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!