Interviews

Flying high with story and insight: Q&A with Alaska Airlines’ Kelly Hight

Flying high with story and insight: Q&A with Alaska Airlines’ Kelly Hight

Data makes customer insight soar, but stories make it land. Storytelling is a fundamental part of the human experience, and in today’s increasingly complex business world, stories remain powerful.

Kelly Hight, guest insights research manager at Alaska Airlines, understands the power of stories. By weaving narratives around data, she turns complex research results into insight that stakeholders can understand and use to deliver better products and experiences to customers.

Hight enjoys working for a dynamic, guest-centric organization that’s open to change—a respected enterprise that uses guest feedback, both good and bad, to quickly improve customer experience. No wonder Alaska Airline is touted as one of the best airlines in America: the company listens to what its guests have to say, making a genuine effort to integrate insights into its decision-making.

In a recent Q&A, Hight shared her thoughts on breaking down silos, learning new research methodologies and the power of storytelling.

What is your favorite aspect of your role at Alaska Airlines?

The culture at Alaska Airlines is collaborative because everyone is focused on the same goal: serving our guests. We pride ourselves for being truly guest-centric. I find it rewarding to work in a company that wants to take care of its guests.

I also have a real passion for working in travel and hospitality, so that’s a plus. It’s a fun category to work in.

What do you find most rewarding about being a researcher in a company that’s guest-centric?

The best part is being able to advocate for the customer. Part of my responsibility is to make sure that we consider the customer’s input in every strategic decision. I like being able to influence many different aspects of the guest experience.

You’ve been at Alaska Airlines for almost two years now. What are the most surprising insights about your guests that you have uncovered so far?

I have been surprised by how much our guests love our brand and how engaged they are with us. We get a lot of feedback—both solicited and unsolicited—from our guests. In fact, many people send emails to our CEO, sharing their experience and offering their input.

Guests frequently share anecdotes with us about their positive experiences. They tell us about Alaska Airline team members who have gone above and beyond. We hear from people who thank us for what we do. It’s satisfying to see how deeply guests are willing to engage with us and contribute to the company’s decision-making.


“Our guests are invested in our success, so they respond to our research efforts—and that helps us reduce research costs.”


From my perspective as a researcher, this high level of engagement makes it easier to get customers’ feedback. Our guests are invested in our success, so they respond to our research efforts—and that helps us reduce research costs.

The Alaska Airlines Insight Community, our online community of guests and frequent travelers, helps us a lot. We’ve seen participation levels greater than 50% and have a highly engaged group of members who regularly contribute. High response rates give us more confidence in the results of our research activities.

In your role, you work with many stakeholders, including UX and customer experience. Could you offer tips on best practices when collaborating with other departments?

It’s important for the research team to stay plugged in into everything that happens in the company.

My suggestion: over-communicate and share information regularly. Break down silos. Don’t just reach out to other departments when you need something from them. You never know when there’s an opportunity to collaborate.

What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve done with other departments?

I love working on projects that reflect my personal interests. That’s why I enjoy the work I’ve done with our food and beverage team, helping them design food options that reflect the tastes of our guests.

I’ve also collaborated frequently with our UX team on the usability of our mobile app and in mapping the customer journey. I like working with our usability team because they’re experts in an area that I’m not very familiar with. Every time our usability team runs a project with our insight community, I learn something new about their methodology. It’s fun to see research approaches that I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.

Many research teams are starting to collaborate with the UX department. Could you describe the dynamic between your team and UX?

UX research is heavy on qualitative approaches, so they often come to us to recruit people from our insight community for qualitative studies. Sometimes, my team will go to the UX team’s qualitative sessions—focus groups, in-person interviews and so on—to see how those are conducted and to better understand how the UX team uses that information. If the UX team needs to do a quantitative study, we’ll support them in questionnaire development and best practices.

Meeting with the UX team monthly helps a lot. We share information about what we’re doing, not just the projects that we’re working on together. I let our UX team know what I’m working on and what activities we have in store for our insight community. The UX team does the same. In doing this, we sometimes discover some synergies. For example, we’ll find out that if we’re doing a study on the airport lobby guest experience, and the UX team is planning a study on lobby kiosks, then it makes sense for us to collaborate.

What advice do you have for young professionals who want to thrive in research? What’s the key to succeeding in your industry?

Embrace the art of research, not just its science. As a researcher, you need to prioritize insights over results. Lead with the business issues because insights aren’t something that you can pull out of data independently of its context.

The tools and technologies in your research toolkit should always support the business need. I often get calls from research vendors who tell me about their great new technology. But the reality is that technology alone doesn’t help if it doesn’t fit my business need.


“Embrace the art of research, not just its science.”


Be a strategic partner to your stakeholders. In the past, clients would come to me and say, “we need to deploy a survey—please ask these questions.” In those cases, I would always tell my colleagues that the first conversation should always be about the business problem. Once researchers and stakeholders are aligned on the issue at hand, the insights team can decide on the best methodology and approach.

I’d also emphasize the importance of telling a good story. In the end, stories are what make insights land, especially if you’re talking to a group of people who may not be as sophisticated about research. You can make a bigger impact by taking your insights and putting them in the context of a relevant business story.

That’s a great point about storytelling. How do you turn insights into compelling stories?

If you start with the business need, the story will naturally reveal itself. That’s why it’s important to consider the business issues and questions first—to know what the organization wants to do and how decision-makers will use the insights. That context will help you craft a compelling story.

Which resources (books, podcasts, etc.) have had the most impact to your career, and why?

One book I really enjoyed is Good to Great by Jim Collins. I read that early in my career, and it emphasized to me that good enough is not good enough, that you should always try for whatever is beyond that. That advice put me on the right path in my career.

I’d also recommend The Storytelling Animal, which is about the natural human responsiveness to stories. It’s a fascinating read on the value of stories from an anthropological point of view.

I also really liked Creativity, Inc., which is the story of Pixar. A passage in the book talked about how Pixar got to the point where they were leading with the technology, and that was when the company stumbled a bit. It wasn’t until they brought the focus back to telling a good story that the company recovered. That’s a real-world, compelling example of the power of stories.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Character and Characters, which recounts the history of Alaska Airlines. From the very beginning, Alaska Airlines’ brand has always been unique. We’re a scrappy little airline with a pioneering spirit. The book examines where our brand’s spirit comes from. Character and Characters is not required reading for Alaska Airlines employees, but when I first took the job here, I got the book and I read it. I loved it so much that I got another copy and gave it to my dad.

Read more of our Q&As for more insights from leaders and experts in market research, marketing, innovation and customer experience. 



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