The other week I flew from Prague to London. Or, rather, I sat. Mostly I sat. When the four-hour delay due to weather was announced in Prague, a collective groan went up. The fellow next to me sighed and said, “This happens every week. Four hour delay; blame it on the weather. And just you watch: when we dofinally get to Heathrow there won’t be enough busses to get us from the plane to the terminal.”
Sure enough, he was right. By the time we touched down at Heathrow it was one o’clock in the morning, and there was only one bus to ferry all the passengers from our plane to the terminal. After four hours of sitting in the airport in Prague and two hours of sitting on the plane en route to London, I then sat on the tarmac for another 45 minutes waiting to be bussed to the terminal.
What is appalling here is not the simple fact of a four-hour delay and the absence of busses at one o’clock in the morning. What’s appalling is the fact that this happens frequently enough that the regular passengers on this flight could tell me what to expect with perfect accuracy.
Identifying the real culprit may not help
As I was leaving the plane, I asked the pilot—who, I will credit, did his very best to get us back to London as quickly as possible—whether he considered this an acceptable customer experience.
“I don’t,” he said, quite emphatically. “I think it’s appalling.”
“Have you expressed your feelings to British Airlines?”
“I have,” he replied, “but it’s not entirely British Airlines’ fault. It’s also the airport. It’s just beyond capacity.”
“That may be true,” I said in response, “but British Airlines still has to come up with a plan to deal with this. The flight is late every week, and you can’t keep saying ‘It’s not our fault’ forever.”
Fixing the fault, even when it’s not yours
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Every company owns the responsibility for its customers’ experience, whether it likes it or not. If you’re in the business of manufacturing furniture but choose to rely on a delivery service that routinely mishandles the goods so that they always arrive damaged, is the customer going to know? Is the customer going to think that the delivery service is poor or that you make shoddy furniture? Ultimately, your brand is the one that suffers.
When building and sustaining a relationship with your customers, you own the customer satisfaction piece of the business—even if a third party is responsible for compromising that satisfaction. Thus, it behooves you to ensure that the third parties who represent your brand are motivated to deliver a service that reflects your brand.
So how could BA have delivered a better customer experience—short of departing Prague on time? It can’t stop engaging Heathrow in the same way a furniture manufacturer can stop engaging a clumsy delivery service. So think creatively. I can think of three things that BA could have done that would have made my trip a much more satisfying experience.
1. Contact me if there’s going to be a delay. Delays are hardly unusual in the airline world, but not all carriers opt to remain silent about them. When Virgin Atlantic knows that my flight is going to be late, they send me a text telling me that I should come to the airport two hours later than scheduled. They’ll even follow up with a telephone call if I don’t respond to the text—just to make sure that I know.
For me, in Prague, the knowledge that my flight would be delayed for four hours would have enabled me to carry on in a meeting that I would otherwise have had to leave early. As it was, in the absence of such outreach, I did have to leave my meeting early—so you can imagine how happy I was to arrive at the airport and sit for four hours waiting for the flight.
2. Throw your weight around on behalf of your customers. BA has a larger presence at Heathrow than any other airline, and it should be able to use that stature to secure benefits for its customers. That might include getting the airport to keep more busses on in the evening when BA flights have been delayed due to weather.
3. Incentivize those third parties to be champions of the brand image you want to project. What if BA held a contest among the bus drivers to see which ones could rack up the highest number of customer satisfaction points each month? To the driver or drivers that had provided the best customer service, it could give two free airline tickets.
Such a move might go a long way to ensure sufficient transportation late at night, and it could add immeasurably to customer satisfaction at minimal cost. A driver could simply post a URL or a QR barcode on the bus that riders could scan if they felt the driver had done a great job. BA could collect that data and make the award.
The point is that every company has options, and those options are not even that expensive to implement. It just requires a bit of creative thinking to figure out what they are. But they could make a huge difference to the customers, as well as to your customer-facing team that has, quite frankly, been having to apologize for your lack of creativity for too long.