I am writing this while at San Francisco Airport waiting to return to Miami on the redeye. There is an odd peacefulness that I find comes with taking a flight through the night. It is from this philosophical perspective that I want to share a few observations from my trip .
It began in Miami with a four hour delay on the outbound leg due to mechanical issues with the plane. Before I even had a chance to know I was delayed, American saw fit to charge me a $15 dollar fee to check a single bag. I know that's standard practice for some airlines today, but it was particularly disappointing on top of the fact that I had to cancel two other trips on American (with the same ticket) and I was charged a $150 change fee each time. So, my trip had a price tag of the original ticket price ($515,) plus $300 in changes fees and then a $15 charge for checking a bag. I know times are tough, but how is it that some other airlines are thriving (on a relative basis), without finding it necessary to charge these kinds of customer antagonistic fees?
When I finally landed and made it into my rent-a-car, I noticed that right on the console was a logo for "Sync, Powered by Microsoft". I had never heard of that before and have since learned that it's "Sync: Voice-Activated Mobile Phone and Digital Music System For Your Car". Does anybody really expect someone renting a vehicle to take the time to set up voice activated mobile functionality in their rental car? Interestingly, when I booked the car, Hertz told me that I could have either Sirius radio or GPS, but not both. Naturally I went with Sirius. Maybe Microsoft could have bundled GPS with their music system for the rental cars they are outfitting?
Being that I have been deeply involved in the Search Engine Marketing industry for the past 10 years and have closely watched Microsoft's extreme challenges in gaining a foothold, I was perplexed by their logo in my Ford Mustang rental. My company, MoreVisibility cannot ever seem to spend a client's budget for paid search in MSN, no matter how hard we try. It has been a point of frustration for us and other marketers for years. It is largely understood that MSN's market share is so nominal that the only time it is sourced for clicks is when all traffic generating opportunities within Google and Yahoo have been exhausted. Maybe I am jaded by my industry experience, but refining Search seems like a much better use of resources than promoting a vehicle add-on for cars which are sitting in dealer lots anyway.
A logical question that I do not think receives enough consideration is why Microsoft's market share for Search is so much lower than Google's. I believe it has less to do with the relevancy of the search results than with the user friendliness of the home page / search user experience. There are clearly segments of the market who are set in their ways and use MSN as their start page. There is, however a much larger group of individuals who want a home page that intelligently brings together all of the elements of their life into a single, highly customizable page. Have you ever tried personalizing an igoogle page vs. a mymsn page? The difference couldn't be more stark in terms of the options to import content and arrange the page. Google is light-years ahead. Furthermore, MSN finds it necessary to place a large, immovable advertisement on the page, that Google does not impose. It sort of feels like I am being hit with that bag check fee every time I visit the page (which isn't very often).
Back to American Airlines for a moment. I find it mystifying that the American Airlines website looks practically identical to what it did in 2003! Check it out for yourself. Here's a link to the website today, www.aa.com and here's one to a snapshot of their site in January of 2003, courtesy of Archive.org, AA Website January 2003. The internet has changed so much in the past six years. How is it possible that they haven't felt it appropriate to change the appearance of their site and incorporate a more user friendly interface?
I learned in school that when writing an article you are supposed to arrive at a conclusion or if you are going to point out a bunch of problems, then it should be coupled with a solution. While I do not have a "solution" for either Microsoft or American Airlines, I do believe that some basic competitive analysis make their issues very straightforward to identify and address.
The larger lesson is that nothing is written in stone. Companies can change the way they interact with their customers and as a result their perceptions in the marketplace. The internet facilitates this in an historically unparalleled manner. Take the time to revisit how you are viewed by your customers and how your competitors are differentiating themselves. A thoughtful analysis can have a tremendous impact on your success.