In this day and age, is it unreasonable to expect companies to have an appropriate response for age old customer experience problems?


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Delayed flights and missing bags happen. The poor management of these areas is probably the airline customers’ biggest pain point. Even if disruption is sometimes unavoidable; airports, airlines and all other parties involved in the travel process shouldn’t be excused from taking responsibility and ownership of the problem from the customer. This is the time that customers are most in need of support and guidance. Far too often customers are left ‘hanging in the air’.

In this time of personalisation, automation and rapid technology development, airlines don’t seem to be able to harness these enablers to get the basics right to deliver a seamless and connected customer experience, let alone a differentiated one. According to a recent study, more than 2 out of 3 passengers experiencing a delay of 2 hours or more were dissatisfied with how they were treated during this period. The same goes for the management of lost luggage.

Issues caused by disruption have been around for years and there appears to have been little improvement or learning to preempt or quickly alleviate their potential impact on customers. By way of example – a recent trip of ours, taken on a well-known low cost airline to Greece.

Our experience began unremarkably with our outbound flight but things started to unravel on our way home. The real test of how much a company cares about its customers, is when things go wrong. The ‘service recovery paradox’ is where an organisation can leverage an operational problem or service issue to recover and engenders a better relationship with a customer; but it requires the company to take ownership and responsibility for resolving that issue. The act of a customer experiencing disruption, only for it to be resolved in a gallant way, is a powerful and often memorable one. I can think of several times that this has happened in restaurants where the food or service hasn’t lived up to expectations; and the food service provider was tuned into turning this into a positive experience for example by offering an additional item, taking something off our bill or giving money off next time.

In an attempt to keep this story relatively short – as we sat in the departure lounge the information board flashed up announcing that our 4-hour flight would be delayed by 2 ½ hours due to adverse weather at our destination. Delays happen and most customers are accepting of this. However, the way that this disruption was handled, was far from ideal or customer focused.

Other flights came and departed to our destination as we sat there. Those airlines communicated to their customers. They acknowledged the issue, brought staff to the sharp end to interface directly with customers and they apologised. This airline clearly recognised that everyone feels a little more vulnerable when overseas or in a strange place; they calmed customers and ensured they felt cared for.

We on the other hand, had no means to talk to any staff from our airline and heard nothing, so we tweeted in the hope of some clarification. What we received was an automated impersonal response providing a link to see if we could get compensation – a presumption that this would be our main concern at that point in time. We needed a relevant, appropriate and customer friendly response to give us some element of control and to manage our expectations. The balance of digital automation and human service was wanting.

Ten minutes before the new departure time (delay: 2h20 at that point), we were told boarding would commence. The tired and dutiful queue of customers was held for 10 minutes on a ramp outside the terminal waiting for a bus to the airplane and then for another 20 minutes in that un-airconditioned bus crammed full of passengers within full sight of the plane and no explanation as to what was happening. Eventually passengers were let off the steamy bus only to be held for another 30 minutes, armed with hand luggage, on the runway next to our plane (and other planes taxiing); unable to board. The cynical amongst us might think that the airline had been keen to begin boarding prematurely simply to avoid the €5 food and drink voucher due for tipping over into a 3-hour delay.

At this point, still no proactive communication and a small mutiny brewing. There was total confusion as to why we had been brought to stand on a runway on a hot summers night at midnight, next to our plane but unable to board. Finally, we were told by a member of the ground staff that due to a medical emergency they now needed to ‘offload’ 30 passengers (without their bags). We eventually took off at the time that we should’ve been landing in London. It wasn’t until we had been waiting around for about 6 hours in total that we received the first proactive communication in the form of a well delivered personal message from the captain – but it was just too little, too late. Throw into the mix, the lack of food and water and a bag missing on arrival, which apparently had gone for an extended holiday to Sicily!

The luggage recuperation procedure is another story of a painful and inconvenient customer experience. The bag is due to arrive tomorrow (day 4), the online self-service portal doesn’t update and the regular communications are far from regular. A high effort, ineffective process made worse by the fact that the bag in question belongs to my teenage daughter and contains her much desired cosmetics.

This same story could have been told 5 or 10 years ago, despite technology advances. With all the decision supporting data and means to interact and engage, airlines are still letting their customers down. We were treated more like cargo than passengers. There was a lack of empathy or humanity. We felt neglected, forgotten and unvalued. Not one airline member of staff made contact with their customers in the whole experience. Messages sent out, went ignored.

Is proactive communication that difficult? Customers need timely and consistent information.
Uncertainty is never a good thing for customers.

“Never leave your customers wondering.”

– Kevin Stirtz. (More Loyal Customers: 21 Real World Lessons to Keep Your Customers Coming Back). Smart mobile devices, better wifi and 4G coverage have provided airlines with an ideal way of interacting with customers any time, any place.

Way to remove delay and disruption hassles are not rocket science:

• Acknowledge the problem – be up front and honest
• Listen, acknowledge and understand (and learn)
• Respond promptly and act upon up to minute data
• Keep customers updated and in the loop as and when things happen
• Be clear in all communication
• Offer social media touch points that are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week
• Monitor all means of communications especially social media and nip issues in the bud by responding openly and actively
• Answer all questions rapidly
• Consider sweeteners. They work and help to ease customers pain at the time
• Show that you are championing the customers cause and that you have their end goal in mind
• Follow up with customers subsequently, and if compensation is due, proactively facilitate the process

It is hard to perceive why things haven’t moved on for customers over the years. Technology and the need to respond to rising customer expectations, should have driven improvement in the airline disruption journey. Lessons need to be learnt and a proactive approach to solving the most common and frequent customer pain points, taken. According to KPMG Nunwood some of the more customer centric organisations are anticipating likely issues and developing seamless and joined up omnichannel customer experience solutions before they happen. Many airlines could learn from these companies – one of which is from their own industry – JetBlue.

Since 2011, Delta has taken a smart way to overcoming the customers pain point of overbooked flights. It manages capacity by using a bidding system to put passengers in control of their own situation where they can decide whether they take or miss their chosen flight in exchange for reward or compensation. When customers check in they are asked the value of the travel voucher they would accept as compensation for volunteering their seats. 
It is a way of flipping the issue on its head and turning it into a potentially positive experience for customers.

Sri Lankan Airlines captures passenger feedback as they travel. Real-time alerts are sent to the supervisors via SMS. Data is refreshed every two hours, and presents a graphical overview of customer satisfaction performance at all service points across the airline. The screens are on display at the offices of all divisional heads and in staff common areas, such as the cafeteria and restrooms.

Priority action should include:
• A better understanding of what matters to customers along their experience
• A better understanding of customers’ emotional ‘journey’, the impact of disruption and how this can be eased
• An examination of the balance of automated and human customer service (streamline where possible but not to the detriment of customer care) and the role that they can play in the customer’s journey e.g. is it a chatbot such as Singapore Airlines which offers continuous assistance to passengers or a roaming human being interacting with customers at key points of their journey
• Diagnosis of where customer effort is high in the end to end journey and solutions to reduce this
• Empowerment and training for staff so they can engage with customers and act appropriately during times of disruption
• Establishment of the capability and capacity to process incoming data at speed

The airline industry is a highly competitive one. Technology, hand in hand with a human touch, will deliver better experiences for customers. The challenge is in the alignment of the culture, processes, systems and capability of the organisation, with the needs of customers in a way that employees are empowered and engaged to deliver. That goes for at any point in their customer experience, but is even more of a priority in times or disruption.

Amanda Davis

Amanda writes and shares Thought Leadership, drawing on her 15 years of coaching, guiding, mentoring and consulting for clients in various sectors and sizes around the world. She helps establish organisations understand how to connect to customers; find ways to align their expectations with the culture & capability of the organisation. She has a particular focus on customer experience transformation in the digital age, ensuring that technology development starts and finishes with the customer. Amanda has been a regular featured columnist and advisor for Customer Think since 2018.


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