Qantas Interruptus: How to Ruin the Customer Journey

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We all tend to use the tagline “analyze the customer journey” to discover opportunities to improve the customer experience, since it’s clear that companies need to make it easier for their customers1, anticipate snags and offer solutions2, and figure out how to delight them. 

My wife and I were very excited to travel “down under” to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia last week, her 1st trip there, where I worked with my co-author and business colleague David Jaffe. I booked us in Business Class on Qantas, the “national airlines” of Australia with a 4-Star rating according to SkyTrax3 and the 4th “most punctual” airline in the world4

However, for our customer journey Qantas failed in so many ways (22-hour delay leaving San Francisco, canceled flight, lost roller bag wheel, down-graded to Economy, no proactive alerts, no surveys to get feedback, no apologies) that its excellent in-flight service could not recover.

Here’s a quick view of our customer journey shown in 26 steps, with 10 = best and 0 = horrible (see the spreadsheet describing each step in the footnotes5). As you can it started out fine, fell already in steps 2 and 5 when we discovered that our 14-hour flight to Melbourne was delayed by 1, then 2, and finally 3.5 hours until 1.45am when the Qantas Captain told us at the gate that the crew had timed out, and the mechanics still hadn’t fixed the problem, so the flight would be delayed until sometime the next day. 

It only got worse in steps 6-9: After another 15-minute delay the gate staff, who worked for another airline, told the 245 passengers to return to the check-in counter for further instructions. No one appeared for 30 minutes while everyone lined up grumpily, with no special treatment for Business Class. By 3 am word spread that the new departure time would be 6 pm, but no one handed out the form – we had to pick it up in person when we reached the front of the queues. When I reached the head of one of the lines the same non-Qantas staff told the rest of us that they had run out of hotel rooms so we were on our own! Fortunately, I called my favorite hotelier Hyatt and they came through and we helped another stranded couple (from Tasmania) to book a room there, and wound up in San Francisco for the night. 

We returned to check into that rescheduled flight, relaxed in the lounge, went to the gate, and discovered that we were delayed again, another 1, then 2 hours (step 12). When we finally boarded, the same crew that had timed out 22 hours earlier greeted us, and treated us, with warmth and excellent service (step 14). 

The problems continued when we finally landed in Australia: A canceled connection in Melbourne that resulted in a well-played rebooking, lost wheel on my roller bag, down-graded to Economy in our last flight (step 23: “An earlier flight was canceled and a passenger with higher status was moved into your seat.” Incredible!!), and interminable waits on hold to reach customer service or reservations (I was told my every Qantas employee that the call center had terrible service levels; the Qantas IVR prompted me for my Qantas frequent flyer number but since I didn’t have one, having used my Alaska Gold number, and did not ask if we booked Business Class the way that Emirates and other premier airlines do, we were dumped into the “general” queue). To add insult to injury, it’s been a week and Qantas has not said a word about this botched experience (the final step 26).

What went wrong, and what could have Qantas have done to “make it right?” Seems to me that Qantas needed to have a “disaster recovery plan” for cases like this (broken aircraft in an airport with no back up, seconded staff from another company) with a very high level of communication and remedies to offer all passengers, especially Business Class, even if they were not Qantas frequent flyers. If Qantas has such a plan, it surely didn’t work.

Some might argue that Qantas redeemed itself with a superb in-flight experience (the “service recovery” argument), but we lost a precious day in Australia. Others could calculate a poor -1 NPS and average the 26 steps to produce an overall score of 5.4, also poor. As I pointed out in an earlier column called “Get Rid of Average Thinking: Make Every Experience Count”6 it’s much more relevant to study the outliers, in this case, the 7 steps where Qantas scored a goose egg 0.

Boiling down our customer experience, with an emphasis on these 7 zero scores, and applying the lessons and frameworks in our two books, we see that Qantas needed to:

Be proactive. We were held at the gate for more than four hours with the board showing later and later departure times between 9pm and 1.30am! with kids crying, families sleeping, elderly passengers hobbling around, and mobile phone batteries draining away (an SFO airport issue since there were very few plugs). At no time were we advised to return to the two lounges, or find food, or charge our devices on power strips that they could have provided. 

Listen and act, and don’t ask me about my effort. Two of the Qantas gate agents handed me business cards with a customer service feedback line to register our upsetting experiences, but as I have written two years ago in “Don’t ask, know!” Qantas already had most, if not all of the customer journey mistakes that it made (delays, down-grades, lost wheels, IVR hold time, etc.) so it could easily extract the data and figure out how to intervene, offer an alternative, apologize, and in other ways try to right the ship. Big Data and predictive analytics can be deployed to produce customer effort scores (CES), NPS (as I showed earlier, a -1), and satisfaction levels.

Make it easy for me. We were all kept in the dark about the need to find our own hotel rooms. Later when we queued up for instructions and rooms, there was no announcement about what to expect nor when the rooms ran out. A couple next to us from Tasmania had not called around for a room so I called Hyatt back and found one for them, too, and the four of us headed to San Francisco for what our UK colleague Peter Massey calls “sleep fast”.

Value me. Some of were very frequent flyers on Qantas or partner airlines, but the staff handling the gate and the eventual vouchers never separated passengers into Business Class or more manageable queues. There have been no acknowledgments of the problems that we faced, no apologies, no IVR prompt for Business Class travel, and no compensation which all clearly conveyed “We don’t care”.

Empower its crew and customer service team, and don’t make me have to navigate the organization. In addition to the delays and lack of communication, I had to call Qantas to reschedule our connection (that was on a separate ticket). At 4 am I suffered through a 35-minute call to Qantas’ reservations line including 11 minutes before I was connected, and three holds while the agent had to check with the re-booking desk. This should have been a 3-minute call if the IVR had prompted for Business Class in addition to Qantas frequent flyer number, and if the agent was empowered to make the changes!

After this series of misadventures my wife told me “Let’s not fly Qantas again.” Not only did I tell >50 participants in our LimeBridge business events in Sydney and Melbourne about our experiences, and I’m sure that they’ve told others, but I then changed our planned final flight from Melbourne to Singapore from Qantas to Emirates. 


Notes:

1 We introduced “You make it easy for me” in our 2nd book Your Customer Rules! Delivering the Me2B Experiences That Today’s Customers Demand (Wiley/Jossey-Bass 2015). Here are the 7 Customer Needs that Lead to a Winning “Me2B” Culture; each Need breaks down into a total of 39 Sub-Needs.

  1. “You know me, you remember me”
  2. “You give me choices”
  3. “You make it easy for me”
  4. “You value me”
  5. “You trust me”
  6. “You surprise me with stuff that I can’t imagine”
  7. “You help me better, you help me do more”

2 We profiled the importance for companies to “Be proactive” in our 1st book The Best Service is No Service: How to Liberate Your Customers From Customer Service, Keep Them Happy, and Control Costs Bill Price & David Jaffe (Wiley 2008). Based partly on my years as Amazon’s 1st WW VP of Customer Service, but also on “Best Service” providers around the world who have made it easier for their customers to do business with them, we proposed 7 Drivers that start with “Challenge demand for service”:

  1. “Eliminate dumb contacts”
  2. “Create engaging self-service”
  3. “Be proactive”
  4. “Make it really easy to contact your company”
  5. “Own the actions across the company”
  6. “Listen and act”
  7. “Deliver great service experiences”

3https://skytraxratings.com/airlines/qantas-rating, accessed 14 October 2018

4http://www.traveller.com.au/the-worlds-most-and-least-punctual-airlines-most-ontime-airlines-for-2017-h0ffdg, accessed 14 October 2018

5 Spreadsheet behind the 26-step customer journey:


6http://customerthink.com/get-rid-of-average-thinking-make-every-experience-count/, from December 2015.

7http://customerthink.com/dont-ask-know-what-are-your-customers-not-saying-not-doing/ from November 2015.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Everything you have outlined above has been ignored in the pursuit of profits – a short term win that is delivering significant bonuses and share price but ultimately driving the company down the path of neglect. Outsourcing has become so endemic that many of the crew that were serving you would most likely not work for QF – they are employed through an employment agency. Staff morale is at an all time low because management erode workers rights to increase bonuses so staff do their job and that is it. The company is losing its soul and its people, but according to modern management principles this approach is the new way. It’s the return of the Al Dunlap style of slash and burn and ignore the consequences.

  2. Fantastic illustration of a failed customer experience journey. Also – in reference to a piece by Bob Thompson a month or so ago, it is also a poignant reminder that CX is far more than just Customer Service. In your case, almost everything failed except the onboard experience – policies, processes, practices…

    Sadly, these kinds of experiences are never adequately captured by “big data.” For Qantas to create consistent improvement in CX performance, they’re going to have to focus a bit more on “little data.”

  3. Thanks for your perspective, John, clearly more experience-based than my recent travails. With so much now known about EX (employee experience) = CX = overall success, it’s sad that so many companies “don’t get it” and follow the “slash and burn” process. The consequences are also well known: slower sales rates, higher levels of attrition, and eventual collapse.

  4. Too true, Shaun. I sent a draft of this article to Qantas’ CEO and have gotten some pretty lame responses from his “Executive Relations” team … Perhaps the stuff of a sequel.

  5. Bill – isn’t that the greatest frustration of all? The CEO’s of large organizations are so insulated from their customers, that they become oblivious to the realities of a customer’s journey. This very type of experience is what motivated me to write my most recent book. In fact, there’s a whole chapter (I had fun writing it) dedicated to a CEO wondering “why the Hell haven’t I heard about these things?!

    This gigantic chasm between corporate decision-makers and the end customer is precisely the reason companies lose customer loyalty.

  6. Bill, I love my national carrier and choose them to fly internally. Not internationally. There are too many better options. Remember that anyone leaving Australia is ‘going overseas’.
    Here is the challenge for those who have status in the frequent flyer program with lots of points (apologies you were a victim of this). In illustrating Friction and Flow, I regularly ask in my programs/seminars “Who has ever tried to book a ticket using Qantas points?” As there are 2 major carriers for business in Australia – Qantas and Virgin – the answer is always many.
    “How was that experience?” The answer is always poor – couldn’t get one, mone available, even months away from travel etc. The Virgin mantra, paraphrased, is “If we have a seat available on a flight, you can have it.’ Audience response endorses this is true. In a two horse race, Qantas is lame in this area. How can they get away with it?
    1. Management Inertia. You noted this in the response you got. Any savvy person would have checked your LinkedIn profile and seen you have some cred and influence. 2. They don’t need to be better? They have rusted on volume. The Sydney – Melbourne route is the 2nd busiest in the world based on number of flights. 1st, Jeju-Seoul, South Korea: 64,991 2nd, Melbourne-Sydney, Australia: 54,519. at 8th is Brisbane-Sydney, Australia: 33,765. The full list is here:
    http://www.traveller.com.au/worlds-busiest-airline-flight-routes-melbournesydney-now-worlds-second-busiest-h0e7ha
    That said, Qantas does have the best lounges, inflight food, airport checkin and inflight entertainment locally. There are good reasons for business people to travel with them domestically.
    I trust that the rest of your trip was not a reflection of your initial experience and that we managed to recover your faith in Australia.

  7. I am resolved NOT to fly Qantas again. I’ll take Singapore + Emirates from the States into Australia, and Virgin Australia within the country.

  8. Iven, rest assured that we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Australia, first trip for my wife, ~10th one for me but 1st time trying Qantas (previously I had flown United). You’re right that the lounge, local ground staff, and in-flight experience were very good (as I noted in my scores) but they do not make up for lack of communications or ownership of the problem, nor remedy for down-grading us SYD-MEL. The excuse we got was “the earlier flight was canceled and other frequent flyers had higher priority so they got your seats.” What a dumb way to treat any Business Class flyer.

  9. Shaun — You are absolutely right that too many C-level execs are too far removed from their customers and from true customer experience. I’ve also written about this in the past including an early piece called “Get Out There”, and always encourage my clients and execs I know to spend quality time with the front-line staff, and on the front-line. The airlines industry has toweringly good examples of this such as SAS’s Jan Carlson.

  10. Hi Bill. Sadly, you are talking about all airlines in this example. I’m a very frequent traveler and have been for years. I have unfortunately experienced almost identical treatments from most if not all of the major airlines. It appears none have read Jan Carlson’s book or maybe as many of those commenting state, airlines are playing a short-term game and really don’t care about customers. We are just the nuisance that provide cash so the airlines can fly their shiny metal.
    Oh yeah, Airline Executives travel first or business and never experience problems, because they are treated royally.
    As a CX professional, I get very frustrated about the little things they could fix and in spite of being told over and over, don’t. Few airlines can tell you the customer journey in reality. I question whether the CEOs and other Executives ‘want’ to know. It is easy to say I don’t, but surely as leaders, they must take ownership.

  11. It’s truly a shame, James, that we are forced to ensure long flights and delays without a true sense of loyalty. I will put out there, however, that my wife and I have become quite partial to Emirates and to Singapore Airlines for their long haul flights, and Alaska Airlines for much of my domestic US flying (and Delta). Still, there’s a big gap between professed care for passengers and reality.

  12. Speaking to a Qantas Flight attendant at a BBQ on the weekend – when Allan Joyce flies, there are 20 minions clearing the path before he flies. So, for a simple flight say Sydney – Melbourne (1 hr flying time), the airport manager is briefed, the flight attendant manager is briefed, there are literally a heap of people all running around in circles because the CEO is on x flight.
    And for him, he has no idea about the minions clearing the decks and thinks that this seamless service with every VIP known to man in the QF management bowing and scraping is normal. As for the flight attendants, their question is “what bonus” (famously publicized by the CEO) and when can I become a permanent QF staff member – I have been a flight attendant for 8 years and I am still a casual through a labour hire company?

  13. John — I totally agree with your 1st points. Unless executives have the same experience as their customers, there is no way for them to understand how hard it is for customers. Reminds of the time when I asked the head of technical support for a large software company how he gets tech support for his system. He spun around, punched a single digit in the phone PBX, got connected immediately, spoke with a very savvy tech support rep (who probably could see that the call came from the head office, maybe even the head of tech support), and the issue got fixed very fast. I told him that I was impressed, but asked “How did the typical customer deal with the same issue?” He couldn’t even answer.

  14. John, yes, these executives do not see the pain of customers but they see the pain when they are customers. Wearing the executive hat makes them immune to the customer pain.
    Yesterday I was with a Sr VP of a company relating my problem…his reaction was, these things happen. He went further to say haven’t you ever been bumped off an airline. He could have said I am sorry this happened and I will look into it
    Oh, woe is customer!

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