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Can your brand afford not to take action when your customers disagree with each other on a divisive subject?

Based on our recent study on people's attitudes towards the use of cellphones on airplanes, the answer is no. We conducted the study shortly after the FCC announced that they're considering allowing in-flight mobile phone use. Consumers were quick to chime in, so we wanted to dig deeper and learn the implications for the airline industry.

As you can see in the infographic below, American passengers are almost evenly divided when it comes to the use of cellphones on airplanes.

The stakes are high for airlines: 40% of people in our study indicated that they are very likely or somewhat likely to choose airline carriers based on their in-flight mobile use policies. The majority (54%) of these would choose a phone-free carrier; 29% would choose a phone-friendly carrier, and 17% would prefer a carrier with lower mobile rates for in-flight phone use.

These findings put airlines in a tough situation: regardless of their decision, they could potentially alienate half of their customers. But as my colleague Alexandra Samuel recently pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article, there's no better time to listen to your customers when they disagree:

There is no more valuable time to listen to your customers than when they disagree, however. If you take the time to dive deep into a controversial topic - ideally with a group of customers who have been providing ongoing input into your business - you have a better chance of identifying strategies that will either help you satisfy competing interests, or focus your attention on the most crucial customer groups.

So how do you navigate conflicting customer opinions? Alexandra offers this insight:

Often the answer lies in looking more closely for nuances and patterns other than the overarching disagreement. For example, our data shows that while customers are divided on the issue of whether cell phone use should be permitted in flight, they do agree on some issues. Most notably, a full 70% think that airlines should have at least partial responsibility for determining the guidelines, so airline carriers can't stand on the sidelines and let the FCC sort it all out.

A couple of things surprised me about our study. As it turns out, people are not really in a hurry to turn airplanes into their mobile office. People are mostly interested in personal, quick calls: They want to be able to quickly call their spouse to update them on their travel plans; they want to briefly check with their kids at home; they want the option to call family for emergencies.

Many people we talked to also thought that cellphones on planes are dangerous. This is surprising given that risks are actually low.

Our study's findings highlight the importance of knowing why people oppose or support a policy. It's easier to craft a strategy that satisfies most people if you dig deeper into the different factors that shape their opinions. For instance, given than people are mostly interested in doing quick calls, allowing the use of cellphones for very short calls might make sense. Or perhaps only allowing data/texting use instead of voice calling is a potential solution. Also, since there's some misconception about the safety of in-flight mobile use, airlines might need to educate their customers about the issue.

This type of insight is hard to get just from knowing how many of your customers support or oppose the change. When customers disagree, you should work with them to identify opportunities to change people's minds or to get people to agree with each other.

Secondly, our study demonstrates the importance of really knowing your customer. If you're an airline that primarily caters to businesspeople, you might assume that they're interested in working while in flight. But we found the exact opposite: People don't mind unplugging while on a plane. If you already have an online community of customers, you should verify your gut instincts with them. You should also check with your community regularly to see if people's opinions and behaviors change over time.

When your customers disagree, as is the case with the airline industry right now, it's important not to fly blind. A deep relationship with a community of customers can bring clarity and help your brand thrive during turbulent times.

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