We’ll take the line for frantic panicked travelers, please


Maybe it’s time to let your customers personalize their own experience.

Fallon Planning wrote recently about the new traveler check-in process at Orlando Airport, in which travelers choose from one of three lines — expert, casual, or family travelers — for different experiences. As you’d expect, expert travelers are people with small carry-on bags who whisk themselves through the metal detectors with no change in their pockets. On the other end, families struggle with many bags and crying kids. Yet, bizarrely, this process — which was suggested to the Transportation Security Administration by focus groups — has streamlined check-in as travelers perceive more control over the experience.

Which is all brilliant, because the TSA has pushed personalization into the control of the consumer, not computers. Back in the 1990s, the idea of personalization and 1to1 marketing was almost arrogant, in that companies assumed they could analyze your data and then use fancy “business rules” to give you the perfect, next-best offer. The idea had its roots in airline seating (high-value business up front, schmucks in the back) and financial services (if you’re investing a cool mil, your broker returns your calls).

Different customers would be treated differently, but only based on predictive modeling.

The Holy Grail of personalization broke down because (a) it’s really hard to understand the actual future financial value and potential needs of all your customers, (b) mass-customizing a response is almost always cost prohibitive, and (c) the theory never really translated into a competitive advantage. Personalization is only one of the value factors that consumers perceive. Brands, design, financial cost, opportunity cost, competitor entries, what your spouse will think … all of these make personalization just one push toward the purchase.

But personalization is still important. Google has succeeded wildly by creating the most personal response of all, by simply allowing customers to ask for what they want. And now airlines are allowing customers to pick their own line, for a more positive check-in experience even if it means admitting they aren’t “expert travelers.”

So, Netflix, Amazon, and all you other collaborative filtering tell-us-what-we-want recommendation systems: We love the kindness. But sometimes, maybe you can just ask us what we’d like instead.

(Photo: United terminal at O’Hare by Ken Douglas)

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