Monday, July 26, 2010

Jetbridge to Nowhere

I was to go away this past weekend for a long overdue sister trip.  All of the plans went pear shaped when our plane suffered a mechanical problem.

We were on the runway, the engines were revving for a nice delicious takeoff and about 10 seconds into said takeoff, the pilots aborted.  We learned that there was an issue with one of the engines and we'd have to go back to the gate for a plane change or a mechanic.  The pilot was regretful and apologetic but also optimistic about getting back on track for our trip.  I was fine with a return to the gate as opposed to barreling up into the air with a defective engine and appreciated the caution.  The tone was appropriate.

When we got to the gate, there was a few minutes of silence and then the optimistic pilot informed us that mechanics were on their way to have a look.  The next voice we heard was not the pilot's and this was the gist of his comments "This is customer service.  This flight is cancelled.  Exit the plane with your belongings, walk over to the next terminal and stand in line at customer service to rebook or go standby."

Admittedly, I've got a bum left ear but I didn't hear a "sorry" nor "we regret this inconvenience" or similar.  I also didn't hear anything in the tone that was sympathetic/empathetic to our plight.  So, in a state of silent confusion, we trudged off the plane with the lone flight attendant that remained averting her eyes and not acknowledging us as we got off the plane.  Warm fuzzies all around!

So, after the panicked walk/run with wheelie bags to the other terminal, 45 minutes in line and only halfway to speaking to a live agent, we get rebooked via phone on a 5:30pm flight.  But we still had to stand in this long line to get receipts, passes, etc.  No sympathy from the phone agents either, by the way, and we had to tell the same story a few times over.

During the next 50 minutes in line, we realize that our trip now would be all of 1.25 days which wasn't worth it and wanted to cancel.  When we got to a live agent, she said she could help us but we should have done that over the phone - something we didn't know.  She also said she couldn't refund my sister's money but that she could have done that over the phone - also something we didn't know.  The good news, according to her, was that she refunded the miles back to my account.  It turns out, I had to call back later in the evening because she actually hadn't refunded the miles.  It was a fitting cap to a confusing and frustrating day with Chicago's hometown airline.

There were so many things that could have gone better and they all boil down to my wondering if they have a brand identity and if so, how it relates to employee engagement or lack thereof.  It's clear that neither time nor money have been spent on building real relationships with employees that transfer to building real relationships with customers.  Information, the lack of it, misinformation and delivery is all part and parcel of employee engagement.  It's clear in my example that time nor money haven't been spent on engaging employees.  Perhaps better put, so little time or money has been spent that it has led to employee disengagement.  The result is confusion and dissatisfaction: employee and customer.

Last month, I talked about the importance of apologies - remember Umpire Jim Joyce's disastrous call and instantaneous acceptance of his error?  I also talked about employee empowerment and I used Southwest's rapping flight attendant as a prime example of how the airline has successfully encourages its employees to  "walk the talk" of its brand promise.  As I said then, the word "sorry" doesn't absolve you.  Rather, it's an acknowledgement of what went wrong and that one understands the impact on others.  It also means that you have the power to provide the solution or lay the groundwork for a solution.

Customers want guidance towards a solution especially amidst a sea of confusion.  To be clear, it shouldn't be that we hand hold all the time.  Rather we take a few extra steps to provide meaningful pieces of information as an aide to customer decision making.  Making that extra effort and/or ensuring that the customer has the needed tools to make a satisfactory decision really can make a difference.  As I pointed out here, Maritz data show that 43% of customers defect because of poor service with 77% of that 43% connecting poor service with employee attitude and 83% of the 43% telling others their horror stories (like I've done here).

To bring it home: I can't begin to tell you how many times I heard, "I forgot how much I hate this airline." or even "This is why I fly Southwest." while in line on Friday because of the confusion, misinformation and a seeming lack of empathy/sympathy.  So, in real terms and using those Maritz percentages, if there were 150 people on that cancelled flight, about 65 will defect.  Of that 65 that defect, about 28 will say it was due to poor attitude and about 54 of them will tell their sad story to others.

Ouch.  Those are some serious numbers.  Wouldn't you agree?  I'll talk a little more about serious numbers in my next post.

Until Then,

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

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