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Five customer experience lessons from the volcanic cloud

26th Apr 2010
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Regular contributor Lior Arussy was one of the many victims of the volcano ash cloud, stranded in the UK while waiting for European airspace to reopen so that he could return to the US. Here, he details his experiences - and outlines the lessons that businesses need to learn from the crisis.

April 17

Well, joining tens of thousands of passengers worldwide, I am currently not where I was planning to be. The Volcanic ashes took over and cleared the European airspace from any airplanes. This crisis presents a unique opportunity for companies to demonstrate their commitment to customers. As I navigate my way through the unknown, it is interesting to observe how different companies behave. My interest is not to create a 'shame the company' exposure, but rather to draw lessons.

Booking a hotel room in London these days is a challenge. The internet sites are not reflecting true availability. We are back to phone based, direct reservations. I was able to obtain a hotel room in the last minute by calling the hotel directly. As I was standing in line to check in, many existing guests were joining me each requesting an extension to their current reservation. I was amazed that the hotel never thought about such possibility and prepared for it. They were taking reservations from NEW customers, and failed to consider the existing customers.

Lesson one – Existing customers comes first. The least you could do is call their rooms and ask for their plans. Do not wait for them to contact you. Be proactive.

April 18

As the journey continues, no one knows what comes next. The newspapers report of airlines and train companies who are taking advantage of customers and increasing their price. I just spoke to a friend who reported that a certain hotel in London increases its rates by 60 pounds every night for the last three nights. What an outrageous move! This is a great way to reinforce that notion that the customer should be taken advantage of at any opportunity possible. When the customer is in need, charge more. When they are in desperate need, charge desperately high prices!

Lesson two – Do not take advantage of your customers., the quick reward will prove to be a long-term reputation nightmare. These customers will not forget the way you treated them / cashed in on their problem when they were in desperate need.

April 19

And so the journey continues with hotels and airlines being clueless on how to treat their customers during this difficult time. You would think that 9/11 will teach them a lesson. But apparently not.

My hotel placed a signed next to the concierge with a written update on the flight status (It basically says, all airports are closed) The real message to customers facing this sign "don’t talk to us". Moment of truth like that should provide the hotel with an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and ask guests if need any more help – extension of stay, laundry services, how to purchase missing items. Instead the hotel opted for a simple sign that illustrate the pinnacle of efficiency. "Leave us alone".

Trying to engage is simple conversation with the airline rep whil rescheduling my flight (still don’t know if it wll take off) resulted with similar response. I was actually trying to demonstrate emphathy for the difficult day she might be facing. She simply ignored me.

Lesson three – Empathy and emotional engagement are the best way to respond when all other options are not available. Do not leave your customers stranded emotionally. You can’t blame the volcanic ashes for that. You can control this element of the customers’ abandonment. Be there for them even if it only a listening ear and an open heart you can provide. This is the best time to build long-term relationship.

April 20

This is going to be a positive one. In the sea of chaos and helplessness that we are all facing, I would like to command the hotel staff. It is the Montcalm London. They make an effort every day to remember my name and approach me proactively to check how am I doing. There is very little that they can do to make me get home faster. But there are plenty of opportunities for them to make me feel at home at their hotel. Even the lady who cleans my room makes sure to put an authentic smile on her face when she sees me. And believe me I know the difference between an authentic one and a fake one. Too much travel will make you an expert on it.

My other favorite? They did not wait for my customer survey at the end of the stay. A person stop by at my room to check on my satisfaction with the room! This way they have the opportunity to correct things.

Prior to me moving to the Montcalm, I stayed at another hotel, the treatment was totally different. I learned not to take for granted these small gestures. They simply get it right. It’s the small details that make all the difference. And it does not cost money. This is the attitude part of the experience. You can’t pay your employees to do it and it is priceless to the guests. Thank you to all the staff at Montcalm, London.

Lesson four – Make it personal, show caring smile sincerely. Make your customer loved through basic human gesture. Check on customer satisfaction while they are there, not after.

April 22

I am back home. The return home presents another set of lessons. Considering the fact that during 9/11 I was stuck in Europe, I was expecting the airlines to learn a lesson from that crisis. They did. They told all passengers without confirmed reservations to stay away from the airports. Guards were placed outside the terminals at Heathrow airports and only customers whom their name was on the list were even allowed to enter the building! The result – a BA flight to Boston left with 150 passengers in a 450 seat aircraft. The following flight had 250 passengers on a 450 seats aircraft.

Despite years of investing in the web experience and teaching customers to use self service channels, those channels were shut down and you had to go through the call center for any request or query. The result: two hours or more of wait time.

Crisis is going to take place. It is just a matter of time. Being ready for it is the real litmus test. Customer will measure you not only based on routine times, but based on crisis time. During the 9/11 crisis I saw the airlines panicking and thousands of passengers stranded in the airport. Now I saw them panicking in the other direction and the result was half empty flights.

Isn’t it time we plan for crisis? Isn’t time that we build programs to deal with massive delays and cancellations? Life is full of surprises, yet from 9/11 to the volcanic ashes, my experience was that we have not learned much or build the mechanisms to effectively deal with the challenge. Was it really necessary to shut down the web tools which could have provided customers with tools to manage the crisis? After years of investing in self service, we just took customers backwards and taught them that the call center is the primary channel.

Before I close, I do want to thank the two special Virgin Atlantic Airways employees who helped me get on the last flight to Newark even though they could not locate my confirmed reservation which was made by another airline. They were kind and empathetic and simply human in a time of need. Thank you Virgin.

Lesson five – Life is full of surprises. But if you fail to learn from them and plan better for next time, you will fail your customers. When a customer is telling you that they expect the unexpected, they do not mean negative surprises. We must start anticipating the surprises and plan for them. They are the real moments of truth of every relationship. We are ultimately judged on our actions during the unexpected because it tests our true nature.

Lior Arussy is the president of Strativity Group, a glogal customer experience research and consulting firm. Follow Lior on Twitter: @LiorStrativity

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By miclinds
27th Apr 2010 23:53

Having come from the airline industry where I was the one on the other side of the desk through numerous similiar situations, including 911, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of lessons to be learned. Lessons 3 and 4 are the most powerful tools one can have in their customer service toolbox. But who takes the time, much less knows how to develop these skills in people? They're not ones that come naturally to most of us and a few hours in a classroom certainly doesn't do it. So many think they have to take on a corporate persona - as if that were someone other than themselves. It took me many years of experience and soul searching to develop these skills within myself (and I continue to work on them!). This is the area of Customer Experience I would like to hear being addressed more. Just like the Bain & Co. study found on a macro level, the same principle holds true on an individual level - that there is a disconnect between the perception of service delivered by the company/individual and the perception of service received by the customer. it is the intention of the heart that I believe accounts for much of this disconnect. We need to understand and develop the skills to bring intention and perceived behaviour in line. Until decision makers come to see the value in investing in their employees (both management and employees), I wonder how much things in the airline industry can really change. Glad you're home safe! Warm regards, Michelle Romanica

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