Airline Communication Amid Coronavirus – Any Lessons?

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As a customer service speaker, I am a frequent traveler on multiple airlines. Over the past week, I have received communication from several airlines re changes in policies amid the Coronavirus spread.  As a customer, I felt some were far better than others and thought it would be interesting to evaluate a few of them from a customer communication / customer service perspective.

Delta excerpt:
While we’re committed to providing you with information you need to make informed decisions around your travel, we also understand the need for flexibility based on your individual circumstances. To make sure you can travel with confidence, we’re offering flexible waivers, and we’ve also adjusted our network in response to guidance from the State Department.
Allegiant excerpt:
We understand your decision to travel at this time is personal and many factors are involved. If you would like to request a change to your travel plans at this time, you may do so without incurring a change fee. 
American excerpt:
To offer customers more flexibility, we are pleased to announce that we will waive change fees up to 14 days prior to travel for travel purchased between March 1, 2020 (4:30 p.m. CST) and March 16, 2020 (11.59 p.m. CST). 

The first comparison is HOW and from WHOM the communication originated. 
Delta and Allegiant communications came in the form of a detailed, signed letter from the CEO whereas American’s communication was more brief memo style without an author.  What are my thoughts on that?  Since American’s came first, it did not really impact my opinion UNTIL receiving subsequent communications authored and signed by other airline CEOs.  This is interesting, because it points out that our communications can be contrasted and compared to those of others in our industry and in the overall business world in general in an evolving process. Upon receiving the second detailed letter from an airline CEO, my opinion of the American communication dropped drastically downward.

The second comparison is on the clarity of communication.
The signed letter communication from the CEO of Allegiant and the memo from American were the clearest and most easily understood.  I did not have to reread their communications several times trying to understand what they were saying.  I had to struggle with even what paragraph to extract and reference from the Delta CEOs letter.  Even after doing so, I found myself rereading it several times with a “Whaaat?” question going off in my brain.  Flexibility based on individual circumstances, flexible waivers… what does that mean?  Are you letting me change my plans without a penalty or what???

The final comparison is re the policy and whether it is adequate and fair. 
Since the Delta communication was not clear on what the policy is, I can’t even evaluate it, and thus it drops to the bottom of my rating on this criterion.  Allegiant comes out on top of American as it APPEARS Allegiant is saying that I can change my travel plans if I think that is necessary based on my life and concerns, not theirs.  American, on the other hand, falls to the bottom because it appears to me that their entire policy is structured on how THEY can do better on future bookings in contrast with Allegiant who is saying that they will allow me to change even existing already booked trips based on how it impacts my life.  (Please note that I have not ‘tested’ this to see if this is actually the case, and thus do not know what restrictions if any would be placed on me when asking to do so. It is also important to note that Allegiant is a domestic only carrier and thus can better afford to have a more lenient policy than those airlines impacted worldwide.) 

Customer communication does not happen in a vacuum, especially in a time of crisis, for either the company or the consumer of goods and services.  Prior to communicating with customers, evaluate the three areas discussed here to see if you pass the ‘smell test’ on your communication.  First, make sure the right person is authoring the communication at the right time and that your customer knows WHO is authoring the communication.  If your CEO cannot ‘sign off’ on the communication, especially in a time of crisis, perhaps it is not the right communication.  Showing the CEO is concerned about the situation, and is directing attention to it, is another reason to have them send out and sign the communication if it is an important one.  Second, make sure the communication is crystal clear, so customers know where they stand and whether or not they are happy.  It would obviously be a good idea to get some customer eyes on the communication prior to distribution so you know for sure where it leaves you on that scale.  Finally, is the policy being articulated in the customer’s best interest or in yours?  The crisis will eventually pass, but your customers will not soon forget what you did for them during that time of crisis.  None of this is easy and, in some respects, we are in uncharted waters.  This points out that many of these communication strategies should be discussed and planned well in advance of the necessity to implement them.  If we learn nothing from this event, that should be a critical lesson for the future!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Teresa Allen
Teresa Allen is a nationally recognized customer service speaker and customer service author. Allen is owner of Common Sense Solutions, a national training and consulting firm focused on bringing common sense to business and life. Allen is author of Common Sense Service: Close Encounters on the Front Lines and is co-author of The Service Path: Your Roadmap for Building Strong Customer Loyalty.

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