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Customer disservice

Mark PesceI fly a lot, looking for every possible way to make my travel as smooth, effortless and pain-free as possible. I put a lot of effort into my preparations. When you’re in the belly of the airline system, prey to forces far beyond your control, it’s wise to be prepared for anything.

The airlines, fully aware their frequent flyers long for hassle-free travel, have started to provide support. When I walk into Sydney airport, I wave my Qantas Club card at a kiosk, and I’m all checked in for my flight – with a confirmation text message sent to my mobile. With Qantas ‘Q’ tags on my luggage, I don’t need to wait in a bag check line, I just drop my bags on the carousel and go – everything is automatic. I admit it felt a little weird when Qantas introduced these new services – air travel has always featured customer interaction at the check-in counter – but now it feels both natural and the right way to do things. Easy. Frictionless.

Airlines ask you to give them a contact number (or email) when you book your tickets, so they can keep you informed of any delays or changes in flight status. That’s information travellers can put to work, preventing long waits at the airport, so it seems as though this would be an unambiguously positive service offering. The truth is a bit more complicated.

I recently returned from a visit to the United States (US). While within the US, I like to fly Southwest Airlines, famed for having the best customer service record of all American carriers. Southwest makes a point of keeping its customers well informed of any flight delays, and although I’ve flown with the airline dozens of times over the years, I can only remember a handful of occasions when I received notification of a delay.

During that visit, as I was readying to head to the airport, I received an email from Southwest, telling me my flight had been delayed 90 minutes. No biggie. I rescheduled my taxi ride to the airport, and told my family – preparing to meet me in the arrivals hall – to come a bit later. Then I went over to the Southwest website, to track the status of my flight, in case any more delays accrued, as often happens. When I loaded the page, I found that Southwest listed the flight as on time, not delayed. Imagine my surprise.

I found Southwest’s phone number, called, and waited on hold for five minutes, wondering if the website was wrong or the email or what? If the email was wrong, I would need a new taxi very, very quickly in order to get to the airport on time. I reloaded the flight status web page – the details remained the same. Just before I got someone on the line, I got another email from Southwest, telling me that my flight departure time had once again been changed – back to its original departure time!

Now I had to undo everything I’d just done: call a taxi for an immediate pickup, and get my relatives back on our original schedule. It all left me a bit flustered, and with a bad feeling toward an airline I’d always loved.

This mix-up was probably caused by some sort of computer error, a mistaken bit of data that made Southwest’s systems spit up an email in my general direction. But I don’t actually know what happened. I received a series of conflicting emails, and the second email did not refer to the earlier, erroneous email. That’s a huge issue, because when a company starts contradicting itself in rapid-fire succession over a customer channel, it’s always going to confuse the customer. If this confusion concerns something that’s time-sensitive – such as the departure status of a flight – confusion rapidly turns to anger.

We want the businesses we trade with to be transparent. We ask them to provide us every bit of information that might help us make better decisions. But these demands come with an implicit request that the information supplied must be accurate, timely, and appropriate. Bad data is much worse than no data at all.

Nothing is perfect. All businesses will make mistakes when communicating with their customers. How the business recognises and makes amends for their mistakes shapes the customer’s response. If the transaction is impersonal and perfunctory, customer loyalty will evaporate.

If I’d gotten an apology from Southwest – something that looked as though it had been written by a human being – I would have forgiven them their momentary lapse. Instead, they fed me a machine-generated message, leaving me up in the air. I’ll remember how Southwest made everything that should have been easy so difficult. They’ve lost my loyalty, and a customer. Other airlines claim to offer great service. Next time I fly in the USA, I’ll take a look at those carriers – and see if they’ve learned from Southwest’s mistakes.

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML, co-author of The Next Billion Seconds, and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy. He was formerly one of the judges on ABC’s The New Inventors.

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