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Swiss Air - a case study in customer contempt

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23rd Jun 2005
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In this game, looking at customer management activities and technologies week in and week out, you get to the stage of thinking that you've probably seen just about everything you're going to see. Then along comes a company that manages to blow every expectation about just how badly wrong they can get their customer service activities and set whole new standards of utterly appalling behaviour. Step forward Swiss Air, the new CMC winner of most atrocious customer management of 2005.

OK, they're an airline so they've got a in-built head start on indifference to their customers, but this lot take some beating as you'll see. Now I've seen some bad customer management from airlines. Hey, I'm a veteran of the San Francisco to New York United Airlines red-eye flight, I know about bad service and lousy attitude. You haven't seen bad service until you've been sneered at by one of the middle-aged battle-axes that masquerade as air hostesses on United. If it wasn't for the fact that the Americans don't really do irony, I'd think using a strap-line of "the friendly skies" was someone's idea of a marvelous in-joke among the staff...

But I digress. Back to Swiss, whose idea of customer management is as full of holes as lump of cheese. Let me set the scene. It's Geneva airport. I and a colleague are booked on a business class flight back to London. We arrive at the airport early and discover there is an earlier flight leaving in 45 minutes. Geneva airport is small, there's no queue at check-in and we only have hand-luggage. The flight we're booked on is not for another three hours.

So we talk to the British Airways representative. The tickets we have are Swiss tickets, but it's a BA flight under their partnership scheme. I ask if we can move to the earlier flight, adding that I don't mind if we need to give up the (very expensive) business class tickets and replace them with economy seats. The BA rep checks, confirms that there are seats on the earlier flight and that he has no problem with this, but adds that as it's a Swiss ticket we need to get the Swiss Air desk to change the reservation. He points us to the Swiss desk which is literally 30 seconds across the departure hall.

We go over to the Swiss desk where their representative looks up. We explain the situation. He looks over his glasses and says "No", then looks back down at his computer terminal and starts tapping away. We ask what he means. With a very loud sigh, he looks up again and says "No!" again. When he realises that this is not going to wash - some degree of awareness there! - he adds that there are no seats on the earlier flight.

We point out that the BA desk has checked literally a minute earlier and there are seats. It has taken us 30 seconds to walk over to the Swiss desk. He's now telling us that those seats are gone? There are no seats, he insists, the BA people got it wrong. Now, since the BA guy checked the availablity in front of us and this person hasn't even bothered to do so, I know which one I'm inclined to believe.

So we ask for his supervisor. With another huge sigh - perhaps he's just soaking up that marvelous Swiss air!- he stomps into the back room, leaving our tickets and reservation information sitting on the counter. Thirty seconds later he returns with an enormously tall woman who comes up to us without a smile. We explain the situation. She doesn't crack a smile yet, simply says "There are no seats on that flight, I've just checked."

So I'm now in a position where I'm either going to be impressed by the speed at which she's managed to get summoned from her lair in the back room, get told the situation by her hapless underling and checked out the availablity on those notoriously quick and responsive reservations systems (NOT!) that all airlines use. Or I'm going to think that she's lying. I chose the latter option and say so. She clearly hasn't checked at all.

Liar! Now I've found the word that makes her smile. Big grin, in fact, a grin so smug and self-satisfied that it dazzles even in the bright airport lights. And it's accompanied by a contemptuous shrug as she turns tail and skulks back into the darkness of her office. We ask for her to come back. She refuses. We ask for a complaints form. We're told they don't have any. We ask for her name. We're told they won't give it out.

Then the piece de resistance! If we don't stop asking for things, our hapless underling will call the police and have us removed from the airport! We're holding up the queue apparently. I look round. There's no-one - absolutely no-one! - behind us and three Swiss representatives sitting doing lord alone knows what at their terminals. The rush to get on a Swiss flight is not overwhelming it seems...

We go back to the BA desk and explain what's happened. Our rep there checks the systems again and confirms that there are seats on the flight. So they're lying?, I ask him. He's not prepared to stick his neck out. Perhaps he's worried that our Swiss chum will call the police and have him marched out the airport for daring to ask questions. But his hands are tied, he says, he can't change our tickets without Swiss's say-so.

I know when I'm beaten. In the face of the most pig-headed, customer-unfriendly, just downright lousy customer management, there's no point in trying to fight there and then. But for the record, complaints are being put in about the two Swiss Air personnel - and most particularly about the woman who was apparently the main Customer Services person on duty (perhaps it's another ironic title, like Friendly Skies? Do the Swiss do irony?).

For the record, if you ever get the chance to travel with Swiss Air, don't take it - that's my advice. They are living, breathing proof of that old adage that it doesn't matter how much money you spend on CRM technology, if you put people like these two jokers on your front desk, then all the customer management systems in the world won't disguise that fact that your basic attitude to your paying customers is one of fundamental contempt.

Swiss Air - congratulations, you are streets ahead now in our ongoing quest to find the most appalling example of atrocious customer management in 2005. We're only half way through the year, but somehow I think you're going to be hard to beat!

Replies (5)

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By Stuart Lauchlan
28th Jun 2005 17:19

Ok, well to address some of these points:

This was not the lead article in an international CRM magazine. It was the leader article which is an entirely opinion-based piece of writing, the so-called 'why oh why' section. As such it is entirely 'proper journalism' as the rules and etiquette of such articles is entirely different from, for example, a news analysis piece. However as I have only been writing about the IT industry on both sides of the pond for 17 years, I am of course always grateful for any advice, tips and guidance on what constitutes 'proper journalism'.

Swiss Air, you may be interested to know,has responded to the article and in a relatively positive way - or negative perhaps if you are the two employees who were responsible for this mess in the first place. I'll keep you updated how that progresses. It's a shame that those without access to a 'bully pulpit' are less likely to get a similar form of response. My calls to the Swiss customer service department delivered nothing; an opinion piece on a public domain forum did.

As it happens, I entirely agree with you that these sort of 'CRM [***]-up/experience' pieces could have a wider impact and a more didactic purpose. Watch this space is all I can say on that one, we have some naughty little plans to address just such requirements relatively soon.

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By AnonymousUser
27th Jun 2005 16:02

On reading Ian Malloy's comment I decided to re-read the article. And you know what, I think he is right; the article does have a number of important things lacking.

What it does well is describe what happened. But what it doesn't describe is what attempts were taken to get Swiss Air to respond after the event, what we should all learn from Swiss Air's obvious service failures and what they should have really have done to recover the situation.

It is all to easy to use the Internet as a bully-pulpit to attack companies for their rotten service withourt any of the checks and balances expected from 'proper' journalism. But I think it would have been more appropriate to use these experiences as the background for a proper short article, complete with some semblance of balanced reporting, useful information and some reader education.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant

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By i.malloy
24th Jun 2005 14:59

Sorry Stuart, while this is indeed a story of woe, it does not have the makings of a lead item in an international CRM magazine.

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By ndwalsh
28th Jun 2005 18:39

I read the comments with interest and as a frequent flyer can only sympathise, step back and laugh, there’s nothing normally else that works - otherwise you end up irate and emotionally frustrated. I can share similar stories for BA, BA, SAS and BA. (can you tell yet I don’t like them one bit).

As for calling this a bully pulpit, I disagree - we as consumers have some pretty basic expectations of a good customer experience and anyone who impacts that in anyway should be named and shamed. You may recall there’s a recent book called "Inconvenience Stores: One Year in U.K. Customer Service" which details many of these woes.

The real thing we should be asking ourselves as professionals is what can we do to help and more fundamentally, do these organisations want our help?. I have visited all too many companies that harp on about delivering fantastic customer service and fall so short of the basics its not even funny any more.

We all have choices, and as with any good thing we must use our feet and any other means necessary to share these experiences with others. We could all share so quickly our last bad experience (where some thing or level of service did not meet our expectation), but how long would it take you to recall the last "outstanding experience" you had, too long in most cases.

Any company will always be represented by its weakest link, and in this case it happens to be the very front line. Iberia, learn by your mistakes, get the fundamental basics right, keep things simple and remember everyone has choices.

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By AnonymousUser
25th Jun 2005 17:40

This is a perfect example of the disconnect between CRM theory and real-world reality. IBERIA for example is a Siebel user, but might as well not be. On our return flight from Madrid to Paris in May after a week in Spain, we (me, my wife and our 3 kids) arrived almost 2 hrs ahead of check-in - only to find ourselves on stand-by. I started to create a bit of a scene, politely but firmly, which managed to get us confirmed seats on the next flight. Still intent on staying on our original flight though, I tossed my frequent flyer card into the trash behind the desk clerk to demonstrate that I would not fly Iberia again (actually it was a bluff - I could always get another card). I then went to another desk to claim compensation under the new EU rules (which amazingly, I succeeded in obtaining), and mentioned in passing to the new person in front of me that I had just thrown away my card. She shrugged if off and said that that was fine.

And lest you think they were dealing with a crazy, worked up customer, all of this happened rather "amicably" under the circumstances, me explaining to the poor desk clerks in my halting Spanish that I know it's not their fault, etc, etc, and they replying that they understood, that it was not normal to have been bumped like that, etc, etc. Which makes the absence of a follow-up process all the more surprising. To date I have never received even a letter of apology. But I do continue to receive ads and other promotional mail as if the whole affair had never occurred! The reason is simple: neither of the front desk personnel retrieved my card and there probably was no process in place to escalate this to customer service so they could close the loop and perhaps try to retain me as a customer. Which is too bad, because now I fly another airline for my business trips to Madrid.

So next time you read about another famous airline buying Siebel or whatever other CRM system, remember, it might make absolutely no difference at the front desk.

Michael Gentle

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