that the airport may lose sight of the core issue or the research strategy and focus strictly on the metric itself. This both diverts people from what is truly important and sets up the temptation to distort the measurement in some way. It is less likely to happen when those responsible for decision making are involved in determining how the inputs will be measured. 16.4 Research Implementation Much of the research conducted at airports is predesigned and standardized and requires minimal specialized skill in order to manage and implement. This includes in particular the monitoring surveys such as ASQ, DKMA, and JD Power, which arrive already developed and with explicit instructions for implementation. These are also the most labor-intensive and expensive studies an airport is likely to conduct. Targeted or ad hoc studies, on the other hand, require in-depth planning, research design, selection of an implementation strategy, and execution on the part of the airport. In this case, a number of specialized skills will be required, either from the airport or from an external source. Some airports have professional researchers or personnel with research experience on staff, although those in smaller airports may have backgrounds that are stronger in one area than in another (in quantitative rather than qualitative methods, for example). Thus, as it develops a research program, the airport will at some point need to assess the capabilities of those on staff, determine whether there are gaps between staff knowledge and experience and the airport’s anticipated needs, and decide whether additional expertise is required. In the current era, it is also particularly important to note that software ostensibly designed to “democratize” customer research probably presents more hazards than opportunities. While it is easy to program a survey into software such as SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics, for example, this is no assurance that the survey will be well-designed and constructed. Software does not turn a novice into an expert; in many cases, it simply facilitates the broadcasting of untutored design. This in turn often leads to inaccurate and misleading results. An airport endeavoring to enhance its research capability is therefore confronted with three fundamental options: add staff with expertise that is limited or absent in-house, empower staff to manage an outside contractor with the skills that are not present internally on an ongoing basis, or contract with outside consultants on an ad hoc basis. The first of these will of necessity follow the airport’s recruitment and hiring protocols; the second might best emerge from experience with a single project or small group of projects. The third is thus a possible precursor to the second. Research consultants or firms vary widely in experience and expertise. Some are specialized in particular areas, such as focus group moderation, while others offer a range of services, including qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualifications and quality of work also vary considerably. Procurement processes are beyond the scope of this guidebook and are likely already speci- fied in the organization’s contracting protocols. Important considerations from a research perspective include: • Documented experience with the method or methods that are not present at the airport; • Ability and willingness to describe any methodological limitations and offer alternatives (such as a quantitative researcher who can recommend high-caliber qualitative researchers); • A demonstrated capability to ask as many questions as are necessary to determine exactly what the issue to be studied is, what information is needed for decision making, and how the results can be effectively applied;

216 Guidebook for Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research • Examples of designs and reports that can be vetted by in-house staff or by vendors recom- mended by other airports that are not in competition for this position; • Reports that clearly demonstrate the ability to draw logical and reasonable conclusions and recommendations from whatever information is acquired, not merely to present a lot of quantitative data or qualitative text; and • The ability to discuss results, conclusions, and recommendations in clear, non-technical language. If there are appropriate consultants locally, it may be wise to give them particular consider- ation, although certainly not to the exclusion of these issues. Local firms will be familiar with the airport and the area, will have (or have familiarity with) local labor sources if field workers are required, and will be easier to meet with face-to-face with relatively little notice. Despite the widespread use of virtual meeting technology, in-person meetings have distinct advantages, and the need for a meeting can come up quite suddenly. Once a consultant is engaged and that consultant’s work has proved efficient and effective, it will make sense to consider engaging in a longer-term relationship—either an ongoing one or an on-call one, depending on the airport’s needs. Competent consultants will obtain and use institutional knowledge as they continue to work for an airport, and they will also be able to develop strong working relationships with key personnel. Developed properly, the deepening relationship will yield increasingly effective research designs and reports. 16.5 Communication of Results Effective communication of results tells the story of the research—not of the study itself, but of the insights that were sought and developed. Every research story has a beginning, a middle, and an end (see Figure 16-1). Importantly, this story does not wander around in the weeds of the research methodology. Decision makers care far more about what was asked, what the answer was, and what needs to be done. Methods, always critical to an understanding of the quality of the work, can be presented separately or as an appendix. Another approach to the effective presentation of research findings is the dashboard, which typically depicts monitoring data from a variety of sources using multiple data visualizations such as bar charts and trend lines. Effective communication of airport actions should also highlight the role of research, particularly in cases where it plays a meaningful role in airport planning or management. Examples from the research leading to this guidebook include the following quotations from research participants: We’ve done research for . . . projects with large impacts on the community. For example, we did an observational traffic study of Uber and Lyft and the impact they had on airport traffic. We used it to determine if we needed to give them their own site due to their large volume. Figure 16-1. Research phases and components.

Developing an Airport Customer Research Program 217   This year’s strategic focus was on the “end-to-end passenger journey.” The goal was to identify what is most important to the customer. They called this the “Three W’s”: washroom (cleanliness), wayfinding, and waiting (wait time). They then identified all of the ASQ participants that scored higher than XYZ on these dimensions and had teams visit them. In communications about the role of research in airport planning and management, care should be taken not to oversell results based on small, non-random samples of customers and to emphasize that research is not designed to validate predetermined conclusions. When these basic precautions are taken, the communications not only keep airport personnel current, but also elicit creative thinking about and suggestions for expanding the role of research. 16.6 Suggestions for Smaller Airports Airports have limited resources, and the availability of resources for research tends to shrink with the size of the airport. As smaller airports consider how to address this situation, it may be helpful to recognize that the key criterion for a successful research program is staff members who have the skills and ability to interpret data and extract useful insights. These could be analysts, marketers, customer service personnel, or researchers—anyone with the ability to identify and communicate what data mean. While monitoring surveys such as ASQ, DKMA, or JD Power are important and foundations for airport research, their impact will be greatly enhanced if there is someone on the premises who can fully interpret and apply the data. The standard reports can be overwhelming to those without data literacy. Thus, the first step in building a research program may not be to conduct research, but rather to determine who on the team has this fundamental skill, researcher or not. Research programs at small airports can be limited by the funds available to conduct research studies. In order to supplement or even substitute internal resources, airports might explore partnerships with external organizations, such as by: • Working with airlines on issues that are of shared concern, • Working with local universities to conduct research in the form of seminar or graduate thesis projects, and • Creating internships for students newly trained in research skills who have the necessary data literacy. Finally, it is perhaps most important to note that the interviews and site visits preceding the development of this guidebook identified a number of small airports that have creative, robust research programs. Development and implementation of research is not necessarily a function of size; it can also be an outgrowth of vision and commitment.

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Airport user surveys have traditionally been used to obtain information for facility planning. More recently, however, surveys are being used to measure satisfaction as a way to identify actions that could improve the customer experience and increase non-aeronautical revenues, particularly those from passenger terminal concessions.

The TRB Airport Cooperative Research Program's ACRP Research Report 235: Guidebook for Conducting Airport User Surveys and Other Customer Research provides airport managers and staff involved in customer research, as well as airport consultants and other stakeholders, with guidance on the effective use of airport user surveys and other customer research techniques.

Supplementary to the report is Appendices A through L.

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