Jan 02

The costs of failing to exploit mobility, as illustrated by how often Iberia misses the plane

Iberia is an airline not to fly if you expect customer service.  Its approach seems to be not to value the people who pay for it (its customers) as the most important component in its value chain, an attitude that its staff consistently and conscientiously apply.  Ironically, with a little imagination about using modern mobile technologies and modern communications, Iberia could solve two problems simultaneously – 1) improve customer service and 2) protect those same customers from Iberia (both staff and its own ineptness).

Exploiting mobility might seem obvious — but no, it is not (apparently) to Iberia (or to those many other organizations that assume a crisis will never hit them).  Yet solutions which exploit what customers possess and use (such as targeted social media and modern communications technologies) are readily available and simple — with benefits are so great that it beggars belief that large, allegedly customer-focused, organizations in 2012 can be both so insensitive and/or as customer-unfriendly as the following experiences with Iberia illustrate.  (Nevertheless one must retain perspective — what is described, while horribly representative, is trivial when compared to the miseries that occurred in the Philippines or New Zealand or Japan in 2011.)

Just as real estate espouses ‘location, location and location’ so travelers want ‘information, information and information’. This, when delivered with mobile technologies, can limit costs, reduce reputational damage and improve customer satisfaction, both generally and even more so in a crisis.

Flight delays and execrable airline service describe the lot of most modern air travelers. Iberia’s continuing litany of failures create an opportunity to think about how airlines (and other organizations) can minimize a crises’ impact — on suppliers, on staff, on customers and in so doing, on a stricken enterprise’s bottom line, which is what this blog is about.

Take, for example a sudden labor strike or bad weather or a volcano or ….  Each of these can generate intense problems ‘in the system’, with potentially bad results for any enterprise. Iberia when confronted with a combination of bad weather and being poorly prepared (and apparently uninterested in what would happen to its customers and staff) managed to make a journey scheduled to take 9 hours last 33 hours while efficiently alienated tens of thousands of passengers and wasting huge amounts of its own time and effort.

To understand how and why a solution centered around mobile technologies is so straightforward, consider what happened and imagine what could have happened.

How to do many things wrong started at 0230 on the day of travel — when Iberia sent an SMS saying that its 0730 flight (with a later connection to a second flight at 1010) was ‘rescheduled’.  This was a bad start – because no other detail was provided except an instruction to call Iberia (with no number given).  Prompted by such an SMS, the logical next step was to check with the Iberia Web site, which showed the 0730 flight still working to schedule. That left no choice but to leave for the airport as if all was OK.  Already Iberia had committed two cardinal sins – in customer relations by contradicting itself, and in IT by presenting inconsistent data.

On check-in at 0600 the ‘up-to-date’ information was that the incoming flight the previous evening had not arrived. In other words, Iberia knew it had problems some 10-12 hours earlier, and had had at least 6 hours before it sent that unhelpful SMS while failing to update its customer facing systems.  As distressingly, Iberia in the preceding 10-12 hours had made no attempt to rebook the 200+ passengers now queuing before 2 or 3 highly-stressed Iberia reservation staff.  Think how much might have been avoided on all sides had that SMS and/or an email explained about the cancelation (‘rescheduling’ was “being economical with the truth”) and given new flights and times. Opportunities to exploit mobility had been missed…

Eventually, a new booking for an 1150 flight materialized, with a revised connection – the latter for 2330 that night. Matters then deteriorated further.

Once checked-in for the 1130 flight, there was no Iberia information and the plane to make the 1130 flight did not appear. That meant relying on airport TV monitors (not Iberia) or on WiFi/the Web, where a connection existed. The information from the Iberia web site continued to be inaccurate and/or contradictory — Iberia’s own Arrivals and Departures pages lagged other travel sites (like Flightstats.com).  Ever more errors appeared.  On one occasion an Iberia manager said that there would be no flights that day and yet 60 minutes later a plane ready for departure (and not even full, despite several further flights being canceled).  To cap a miserable Iberia experience, the plane for the flight connection (at 2330) would not work, after boarding – with, guess what, no information at 0115 as to what would happen next.

The end result was a whole day wasted that need not have been, with significant customer fury (passengers were swapping stories of Iberia incompetence and disinterest) as well as equal stress for Iberia staff.

Now consider all this in the light of mobility, what customers already possess, the Internet and social media.  What all passengers (and probably most Iberia staff) want most is accurate, timely and consistently updated information, preferably with some context (like some level of ongoing explanation). Mobile devices (mobile phones, smartphones, tablets and PCs) all have the potential to receive information on the move.  Yet it seems that when organizations like Iberia face dire problems, they turn inward and focus solely on solving only their own narrow operational difficulties rather than remembering their customers. (Iberia is not alone in doing this.)

In one way this makes sense, but less and less when you think about the bottom line.  Had Iberia rebooked that cancelled 0730 flight for (say) 1930 (to make the revised 2330 connection and had it delivered this in the 0230 SMS, backed by consistent data on its Web site, then this day need not have been the loss for passengers that it was, and the load on staff would have been minimized.

Without information, customers become an increasing cost rather than an asset. In wanting/seeking to understand their predicament, they deluge any available staff (in Iberia’s case, almost impossible to find as if they had run for cover) — who themselves are often as ignorant as customers.  The result is a loss of credibility for the business as well as a loss of sympathy for staff which ends up stressing yet more staff through constant customer requests for information.  In turn, staff compound the problem — in part because they have inaccurate information and in part because their own attempts to obtain better information from within their organization diverts yet more colleagues from problem resolution.  Iberia’s actions (or inactions) were a recipe for trouble, which is exactly what it served up.

The keys to preventing and correcting such situations involve delivering information with consistent communication that exploit the mobility, the Internet and social media to connect to customers.  Once customers (and frontline staff) know what is happening, this buys everyone breathing space. It takes little wisdom to spot that if you deliver constantly updated information (which will be changing), you keep people informed.  In turn this relieves the burdens on all (especially customer-facing staff) who then do not have to spend their time trying to obtain the impossible from hard-pressed operations people trying to solve the original crisis. With a constant flow of updated information, and this applies particularly for overtly customer-unfriendly organizations like Iberia, customers relax — because uncertainty is reduced along with a sense that someone is in control and something is happening.

So what do you need?  It is not much, primarily:

  • a dedicated ‘we know we have a problem’ Internet/Web address
  • a specific ‘crisis’ information communications group, whose mission is to provide a flow of consistent information
  • connections to mobile communications (primarily data and SMS but also including a selection of social media, like Facebook and/or Twitter)
  • customers with smart devices (whether a mobile phone, smartphone, tablet or laptop).

By dedicating a ‘we know e have a problem’ Web location in a ‘crisis’, an organization:

  • relieves substantial query traffic pressure from that organization’s main order/sales Web site (for an airline, its reservations system); a crisis is (hopefully) only temporary and there is an institutional need to continue to accept ongoing (future) business even while immediate crisis issues are resolved
  • establishes some sense of responsibility to those affected by the crisis, along with the impression that someone is doing something, that the situation is evolving and improving and that the service provider organization cares
  • exploits mobile access to real-time, consistent information by making this available to a technology-equipped customer-base that already has mobile devices and who are hungry for information
  • relieves the burden on front-line employees, because they will have the same information.

Of course, having a Web site is no good by itself. The approach described above has to have as much updated information as is practical and be consistent with what it puts out. Such a small ‘crisis’ group needs tasking with keeping the crisis Web site up to date and accurate (and this includes liaising with operations swiftly and simply). This group should combine technologists who can rapidly process relevant information from within the stricken organization and people who know how to communicate this out into mobile world.  (A more superior Web site would enable customers to do their own rescheduling — after all, they probably know best what suits them.)  All of which, if implemented, further reduces the burden on other hard-pressed resources and staff.

For those who argue that this is unfair because it satisfies only those equipped with smart devices, SMS plays an equalizing role if used intelligently (not as Iberia did at 0230, with wrong and incomplete information).  But what is also relevant is how ‘fellow sufferers’ share information and help each other. If someone receives an SMS or sees a web update, most will share this with others around them. In this way, in what might be called real-life social networking, customers help each other.  But they can only do this if they are given the means to do so. Conversely, if left ignorant, customers (usually inadvertently) will hinder — as Iberia continues to discover.

Should you think that the above 24 hour mess was a one-off, Iberia is still repeating the same mistakes.  For example, it arbitrarily cancels flights and tells some customers but not others. Faced with a strike, it does not offer options but mandates what suits Iberia (not the customer) as well as continuing to ‘provide’ customers with contradictory information.

Now, forget Iberia.  It is only one example of what not to do.

Treating customers badly is a way to increase costs as well as dissatisfaction.  Exploiting the options offered by mobile technologies, with just a little prior planning, can mean:

  • most organizations work better (and look better) in a crisis situation, even when all appears to be going wrong (it is remarkable how much sympathy good treatment engenders and how much ill-will bad treatment and the lack of good information produces)
  • avoiding unnecessary costs by failing to take simple, modern communications steps, not just in lost customer loyalty but also in squandering staff loyalty.

All businesses (and non-commercial organizations) may be confronted with a crisis, irrespective of whether it is of their own making or not.  The key question to ask is whether it is prepared and understands what customers will need – and this applies as much to a burst water main to a loss of utility service to a fire in a factory to a strike or a storm or an earthquake.  Today’s mobile technologies present a low cost opportunity to communicate with customers (who may include taxpayers) in ways that previously were almost impossible but which now are almost costless. Think about the four ‘what do you need?’ aspects listed above: two are supplied by customers, a ‘reserve’ URL has a negligible cost and a ‘crisis information communications group’ simply makes sense.

To avoid Iberia, its ‘service’ and its staff is obvious (if not always possible), but especially in a crisis.  But ask yourself: is your organization any better prepared?

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