Turning customer service ‘moments of truth’ into PR disasters


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In a previous article, I talked about the need for flexibility and humanity in customer service over adherence to corporate process. The example came from JetStar’s headline news appearance in New Zealand over its treatment of the grieving mother of a shark attack victim.

Less than two weeks later and the UK’s Virgin Atlantic and their security contractor G4S provide another case study of how not to deliver front line customer service.

In this incident, gate staff refused to allow Petty Officer Nicky Howse – a serving engineer in the British Royal Navy returning to duty from a family funeral – to wear her uniform on a flight, despite this explicitly being allowed by Virgin’s company policies.

The story highlights the stark reality of how the actions of individual employees at the front line can rapidly turn a company’s reputation into a very public bad news story.

What lessons can other customer service managers learn from an incident which ended up requiring personal intervention from Virgin’s founder, Richard Branson?

What do your employees understand by ‘customer service’?

This incident is even worse than the JetStar situation, in that the employees in question were acting in contravention of Virgin’s actual policy. Over-zealous staff out of touch with company policy led to a cascading situation, culminating in an appalling national newspaper story.

What should we expect front line staff to be thinking when dealing with ‘moment of truth’ situations?

Does a decision pass the ‘front page’ test?

Let’s start with a sense of proportionality. A customer service role means thinking about the wider implications for your brand as well as enforcing individual rules or procedures. Managers, in particular, need to be aware of the ‘big picture’ and think about the bigger picture – particularly in the age of instant online news and social media.

A former manager I worked for once called this “The Sun” test (referring to the UK’s largest circulation tabloid newspaper, read by 2.4 million people). In making a decision, ask yourself what your decision would look like as a 72 point headline on the front page of The Sun.

If you’re not 100% sure, maybe you need to think it through a bit more?

Does a situation ‘feel right’ for your company brand values?

An organisation’s brand and values should provide employees with the ‘guiding star’ to follow in any situation where they may think “is this the right thing to do?” This is why companies need to ensure they have a sound customer strategy that drives home to employees their role as ambassadors of the company brand.

Let’s take a look at Virgin Atlantic’s brand.

Joe Ferry, Head of Design at Virgin Atlantic summed it up well in a press release launching their new identity on 30th July 2010, saying “It’s critical that we portray and live our differentiating brand values.”

Dilys Matthews, Senior Partner at Circus (the brand agency) commented that “Virgin Atlantic makes every day a happier day. It is a tonic for the soul delivering great product and great experiences for customers all around the world.”

Petty Officer Howse’s situation serves as an illustration of front line customer service going horrifically wrong, even in spite of this inspiring brand statement. In her case, a security guard from G4S has decided to question the right of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to travel in uniform.

Coming from an organisation that was bailed out by the military over their failure to provide sufficient security staff to cover the London Olympics, that’s not starting from the moral high ground.

Despite the security guard being just plain wrong (Virgin has no restrictions on the military travelling in uniform, except where some Caribbean countries prohibit this by law), the point was pressed.

Adding insult to injury, Petty Officer Howse was presented with a ‘sleep suit’ in front of other passengers and asked to change out of her uniform in a nearby lavatory.

I should mention here that Nicky Howse is a personal friend and kindly shared the details of the incident, and her subsequent complaint, for this article. I can assure readers that she made the staff concerned aware at the time of her views about asking serving military personnel to change out of their uniform in a lavatory.

Even if the G4S employee made the mistake, what on earth possessed Virgin staff to the compound this error by ignoring their company’s values and enforcing the decision in a public waiting area with such a humiliating request?

I’m sure that this question has been the subject of – as the military have been known to phrase it – “an interview without coffee or a chair” for individuals within Virgin Atlantic and G4S.

An outstanding complaint response is critical

Fortunately, the response to the formal complaint that was raised by Petty Officer Howse started to demonstrate much better customer service practice.

Her very detailed complaint was promptly met with an extensive apology and a full refund of her flight. Rather than just dealing with this by letter, Virgin Atlantic telephoned her to discuss the complaint.

This was followed up with a personal letter of apology from the Managing Director of G4S Aviation Services, with an invitation to a personal meeting to discuss the incident.

Richard Branson also sent Petty Officer Howse a personal e-mail apology that, in my view, ranks amongst one of the most impressive complaint responses I’ve witnessed as a professional in the field. Its contents will remain private, but suffice to say it is an outstanding example of accountability, humanity and empathy.

Every customer contact is a ‘moment of truth’

Whilst Virgin Atlantic have recovered the situation with an excellent example of good practice in complaint resolution, the incident has undoubtedly damaged the company’s brand image in an emotive and sensitive subject area.

There are two critical lessons that this incident reveals for the customer service manager

  • The truth that every contact counts – especially in the age of social media
  • Prevention is better than cure – a swift, well handled complaint response can recover the situation, but only after reputational damage has been done.

Executives seeking to prevent this kind of situation occurring would do well to revisit their organisation’s customer strategy as the starting point.

Is your customer strategy embedded in the culture, heart and soul of your company? Does it provide your customer facing staff with the ‘guiding star’ to know what’s right and wrong in a tricky situation?

If not, then there is work to be done.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jason Price, Ph.D.
Jason is a passionate advocate for improving customer service performance, based on twenty years' international experience leading performance improvement and business change in both the public and private sectors. He has spoken at international conferences in the UK, Australia, Asia-Pacific and New Zealand on the challenges of improving customer-facing performance and the value of learning from complaints. Jason combines a Ph.D in Artificial Intelligence (Genetic Algorithms) with a career of practical experience in what it takes to achieve front-line service improvements.


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