Delivering a Service versus Servicing your Customer

What the airport and airline failed to do was “Service their customers” and provide a good end-to-end customer experience. At every stage of the initial experience the process or processes were broken because the only focus was on the getting the plane back up and running.

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of Customer Experience in IT being the sum of the total engagement that a customer has with an organization. I come back to that discussion through a recent experience that I and some of my LANDesk colleagues had while travelling to the United States.

Recently many employees traveled from Europe to present at and help out at Interchange 2013 in Las Vegas. The weather was cold and snowing but not prohibitive to travel. However, London’s Heathrow Airport had other ideas. By the time we were ready to board our transatlantic flight, the airport had already cancelled many European flights and the airport was awash with travelers.

As we boarded the plane, we assumed we were one of the lucky few. But six-and-half hours we were still sitting on the tarmac. Hour after hour we sat waiting for the plane to be de-iced. We were told that we were seventh in a queue. With each plane taking 30 to 40 minutes to de-ice and only two de-icers available to do the task, we quickly calculated that this could take a while. Our pilots kept us abreast of the little they knew. They were clearly frustrated as they weren’t receiving any information from the ground crew about what was happening, how they were prioritizing the de-icing or anything else. The staff was magnificent in their customer service skills, providing refreshments, staying visible throughout chatting to travelers but they too had no information. Finally, there was an announcement that the flight crew had run out of operational hours and could no longer safely fly. This is something that must have been known for some time.

The captain of the plane apologized and talked of a customer service team coming on board to let us know what to do next. It appears he was misinformed. The jet bridge was reattached and we left the aircraft minus a Customer Service team and no sight of any ground crew. The following experience could not have been worse. We went back through passport control and were then told that we would not be able to retrieve our luggage and we would need to return to the airport the next day or telephone for it. Finally due to the vast number of passengers in the same position, the airport could not provide Hotel accommodations for those who were stuck. The situation was no better the next day with huge queues for baggage and phone queues for re-booking flights.

After a couple of hours delay the following day, I and the majority of the team made it out to Las Vegas. Most of us who had not seen our luggage for two days received it at the other end. A few however were left without clothes for the week. A couple of my colleagues flying the following day were less fortunate. My poor unfortunate colleagues had exactly the same experience of sitting on a flight for many hours and eventually were told the plane was returning to the terminal.

What the airport and airline failed to do was “Service their customers” and provide a good end-to-end customer experience. As far as the ground crew were concerned, a service was down and they needed to get the technology up and running again. They left it to their front line staff on the plane to deliver good customer service but did not provide them with the support and communications to do so. Further there appeared to be no end to end processes in place either from the airline or on the ground to deal with these kind of situations.

While we cannot control the weather, the experience could have been contained. At every stage of the initial experience the process or processes were broken because the only focus was on the getting the plane back up and running. There appeared to be no collaboration between teams and affected customers were not notified about what was going on. There seemed to be no forward planning or any assessment of the impact of decisions. What was even worse was that having customers experience this Incident in vast numbers, they failed to look at the causes or take measures to provide a workaround or correct the problem so that customers in the following days experienced exactly the same misery.

Needless to say, I am certain that customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. The airline will have lost money due to a large number of refunds and compensation claims plus lost customers who have taken their business to other airports and airlines that continued to run in the same period.

As this story illustrates, instead of supporting your customers, there is a tendency to focus on supporting the technology. Delivering a service whether that is a flight or an IT service (such as email) is very different from supporting your customers and produces very different outcomes. Delivering a service also needs to extend to the human experience in order to attain the highest levels of customer satisfaction with that service. The service needs to be supported by consistent, joined up processes and teams, setting the right expectations to customers, good training and the support of the full IT organization—not just the front line in the event of service disruption.

Great customer service is about customer convenience. If a customer of IT feels inconvenienced, just like our airline story your customers can now “shop” elsewhere.