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No Margin for Error – Deteriorating Customer Service

General
Author: Mark Dixon
Saturday, March 15, 2008
5:34 am

It is just before 5am in the San Jose airport. I am sitting in the very seat where I sat yesterday afternoon when, 20 minutes before we were supposed to board an already delayed flight, it was abruptly announced, “Your flight has been cancelled.”

No explanation, just “It has been cancelled.” Only later, after probing, did someone explain that it was a “crew problem,” but no real information was shared about what had really happened.

The remaining flights to Phoenix were both oversold, so I could either wait standby for a connecting flight for Phoenix that I probably not get on anyway, or wait for an early morning flight. I opted for the Friday night in a cheap hotel. Only after I complained about the $10 dinner meal voucher was I offered a second $10 voucher. The two vouchers almost covered a simple meal in the hotel restaurant.

Perhaps, you say, I shouldn’t complain, that many other passengers were affected the same way.

However, I remember several years ago that I was stranded overnight at Dulles airport by a freezing rain storm that left the taxiways so slick that airplanes couldn’t even get to the runway. United Airlines could have blamed it on the weather, but they put us all up in an upscale Marriott hotel and provided a wonderful buffet dinner in the hotel ballroom.

What has happenend since that time? I think two factors are particularly relevant:

  • Airlines in general have lost the concept of putting customers first. It has become an ingrained culture to trivialize the impact airline decisions have on real people. Passengers are just necessary irritants, to be herded around and treated as chattel. I don’t mean the usually kind and courteous people on the front lines who have to put up with the pressures from above and the frustrations of mistreated passengers. I mean the management of the airlines who exploit the very people who keep them in business.
  • There is absolutely no margin for error. Any hiccup in the system disrupts any hope for predictability. Flights are too often way oversold. Crews are scheduled so tightly that there is little flexibility. And the weird seniority issue that still separates US Airways and America West policy is ridiculous.

I guess I’m old enough to remember when customer service was the hallmark of business, not an oft-trumpeted but seldom-executed mantra. Focus on the customer, we used to say, would yield positive business benefits. Service, rather than exploitation, was the watchcry.

“High fuel prices! Too much competition! Wall street expectations!” Airlines act like petulant teenagers – blaming their failures on external factors rather than admitting the consequences of their own actions. External factors are important, to be sure. But as one who travels the unfriendly skies nearly every week, I believe that airlines are prime examples of the modern business trend to forget the hands that feed them.

Travel safely, my friends.

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4 Responses to “No Margin for Error – Deteriorating Customer Service”

    Actually, Mark, I think we are the problem. That’s the collective "we," the traveling public. The airlines have found that competing on low price is the Pavlovian bell that arouses the interest of the bulk of their passengers. They’ve learned that there’s always someone looking to be just a dollar or two lower.

    If you look at airline failures over the past couple of years, it’s the ones that tried to use comfort or service as a differentiator that have gone under.

    We (you & I) remember when it was different, but the younger generation doesn’t. It may be a long time before customer service becomes important once again.

    Oh, and you should have called – there’s almost always a spare bed available!

    Comment by Dave Kearns on March 17, 2008 at 7:52 am

    Great article.

    Your readers might want to try http://www.Measuredup.com a leading customer service review website where people share reviews with other users and with companies. Companies that are involved with and value customer service read Measuredup to keep up on what people are saying and to be able to improve customer service.

    It is free and easy to use.

    Comment by Marc Karasu on March 17, 2008 at 10:00 am

    Hello Dave:

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree that demand for lower prices are a factor. However, Southwest Airlines typically gives better customer service than the other majors (except for the abysmal lack of reserved seating) and they manage to be successful.

    Next time I’m stranded, I’ll give you a call. I’ll share with you the story of when I stayed with my CEO’s mother in law when we couldn’t find a hotel room!

    Mark

    Comment by Mark Dixon on March 17, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Marc:

    Thanks for your referral to measuredup.com. I’ll take a longer look later in the week and let you know what I think.

    Mark

    Comment by Mark Dixon on March 17, 2008 at 11:38 am

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