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Customer Intimacy is more than being efficient!

Customer Intimacy is more than being efficient!

Stressing-out elderly customers in the most efficient way

When striving for customer experience improvements, any place is a good start … as long as you don’t get stuck in that place. Here is a story to illustrate my statement.

A few weeks ago, I was traveling back home from a business trip. On my way to the airport, I received a text message and an email from my airline informing me that my flight would be delayed. Initially, it seemed like the delay was only five minutes, so I just shrugged, but upon closer examination I realized they had actually also moved it forward by a day, and now our flight would be departing in 24 hours and five minutes. Arriving at the airport, the chaos I was met with didn’t surprise me a bit.

This was a remote airport with no airline staff but only handling agents on site. Nevertheless, within one hour a ground handling representative showed up to brief small groups of passengers. From there on it was only a matter of time for the news to reach everyone. The action plan shared with the passengers was very simple and efficient: wait at the check-in counter for the buses that would take all passengers to a hotel in the nearby city; get picked up from the said hotel next afternoon; arrive at the airport and fly home. Now, when you travel as much as I do in my line of work, things like this are no longer considered extraordinary, so by the time the instructions were out, my “airport Zen” had kicked in, but I couldn’t help noticing the amount of anxiety the more elderly passengers experienced as they couldn’t process what was happening.

Herding humans or putting customers at ease?

Next thing you know, a group of passengers started grabbing their luggage and flocking outside. Apparently, the buses had arrived to take us to the hotel but there was no public announcement, it was only word of mouth that made the group of stranded passengers make their way to the buses. I am going to mention that the organization was seamless. As promised, the bus took us to a large business hotel, all of us were checked in in an incredibly efficient way. Hotel staff were helpful and accommodating, dinner, breakfast, and lunch were served.

From an operational excellence standpoint, the airline scored very well. And yet, so many passengers were visibly distressed, and the whole experience, while not necessarily awful, could have been much better to ensure that next time these passengers were going to trust the airline with another trip, knowing that they got our back in case of disruption.

Well done – this earns you an “F”!

The customer experience team and the operations team at the airline handled the situation with extreme professionalism and made sure the passengers had all the physical comforts to ease the disruption. However, no one seemed to have thought about the passengers’ emotional comfort. Putting themselves into the passengers’ shoes, considering the feelings, emotions, fears, and anxiety one goes through during the disruption of a flight delayed for a whole day, would have helped everyone to cope with the situation better.

As I said, the airline had all the contact information of the passengers, to send us text messages and email notifications regarding the delay. These channels could have been very well used to reach out to passengers with information regarding the action plan, instead of talking to confused people in a space where they are too stressed out to efficiently process the information. Had the customer experience team had an emotional protocol in place, a casual text message with dry information could have been turned into emotional support for the passengers, with FAQs prepared in advance and words of empathy to help them through a 24-hour delay, which for many was a huge deal.

Putting the customer on center stage requires both, operations excellence, AND empathy!

Operational excellence PLUS empathy puts customers on center stage

The moral of the story: to reach true customer intimacy, don’t only strive for operational excellence. You may start there but make sure to also build an emotional connection, particularly in situations where you can’t keep your promise to your customers.

It’s how you deal with crisis that makes your customers judge you for who you are. Be prepared, but don’t just be organized — be nice people as well!