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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Cold Wind Blows Up Customer Service

Why is it when a weather event occurs customer service seems to head right out the door of common sense into the realm of insanity?

THE SCENARIO: Like many of you, during the last Blizzard of 2010, I had family traveling by air. My extended European family was flying home after their unusually chilly Florida holiday, which already put them in a ‘mood’. Days prior to their departure we anxiously monitored the weather for airport closings, as Europe also had a White Out (I believe it’s called this. I am a lifelong resident of Central Florida, so this is as foreign to me as knowing the names of different sushis.)

My husband attempted to call British Airways all weekend; British Airways reservation call center dropped calls due to the overwhelming volume. He also consulted British Airways website numerous times, which also went down due to the overwhelming volume of concerned passengers. With no information, but not for lack of trying, we arrived to the airport four hours prior to their departure time. We have now joined his parents in being in a ‘mood’.

We wait in line to check in for the flight. This wait was relatively short, 15 minutes or so. We arrive at the counter and the nice agent let us know my in-laws were not booked on the flight, however she did not offer any explanation why. What?! They clearly had a confirmation with their return flight information. She kindly pointed us to another line, the line of no return, The Ticketing Agent.

Although I am frustrated as a Customer Service professional because I see holes in processes that needlessly lead us to this point, I am still reasonably understandable. I know it’s busy due to the holidays, and the blizzard is an exceptional situation. But this is where it starts to go south.

We wait in the Ticketing Agent line for 90 minutes before being served!!!! There is one ticket agent on duty and one manager has come to the desk to assist. My in-laws are precariously close to missing their flight, the one that British Airways does not have them on in the first place. Other waiting passengers ask the supervisor, who is out to work the lines, what is taking so long. Her words, “They only gave me one ticket agent today. Please email the CEO of British Airways and ask if I can have more agents. But for today, this is all we have.” I’m not sure who “They” are, but I know she was in front of me and should have been in a position to offer help, not excuses.

Long story short, we were lucky enough to be waited on by the calm and professional manager, Mary. She explained what happened. Since my in-laws were rescheduled by British Airways on their original flight, it tagged them as No Shows on their first flight to the States, and this automatically cancelled their flight home. This is SOOOOOOOOOOO wrong on so many levels. Mary fixed the situation by getting them on a Luthsana flight home with a different connection on the Continent, and they had a few hours to spare before that flight boarded in Florida.

THE CUSTOMER SERVICE GURU SOLUTION: Wow, this one has many “Opportunities,” as we like to say in corporate speak.

1. All industries that are affected by weather should have a severe weather policy in place that knows exactly what to do when a weather event like this occurs.

It isn’t a surprise that ever year airports shut down, the surprise is when it happens. Airlines should walk through the different scenarios and define the solution: “What if the passengers final destination is fine, but the connection is questionable?”, “How do we notify people to not come to the airport?”, “What do we do if passengers are stuck in the airport? Where is our responsibility?”

2. Proactively communicate with your customers, in this case passengers.

The technology for robocalling is there, use it! Make a decision and stick to it about your go or no go flying policy. If you want them to show up for their flight, as there is a chance it will go, tell them. If you are sure the flight will be cancelled, tell them. Bottom line to delivering customer service excellence: TELL THEM.

3. Adequate Staff on Duty

It was ridiculous we had to wait 90 minutes for the Ticketing Agent. She was roughly serving one party of passengers every 20 minutes! This boggles my mind that there were not more staff prepared or trained for Ticketing. This was Christmas week! It is not a surprise passenger traffic would be extremely high and there would be a possibility of a weather event to make it worse. Prepare and cross train your staffs.

Tangentially, it is more difficult to deliver excellent customer service when your staff is overworked and unduly stressed. One of my favorite SNL skits has a great mantra for policy making in Customer Service: FIX IT!

4. Blaming the “They” that is not there.

The supervisor’s comment about emailing the CEO is unacceptable. You are in front of me, you help me. They may be the problem (see note above), but it is your responsibility as the face of your organization to help me now.

5. Educate your customers so they have proper expectations.

Customers should have a reasonable expectation if they are shut in at the airport that you will do your best to accommodate them. This is an unusual event for all involved. However, proactively define as an organization what those accommodations look like. Will you provide food, drink, and blankets? How often will you update them?

Also stay in constant communication with your customers. It goes back to Tell Them.

There is more, but I think you get the idea. This happens ever year, and every year the news fills with passengers disgruntled about their treatment. This should be a surprise to no one. Understand your passengers are traveling for important reasons that mean a lot to them. Respect that and respect your staff working hard on your behalf. Develop policies that are fair, fiscally sound, and easy to put into action.

This is what solidifies your reputation, fortifies your brand, and increases your bottom line even during difficult unforeseeable events.


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