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Effective customer complaints handling

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18th Apr 2007
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I watched the media’s recent lynching of JetBlue with great interest. For those who missed the coverage, this lynching followed a snow storm that left hundreds of passengers stranded on parked planes for up to 10 1/2 hours and a subsequent acknowlegement by JetBlue that it waited too long to ask airport authorities for help getting passengers off the stranded jets.

Reporters who had previously crowned the company as customer service king joined the anti-JetBlue bandwagon by celebrating the company’s flight cancellations and its passengers’ misery. In its effort to degrade a true customer experience vanguard, the media relentlessly highlighted the firm's failures and implied that the airline was no different than other profit hungry companies that makes its customers miserable at every opportunity.

At the height of the media savagery, BusinessWeek crossed JetBlue's name from its list of top customer service companies and followed up with an article questioning the airline’s growth strategy.

It is unfortunate to see that JetBlue’s mistakes (and there were a few) that affected the travel of a small fraction of its customers have, in the eyes of many, undermined its reputation for providing great customer service. This dark episode underscores the harsh reality that can befall even the most customer-centric companies – which is that mistakes affecting the few can destroy the reputation earned from providing great experiences to the many.

A true test

No one should be forced to wait for hours on a plane in the middle of a snowstorm and unfortunately, too many of us have experienced airline nightmares. Several years ago, I sat on a United Airlines plane for nine hours at LaGuardia airport. In late December 2006, an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas was diverted to Austin where the fully-loaded plane then sat on the tarmac for eight hours. However, the true test for a company is how it deals with adversity, and I would contend that airlines face few tests like they do when passengers sit on grounded planes for hours on end.

But rarely has an airline reacted as JetBlue did following its February debacle. The company immediately offered refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and gave their customers the chance to rebook flights without paying a fee. The firm also adapted its rules and procedures, and added staff to critically important areas.

Additionally, JetBlue voluntarily unveiled a customer bill of rights that promises vouchers to passengers who experience delays. Most importantly, JetBlue ran full-page newspaper advertisements apologising to customers about the Valentine’s Day problems. David Neelman, the company’s CEO, took full responsibility and assumed the role of 'chief apologiser' (his words, not mine) emphasising on CNBC’s 'Closing Bell' that: "We didn't do a good job...we did a terrible job, actually."

I have little doubt that CEOs from other airlines would hide and point their finger to the sky blaming nature, FAA, God or anything that the average person can’t see.

When a Northwest Airlines flight was delayed in a blizzard at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on New Year's weekend in 1999, a bill was introduced in the US Senate that was quickly discarded after airline CEOs promised members of Congress that such events would never happen again. Fast forward to 2007 and we can see that airline CEOs have not lived up to their promise except for David Neelman who promised JetBlue’s customers that the nightmare of February 14th would never happen again.

Company DNA

JetBlue canceled 215 flights earlier in the day because of a winter storm on the East Coast, attempting to avoid the days of cancellations and fierce criticism that followed its poor decision planning during the now infamous February storm. Other airlines – are you reading this?

Passenger bill of rights, vouchers, more staff, new rules and procedures, and public apologies – sound familiar? It shouldn’t, because other airlines take no such initiatives. When examining how companies respond to problems and complaints, one can witness a company’s true DNA.

At the moment of truth, when JetBlue made a mistake and inconvenienced passengers, it acted on it with full respect to its customers. It acted swiftly, assumed responsibility, proactively compensated its passengers and admitted its mistake publicly. In addition, the airline took steps to both avoid such mistakes in the future as well as reiterate its commitment to customers in the form of passengers bill of rights. The airline indeed proved that they pass the ultimate test handling mistakes in a true customer-centric way; customer first.

How many articles did you read about JetBlue’s customer bill of rights? How many news broadcasts opened with segments on JetBlue’s commitment to its customers? This is a story that should have been told and bears telling. JetBlue’s response to its problems is a classic case in how to effectively deal with problems and complaints, proving that the company belongs at the top of anybody’s list of customer-centric companies.

Great job JetBlue. Keep it up.

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Lior Arussy is the president of Strativity Group and the author of several books. His latest book is Passionate & Profitable: Why Customers Strategies Fail and 10 Steps to Do Them Right! (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). To learn more about customer strategies, sign up for Lior’s newsletter at www.StrativityGroup.com/knowledge.

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