When ash from a volcano in Iceland disrupted global air travel earlier this year, I found myself “enjoying” an unplanned extension of a trip to London when I was supposed to be in Arizona. Stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic, though, I had a front-row seat—not the real one I’d reserved on an airline, but a metaphorical one from which I was able to witness the industry’s reaction to the crisis.
One action struck me as a crucial mistake. During the crisis, most airlines replaced their self-service channels with static announcements, as if we’d been thrust back a decade to Web 1.0: The sites were delivering little more than brochures and slogans. Having spent years educating customers that the self-service channels and the contact center delivered identical information, the airlines forced their passengers to consolidate through one channel: the contact center. The result? Imagine a 10-lane road reduced to a single lane.
The elimination of the self-service option was truly bizarre. Millions of dollars were spent developing these cost-effective channels, yet the industry demonstrated their ineffectiveness during a time of need. Years of marketing to passengers to take advantage of self-service were compromised by the choice to eliminate this channel when passengers needed it most.
Due to the uncertainty associated with reopening the airports, the airlines were forced to rebook passengers several times. I was first rebooked to a Sunday flight; when that flight was also cancelled, I was rebooked to Wednesday. For many of the airlines, rebooking was a manual process that required the passenger to make contact and discuss the options (which, believe me, were limited). The contact centers were not staffed to handle this influx of traffic; wait times reached two or three hours at some of the British airlines.
The absence of the self-service channel was also evident during the check-in process. Even those confirmed on a given flight could not use the online channel to check in or select a seat. These activities suddenly required human interaction—and even the phone was deemed off-limits. The interaction could only take place at the airport itself.
Why weren’t passengers provided the ability to rebook themselves (or at least check in) online? What seat-availability information did the contact center agents have that required live discussion with passengers? And why couldn’t the airlines automatically rebook people based on loyalty status, ticket value, and flight availability? It should not have been that difficult.
Some airlines will argue—in fact, have argued—that they needed complete control during the crisis and could not allow passengers to do their own booking. I fail to see the validity of this argument. There is a fixed set of flights and seats available. What value does a contact center add to the selection of the next available seat? Most passengers are now educated—thanks in part to the airline industry’s own efforts—in how to use online systems and could have eased the airlines’ pressure during the crisis. In a world where the future is co-creation with customers, this could have been an excellent opportunity to empower passengers. Instead, passengers were left helpless while waiting on hold for hours on end.
I was fortunate enough to get rebooked onto one of the first flights out after London Heathrow airport reopened. (Having more than a million frequent-flyer miles on Continental finally paid off.) To my surprise, despite the number of stranded passengers, flights took off with empty seats—some flights, in fact, were half empty. One British Airways 747 to Boston—a plane that can seat 400 or more passengers—left with only 150 aboard. On my flight, several passengers were treated to empty adjacent seats.
The biggest lesson from this experience is simply this: Crisis is inevitable, but the critical factor is how ready you are for it. Of course no one likes to think about crisis, and it’s much nicer to envision a world with no difficulties. But crises will occur, so consider customer experience during crisis the next step in your customer experience evolution.
It’s an opportunity to excel. And, judging by the airlines’ response to the volcanic-ash crisis, the opportunity is wide open.
Lior Arussy (firstname.lastname@example.org), the founder and president of Strativity Group, is the author of several books, including Excellence Every Day (Information Today, Inc., 2008) and Customer Experience Strategy (2010), an excerpt of which appeared in the May 2010 issue of CRM. To learn more about customer strategies, sign up for his newsletter at Strativity Group’s homepage (www.strativity.com).