I was recently flying from my keynote in London where I have just given a speech, my first speech in this pregnancy. I am extremely nauseous, all the time. I made arrangements to ensure everything would flow in my travel itinerary as easily as possible, as I knew this would not be an easy trip for me in my current state.
My flight to London is not bad despite an older airplane. I notice a man across the aisle from me — drinking wine — cursing at the flight attendant for his broken TV. I feel sorry for the airline employee who has to deal with angry, aggressive and inappropriate travelers. To me the flight attendant seems vulnerable and unprepared, with nothing very solid to tell this passenger. But this isn’t the point of the story. Just the usual noise of airline travel.
Fast forward two more nights, I have finished the keynote speech for 300 people, and a second speech at a dinner for 40 people, and I wake up exhausted but happy. Today I’m heading home to my husband and my daughter. But on my journey home things start to go wrong. I am taking a connecting flight to Germany. From there I will fly the airline I have status with, home to the Bay Area. But my connected flight — the partner airline — from London Heathrow Airport to Frankfurt Airport in Germany is delayed. This delay — and the handling of it — proves to be a huge thorn in my side.
Siloed Customer Communications
Customers think that when they communicate to a company, that communication is said on a metaphorical microphone to the entire company. The customer imagines the company will record the information given, document it, and share it in real-time. However this rarely happens.
I ask the partner airline’s agents who work in the lounge and they assure me I will have enough time as the gates are very close together. My airline’s customer service team on Twitter says the same assuring me I will be on time for my second flight.
However the flight that was delayed coming in, doesn’t load on time. For my first connecting flight the world is moving in slow motion.
When we finally get on the flight I talk to the flight attendant. I tell her that I am pregnant and I cannot sprint across the airport for my connection — I try to find out if there are other passengers trying to get to San Francisco International on the same flight as me.
She assures me there will be someone at the airport to help escort me to my gate. However when we do arrive, we are only 15 minutes away from my departure to the U.S. Although I had communicated with my airline in real-time, it is clear to me they do not communicate with the employees on the ground, and have no influence on much except back-office customer service issues.
I realize once we land in Germany that I might miss my flight home. There were so many miscommunications to me in my conversations with my airline and the partner airline’s employees. Neither airline told me we would deplane to the tarmac, and we would need to load our entire flight onto a bus to the other side of the terminal. I was not told I would need to go through border control again in Germany.
The flight attendant’s personal escort she had mentioned appeared made up. There is no one there to help. It’s each man for himself, or in this case, pregnant woman. Meanwhile I notice other customers being driven in high-end cars to other terminals. I do not have status with the partner airline, so I am not a candidate for a ride.
Finally I get through border control after they search my bag. I start sprinting across the airport to my gate. My pregnant body is telling me to stop running as I can’t catch my breath, but the thought of seeing my family is inspiring me to keep going. I also have my airline’s social media team in my head, who assured me I would make my flight. I had promised my three year old daughter I would be home that day. I run, two stairs at a time, determined to make it — and it’s a lot farther than anyone who I had spoken with, told me.
Not So Fast
I finally arrive at my gate and while extremely out of breath I am delighted I have made it. I am a little worried but relax when the female gate agent says, “don’t worry, take a breath, we’ll get you on the flight.” I am so elated I text my husband the good news. Everything went as planned.
However that elation soon turns to unhappiness when the second gate agent opens his mouth. He talks over the first gate agent and hollers the news that my business class seat was given away.
When I vocalize my frustration that my seat was given away the male gate agent shouts at me, “You want me to take away your seat altogether?”
I am taken aback by his tone. I can’t believe that a customer that spends that much money with this airline would be treated so sloppily.
I had sent direct messages to the social media agent from my airline that I was going to make my connection. However they have very little or no contact with the team on the ground. These are not a few rogue employees doing the wrong thing. This is a culture that focuses on profits above all else, and to them I am simply a number, a head missing from a seat.
I take the economy seat. As I told you I’m in my first trimester of pregnancy and I feel sick a lot. For anyone who has been pregnant they know the only thing that can allay nausea is eating small snacks. I had not brought any snacks with me because I anticipated being given snacks and food in business class, but I am quickly told by the agent that I will not get my business class food I had paid for in economy.
When my husband who is the highest tier of customer for this airline calls the contact center to find out what happened, the agent gives him some background information on the airline’s culture. She says if the business class seats are not full the airline loses money. The employee’s mindset was they could have been fired had they accommodated me. They were acting out of fear of future repercussions for their performance, rather than the customer’s experience in that moment.
When you experience the terrible culture of a company on the ground — or in the air — you can certainly imagine that the leadership are responsible for that culture.
Some airline executives have publicly said in the past that for flyers that know the rules, flying is much better than for those who don’t.
However I am a frequent flyer and I thought I knew all the rules. There are instances where situations are not black and white. Also what you find when you fly a lot is extreme variation in the attitude of the people who work at the airline.
The Bottom Line
Culture is free. So is organizational structure, where customer information is shared, and performance metrics are customer-focused, not revenue focused. The airline might have saved a little money with my seat, but I will never forget how they made me feel.
In industries where customers are forced to do business with the big players, as there aren’t unlimited options, you see companies being more sloppy with customers. In a recent report it was clear that the airlines are one of the most hated industries today. The airline industry has a customer satisfaction score near the bottom of all industries. The 2018 results marked a decline of nearly 3% the previous year. Airlines have been in the bottom 20% of companies for customer satisfaction since the ACSI began more than 20 years ago. The report said the low ratings are due to the fact that customers don’t like being nickel and dimed for everything on their flights, from seat assignments to extra bag fees, and then receiving poor in-flight service. Overall customer service is also an issue for airlines, with customers complaining about long lines, disrespectful employees and difficulty contacting their airline when issues arise.
This example reminds me of the many ways airlines give lip service to customer experience with the meaningless customer-language used — when customers see right through you with your behavior. Their experience is their reality, not your marketing.
Experience Is A Leveler
Customer experience is the great leveling field. Any tiny company can step in and completely rebuild an experience that is broken, and they win. It doesn’t matter your size or your legacy. Right now the airlines still have regulation on their side making it hard for newcomers to disrupt and innovate, but newcomers are starting to, and we will only see that eventually companies riding their own coattails will not survive.
A toxic culture is hard to hide or mask. When we talk about experience design, I imagine the people who are tasked with literally designing experiences for others. As customers we don’t realize that the frustration or ease of use we have has been thoughtfully, or un-thoughtfully, determined by other people. We simply take the experiences we get since we don’t have alternatives. In the case of airlines, even if you pay for the more thoughtfully designed experience, that experience is often limited by problems inside the engine of the company, although you might see a customer taking that frustration out on an employee who is right in front of them.
I wanted my money back for the business class seat I never sat in. I issued a complaint as instructed by the call center to a web form for refunds. There was no phone number, only a fax machine number. They tell me it will take one month to respond to my request for a refund. The flight cost more than 10K U.S. dollars, and half that would be my flight home, 5K U.S. Dollars. I am refunded just about 2K dollars. It is not only the value of the seat I lost, but frustration and stress I will never be compensated for.
My advice for airlines who want to improve customer experience includes three tips.
- Empower your contact center staff to communicate in real-time with your team on the ground. Having social media or contact center support, but not empowering staff to collaborate with your teammates on the ground, is hurting your customer experience. Empower your contact center staff to actually get things done, and communicate with customer-facing staff at airports
- Revisit your organizational structure and make sure it enables digital transformation and customer experience. If your channels are owned by specific departments, and those employees in those departments are not incentivized to collaborate around the customer, those departments never will.
- Ensure your performance metrics for both team members on the ground and those in the contact center are tied to customer experience, not profits.
Blake Morgan is a keynote speaker and the author of the bestselling book The Customer Of The Future: 10 Guiding Principles For Winning Tomorrow’s Business. You can stay in touch by signing up for her weekly newsletter here.