How Little Service Errors Lead to Much Larger Problems. A True Story


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One of my consulting colleagues had a scary experience with British Airways at Heathrow Airport today. It shows all too well how little service errors caused by a lack of standard processes and an over-reliance on technology can easily escalate into much larger problems.

My colleague missed his red-eye flight from Heathrow to Düsseldorf this morning due to traffic problems on the way to the airport. So he was rebooked onto another British Airways flight at around midday. He made his way to the gate where two flights were boarding at the same time. He gave his boarding card at the terminal end of the boarding ramp to the boarding agent who put it through the boarding card reader, gave him the boarding card stub back and told him to go down the ramp on the left. He followed and showed his boarding card stub to the steward at the aircraft door who told him to go forward in the cabin. Strange he thought, the flight to Düsseldorf isn’t usually on a big jet and he never gets to fly first class. So he asked the steward if the flight was going to Düsseldorf. “No” came the reply, “We are flying to San Francisco”. If my colleague had not been so suspicious, or had been tired after a long connecting flight, he might not have noticed till too late. And who knows whether British Airways would have noticed at all.

Making his way off the plane to catch his real one, he mentioned what had happened to the boarding agent. The response. Just a shrug of the shoulders. Two staff had inspected his boarding card and it had been read by the boarding card reader, all without picking up that he shouldn’t have been on the flight. This particular boarding process was very broken, both from the perspective of how staff carried it out and the technology used to support it. So was the customer recovery process (not even a sorry, an excuse or an explanation). And there was no Kaizen process to improve the broken service process so that it never happens again. It may happen hundreds of times a day with British Airways alone. Who knows if people wake up to find themselves disembarking in very strange destinations.

This true story illustrates why routine service work activities need to be standardised as far as possible, why staff need to be given the knowledge, skills and workplace training to deliver the work right first time (and to react appropriately to unusual situations), and why service failures need to be ‘Kaizened’ so that they don’t happen again. But not all service work activities are as routine and consistent as boarding an aircraft should be. Some work activities occur only irregularly, or not as part of a standard process cycle. These should be documented in details and staff given workplace training to carry them out as and when required. And some work activities only occur rarely, or may even be new to the organisation. This is where defined policies, process frameworks and knowledgeable, skilled, trained staff really come in. And where Kaizen should be applied afterwards to understand the origin of the event and how standard process should be changed to cope better next time.

So next time you find yourself boarding a strange plane, ask the steward where you are going. And ask yourself how the airline might improve its service processes next time.

What do you think? Should service processes be standardised so that little errors don’t turn into bigger problems later? Or do you like vacationing in mystery locations?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager


  1. A story about Verizon over the EyelessWriter blog caught my eye.

    Verizon were called up 56 times to ask two simple questions about their rates for two data services. Sales representative got one or more of the answers wrong 93% of the time. Only one sales representative got both answers right. And interestingly, 50% of the the wrong answers were up to 100x or more lower than the actual rates charged. Customers taking the advice of the sales representatives as being correct and signing-up to a data service would be stuck with the official rates for the duration of their contracts.

    This is not the first time that Verizon has been caught not knowing its business basics. It points to a need to provide staff with the standardised work processes, training and information I outlined in the blog posting. This is stuff that they should be able to get 100% correct 100% of the time. It also points to a suspiciously high percentage of much too low wrong answers too. You know what they say about smoke.

    Tip of the hat to Karl Long at the ExperienceCurve blog.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Graham’s comments about little things becoming big ones is something we’ve all faced for years and years and, unfortunately, it will not stop. It is known as the “Princess and the pea syndrome.” These tiny-peas cause mental blisters that don’t heal easily.

    What we don’t like is, however, that it is our time, effort and/or money that is being wasted by others ineptitude. We can waste our own time, effort and/or money but we don’t like it when it is is wasted by someone else.

    But, in a perfect world, if there ever will be such a thing, blisters will be smaller and will heal faster IF we realize that businesses are made up of people and no person is perfect other than ourselves. For good service to ourselves, we are 90% perfect if we would only admit it. Others are less perfect than we are and it is their actions or non-actions that cause the blisters.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected] http://www.sellingselling .com

  3. Alan

    Thank you for your comment. It is much appreciated.

    As you say, the world is far from perfect. If it were, I would be sitting in a villa in Nice, France enjoying a cafe au lait and a warm croissant au buerre, not sitting in an office in Cologne, Germany typing this post. But sitting here I am.

    In this imperfect world, mistakes do happen and for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes they are due to poorly thought through processes, sometimes to not following the processes properly, sometimes to not treating customers as people, and so on and so forth. When mistakes happen, we should use look to the source of the problem, set targets for improvement, decide how to achieve the targets, and then implement them, look how they worked out and decide if we need to make further improvements. This is the well-known Kaizen as pioneered by Masaaki Imai.

    I have never met a business problem that couldn’t be resolved successfully by applying Kaizen. Each improvement takes you one step closer towards perfection. And towards my morning cafe and croissant in Nice.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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