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JetBlue's Service Flies South
Accepting responsibility is a key component of staying aloft during a PR nightmare.
For the rest of the May 2007 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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Valentine's Day 2007 felt more like a nightmare than strawberries-and-chocolate bliss for JetBlue Airways and some of its customers. After years of acclaim as a traveler favorite, the seven-year-old airline's standing as a customer service luminary was pounded when in February its reactions to a storm on the East Coast left hordes of fuming customers stuck aboard grounded planes for up to 11 hours. The fiasco brings a renewed focus on the need for effective crisis management.

JetBlue's troubles began when a February 14 ice storm severely affected its New York operations at JFK International Airport. Rather than cancel more flights sooner and reschedule once the weather cleared, JetBlue pressed on; but the storm displaced many of its pilots and flight attendants, and the company was short of trained staff needed to reroute these employees. JetBlue's reservation system couldn't keep pace with the incoming customer call volume. Callers phoning JetBlue often faced lengthy hold times or were unable to reach a live rep altogether.

"Obviously, [with] the events of the past week that have been well documented in the press...this is the most difficult time in our history," David Neeleman, JetBlue's founder and CEO, said in a JetBlueCorpComm video on YouTube. "I want to assure you as the CEO of this company that the events that transpired last week and the way that they transpired will never happen again." The storm could cost the carrier $30 million or more.

About 1,100 flights were cancelled over a six-day period and thousands of customers were stranded. Genevieve McCaw, one of the thousands, considers herself a JetBlue "hostage." McCaw and her boyfriend, passengers on JetBlue flight 351 from JFK to Los Angeles on Valentine's Day, were stuck on the tarmac for about half a day. She started a blog, jetbluehostage.com, which includes JetBlue information and comments from the public. "Nothing says I love you like being held hostage on a frozen plane with the man you love, 99 strangers, four other people you happen to know, four screaming babies and three rambunctious kids running about, nothing but chips and soda for sustenance, faulty power, unreliable DirecTV and [an] overfilled sewage system for 11 hours," she writes.

"JetBlue demonstrated that it's an adolescent in the airline industry and that it has a lot of learning and growing up to do," says Liz Roche, managing partner at CRM research and consulting firm Customers Incorporated. The airline is taking steps to craft sturdy contingency plans and mend its dented image. One of its more notable efforts is its Customer Bill of Rights. The program, which is retroactive to February 14, requires JetBlue to notify customers of delays, cancellations, and diversions and their cause prior to scheduled departure, and provide customers with vouchers based on how long flights are delayed. Vouchers will range from $25 for flights delayed an hour to the value of round-trip tickets for delays exceeding six hours. Other initiatives include provisions to spool reservationists up quickly and to beef up the section of the business that pairs pilots and flight attendants with their assignments. The JetBlue incident is a stark reminder of the need for advanced contingency preparation. From a contact center perspective, Nancy Miller, vice president of consulting services with workforce management specialist ISC, recommends that companies take a hard look at potential emergency situations and how they would handle call distribution. "Looking at what-if situations not only allows you to see how many people you're going to need, but where you can actually [send the calls] in a multiple call center location environment," she says. "Be prepared."

On a broader scale, Roche urges companies in crisis to immediately deliver a public message underscoring accountability and an action plan. "The best thing that JetBlue did during that whole fiasco was for its CEO to come out and take full responsibility to accept that they made mistakes and to be as candid as possible," she says.

Roche adds that companies should make an extra effort to identify and personally connect with high-value customers. Underscoring the core values of the company brand is also essential. "If you've done a good job of branding, at the end of the day the brand tells your story," Roche says. She recounts an experience she had aboard a different airline in March: A man in front of her expressed frustration with how tight the airplane's seats were and that the seats on the JetBlue plane he traveled on the week before were very comfortable. "That said to me that at least with this traveler its brand has held up," she says. "You don't want your brand to say 'We don't get it.' You want the brand to say 'We're human, we're fallible, we make mistakes, but we're all about working to improve.'" --Coreen Bailor

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