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I don’t think I am being unfair to suggest that, as a rule, Parisians are not known for their customer care. When you add into that the fact that the Parisians in question were sitting behind a desk in a crowded, stuffy Charles de Gaulle airport, you start to get the picture. Having arrived at the airport, thinking I had done the online check in, first the ticket machine didn’t work, then I queued for thirty minutes and then I discovered the website lied and not only was I not checked in but I didn’t have a seat either… And this was all before I had to have my bags searched at the gate and the plane was delayed by an hour. Throughout this saga, my protests were met with the universally understood ‘Parisian shrug’… The shrug that has stood the test of time through history and was more recently translated by Catherine Tate, in the guise of Lauren Cooper, into “am I bovered”.

I boarded the plane frustrated and feeling totally undervalued… Which considering the cost of the flight felt a bit wrong to me.

On landing I discovered (to my husband’s great sense of humour failure) that both my car headlight bulbs had gone… So it was a call to the AA before we could drive home. What is it they say about a ‘game of two halves’? The phone was answered by a real person, with a relaxed, friendly and professional tone. They calmed me down without my even knowing I was that wound up. After getting the patrol on his way, they asked if there was anyone they could call to let them know I would be late. Ten minutes later I got a text confirming an eta and the van arrived, early, with an efficient, courteous and (again) friendly technician. Within 45 minutes of my call we were on our way. A very different customer experience.

So this got me thinking. What made it so different and what can we learn from this? Both the airline and the AA technically provide the service asked of them. In terms of pure commodity, they were both the same – with the airline, I got from A to B; with the AA I had my lights fixed and went on my way. Yet I would recommend the AA and not the airline.

When you drill down it comes down not to what I need (the commodity) but to what I want (the service). The AA knew that someone just off the plane was going to be pretty hacked off and yet rather than shrugging this off as ‘not their problem’, they considered if part of their job to make me feel better too. By definition of the fact that I was calling from a mobile they knew I would be able to call anyone I needed to, yet they still asked. They also knew I was a captive audience… Unable to do anything even if they were hours late… And yet they kept me informed and arrived early.

The airline, however, was focused on selling the product. Person on plane, goes from A to B – job done. All of their processes were directed by them and I was effectively at their mercy… On their conveyor belt. Even if I wanted something else, I was powerless. It didn’t matter how bad the process was, I would still end up at Heathrow. How many of us pay hundreds of pounds for cramped flights, bad food and protracted check in and customs processes? It’s madness and a vicious circle it will be hard to break. The reality is that air travel is expensive, tedious and increasingly unpleasant.

The AA however had the opportunity to operate in the same way and chose not too. Rather than focusing on the product, they focused on the consumer’s needs. The product was secondary. They had identified that it was actually the worry and stress that needed treating, almost more so than the car.

So what might air travel look like if the AA runs it? You would book your flight either online or by phone and they would already have your details on file. You would get a text/email the day before confirming everything and asking if you needed to book a car at the other end. You would reply to the text/email and that would check you in. When you got to the airport you’d add your reference number into the machine to collect your boarding passes, at which point a person would take your bags and you would head off to the departure area. So far… not a million miles away from how it’s supposed to work, is it?

…and then we introduce the people, which is where it breaks down currently. Under Air AA, there would be people to take your bags for you, and direct you to the departure lounge. The security checks would be properly manned and you’d sail through. Your flight would be on time and you would be greeted by name as you were shown to your seat. You would be invited to take a newspaper and you wouldn’t have to pay for your drink. You would have a nice comfy seat and really tasty food… And at the end they would ask you what you thought and actually give a damn about the answer… And most of all, this would not only happen in first class.

In this world of online travel planning we seem prepared to sacrifice the customer service in return for convenience. My argument is that it shouldn’t be an either:or scenario. Real customer care comes down to focusing on BOTH the needs and the wants. Above all, it comes down to actually taking pride in what you do and caring enough to think of your consumers as people, rather than just bums on seats.

 

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