On February 27th in New Zealand, a man died in a shark attack on a beach near Auckland. This tragic story hit the press again just two days later as low cost airline JetStar refused to allow the victim’s mother to change a ticket and fly from Wellington to Auckland a week earlier to be with her family, without paying a $350 change fee.

The New Zealand Herald reported a Jetstar spokesman as saying “Jetstar appreciates this would have been a stressful situation and regrets if the service received by her relative from our call centre caused further distress.”

IF the service received caused further distress?  IF?

This chain of events raises serious lessons for any contact centre manager, going right to the heart of basic principles in customer service.

Lesson 1: Never forget the point of a customer service centre

The clue is in the name. Customer service. It’s a phrase that gets bandied about quite a bit. It’s also used to refer to contact centres focused on sales and revenue protection, so of course these businesses need to have rules in place.

For all the processes, technologies and key performance indicators, contact centres are about human beings interacting with other human beings.  People have individual needs, circumstances and situations.

This doesn’t just mean the customers. It applies equally to the advisors trained and placed on the front line, who handle hundreds of calls each day never knowing what will come through their headsets next.

What we must never lose in a people business is humanity. It’s not just about profits and performance.

It’s about people, whatever the content of the call.

Lesson 2: High quality advisors need help and support

Any experienced contact centre manager knows that it’s better to be recruiting for attitude and training for skills.  That’s what makes world-class contact centres with a customer-centric culture what they are.

We can’t have anarchy in a business though, so procedures, processes and rules are inevitable. Advisors finding themselves in difficult customer service situations are frequently bound by rules.

However, procedures must be flexible enough to take account of individual situations.  If you can’t, you’ve lost the battle for a positive customer experience before the first call arrives at the headset.

Inflexible rules and unsympathetic staff have led to the reputation of a ‘computer says no’ culture that continues to haunt the contact centre industry.

We can’t put advisors out on a limb with a headset and a procedure manual to follow.  They need real time help and support to cope with the exceptions to the rule.

Lesson 3: Processes need flexibility, escalation and discretion

Processes, procedures and managers must support advisors in a framework that allows them to make intelligent decisions, based on their training and the customer’s circumstances.

Contact centres that have no flexibility are doomed before they start.  Agents are likely to see rules as a straitjacket, with the result that attrition rates rise as a constant cycle of recruitment and training puts a ceiling on performance.

If supervisors are unavailable to support their teams and manage the floor, because they’re tied up with meetings and status reporting, this compounds the problem. Rather than supporting staff, it leads to situations such as those in which the customer wishing to speak to a supervisor is told by advisors “they’ll just tell you the same thing I’ve told you.”

Advisors need to be able to have a route to follow with customers whatever their situation. This means taking four steps:

  1. Give them rules and limits in which they can act.
  2. Give them support when they need to escalate difficult situations.
  3. Give supervisors and team leaders additional limits within which they can act.
  4. Escalate anything serious and above this to senior management, promptly – if not in real time.

Simply giving advisors the ability to fix everything is actually counter-productive. Over-generosity of complaint payments, and payments at a low level in the organisation hierarchy have been shown to have a negative effect on customer perception (Estelami & De Maeyer, 2002).

An appropriate, real-time escalation process is what’s needed to empower your agents.  Protect them with limits and support them with responsive managers.

In the age of social media, customer service reputation matters

In the case of JetStar, their procedures may well be designed to provide revenue protection in a low margin, high cost budget airline business model. The policy should have netted the company its $350 and kept it profits targets on track. After all, if you make an exception for one customer, right?

We know what we get when we buy from low cost airlines. We sacrifice flexibility and customer service for cheaper ticket prices.

Social media will extend the publicity around this appalling case across the world. Is the impact of this publicity going to cost Jetstar more than the $350 this process was aimed to protect? You bet it will.

Jetstar lost its reputation for humanity on March 1st2013.  That’s a steep hill to climb to regain customer trust, when competitor Air New Zealand steps in and resolves the situation with a discounted ticket.

On March 21st, I’m flying to Sydney, Australia to speak at the SOCAP conference on Crisis and Consumer Response.  That’s worth more than a $350 air fare and I’m just one person who’s read the newspapers this week.

Which airline do you think I’ll be flying?


Estelami, H. & De Maeyer, P., 2002. Customer reactions to service provider overgenerosity. Journal of Service Research, 4(3), pp.205–216.