This is the 2nd in a series of articles about the state of Customer Experience and Customer Service today. Here was my first one.
I recently flew to the US (12.5hrs) and back (14hrs). I didn’t realise it then, but I was subjected to what might best be described as robotic inflight customer service by the crew on my flight.
I’m not kidding. As harsh as I may sound, or as high as my lofty expectations might be in spite of travelling at the back of the bus, I do believe the airline might as well have had robots serving us. At least with robots, I wouldn’t have expected warmth, smiles or common-sense responses…wait, scratch that last one; with robots I actually would have expected common-sense responses. Isn’t that the very premise of RPA – the automation of a logical or repetitive set of sequential actions?
My return flight in particular was a gem I have to share. I had ordered Hindu Meals for all the dining services on my flights.
As an aside – on most airlines, they have a menu of “SPMLs” or “Special Meals” that you can order – usually for free. I have resorted to doing this over the last few years particularly on airlines where I know the quality of regular catering is, shall we say, less than desirable. SPMLs by their very definition are “special”, as in specially-made and often of a superior quality to the standard fare on offer for the flight.
Often. Not this time though.
For breakfast, I received strange combinations of food that might be most kindly described as “eclectic”. Definitely not “Hindu”. Take a look and if you feel like it, do message me back with your thoughts on what the various components of the hot meal should be called.
Naturally, I called the crew to have a word. Now – I was well aware that it wasn’t their fault. But I expected a sympathetic ear, and I expected they wouldn’t have to be told what needed to happen.
I was wrong on both counts. Upon my complaint, all I received was a blank stare and an “Uh-huh…?” After a further “Ok…” and some silence, I figured I needed to prompt the obvious: “Would you have something else you could offer me, because I really am starving.”
“There’s the regular menu options…” came the pat answer, to which I said “If I’d wanted congee, or synthetic sausages and terrible eggs in the first place, I’d not have ordered a Hindu meal, would I?”.
“Uh-huh” was the response. “So what would you like then?”
I suggested (helpfully) “How about checking if you have something else hot in your premium economy or business class menus, which you might be able to offer us?”
I won’t prolong the description of this painful exchange, but at the end of it (and after a further 30 minutes…) she came back with a tray of 2 croissants, a danish and a bagel for myself and my wife. That’s it.
Nothing else; not even words of sympathy to spread on our half bagel each.
Lessons about common-sense in customer service
Before launching into this, let’s remember the context:
We were in a long metal tube, having eaten our last meals about 10hrs prior to this one. It was a 14hr flight. We were starving – I actually said so! And we were expecting a hot Indian meal, because that’s what we’d requested. What we received though, was a strange meal; I even took pains to explain to the crew how and why putting dry chick peas onto some unappetizing yellow gunk did not qualify it as a “Hindu” meal. And lastly, we were definitely unhappy, hangry customers, just in case that wasn’t clear enough.
Is it too much for us to expect that as cabin crew, they would understand this context intuitively? Apparently so, judging from the responses and lack of empathy.
So what would have been the common sense thing to do?
1. An apology would have been nice, surely?
While I probably don’t need to explain why, let me do this anyway: as the only representative of the airline talking to a customer who was expressing dissatisfaction with the (strange) meal that was presented, surely the least she could have done was to apologise for the inconvenience? This would have been the first step in the acknowledgement of our unhappiness.
2. Displaying empathy and commiseration.
Next to an apology, surely this is probably the most expected response in a situation where your guests have expressed hunger? Perhaps it’s because we were not seen as “guests”…?
It’d be tempting to say this was an isolated incident with just this one crew member, but the fact is that in spite of my status, nobody else came to speak to me. And this was not the first time I’ve had encounters similar to this one, on this airline; on other shorter flights, I usually don’t even bother to ask for a replacement meal option. Today was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Because we were hangry.
3. Offering out-of-the-box options without being asked.
I’ve worked with a few airlines (and flown on others) where this is a fairly standard response to exactly this situation that we were in. (So this isn’t really out-of-the-box, to be fair). Not on this airline though. The first response was to default back to the standard menu (which I had clearly chosen not to opt for). The subsequent response was to simply ask me what I would like. Now in normal circumstances – normal being in a restaurant, on the ground – this might have been an acceptable response. Up in the air at 35,000 feet though, did I really need to spell it out? And in spite of doing so, all I got was dry bread, more dry bread, and even more dry bread x2.
From Customer Service to Customer Experience
The difference between service and experience isn’t always intuitive.
Customer service is usually reactive – something provided in response to an expressed desire by your customer – and consists of the processes and specific actions undertaken by the service provider when fulfilling a customer’s needs or wants, usually in a specific scenario. Customer service is therefore primarily understood from the perspective of the service provider; it is the act of servicing a customer.
Customer experience, on the other hand, is the overall result or outcome of all the service interactions experienced by a customer. The key difference here: this is purely from the customer’s perspective. Sure, companies may design to deliver an exceptional customer experience, but what they’re really designing are the specific processes, actions, or interfaces presented to customers. The only person qualified to determine the quality of experience received is the Customer.
While lots has been written around service vs experience already, it is important to understand this: focusing on delivery of service is an inward-out perspective; focusing on experience is an outward-in strategy. The former prioritises the organisation, while the latter has the customer as its core focus.
This is perhaps best illustrated by my inflight meal fiasco.
The service process that had been designed, that the crew had been trained for, and that the crew had delivered, focused on problem rectification, using prescribed service recovery options. Granted, there may have been some soft skills training around displaying empathy and conveying apologies, but these were likely forgotten because the prevailing mode was of “problem rectification”. The problem to be solved was: we did not like our meals.
Had the airline – and frankly the crew – been focused on customer experience, then the interaction – and consequently the language and options provided – would have been entirely different. Without repeating all of the context, suffice it to say the crew would have spent a few seconds first understanding the impact and importance of the situation on us as customers and human beings, before re-framing the problem as follows: we have hungry guests who are unhappy with the content of their meals; how can we provide them suitable alternatives and options that would recover this unfortunate situation?
See the difference?
The importance of thinking on your feet and improvising
Here’s the thing: as a customer on the receiving end of this type of service (not even counting the quality of food), I can only make negative assumptions about the entire organisation and brand. I know what cost-cutting looks like – been there and done that myself – but surely service with a smile, or an apology with words of commiseration are free-of-charge to deliver? In spite of the rest of the flight being alright, what is the overall experience we have taken away as customers?
Today, customers are similarly quick to transfer judgement calls onto an organisation or a brand, as a result of negative service interactions with even one employee, particularly in a time of dire need. This isn’t a cultural thing, it’s a human thing.
There isn’t a single person I know who does not appreciate it when a service provider goes the extra mile, or who does not appreciate the use of empathic language, particularly in a stressful situation. However if service employees do not have – or do not choose to exercise – the ability to think on their feet and improvise, and instead deliver mindless, robotic service, your customers will be left feeling unappreciated and frustrated.
Listening, empathy and improvisation are potentially the last bastions of humanity against RPA and artificial intelligence. The 4 pieces of bread along with the “Uh-huhs” and other unremarkable utterances might as well have been offered to me by a robot. In fact, with automation based upon rules, logic and pre-defined algorithms, this is exactly what robots will be able to offer without even taking a tenth of the time it took for the crew member to figure it out. At least with robots, we would all, as customers, probably be more forgiving.
I mean, when was the last time you got angry with with a chatbot or an automated voice-response system for its lack of improvisation and empathy, and blamed the organisation?
An ex-airline and travel retail specialist, I am driven by Customer Excellence. I enable startups/scaleups and established organisations within the travel domain to connect, grow and scale their business internally and externally, thereby delivering Customer Excellence. This is achieved through the strategic mix of social marketing, modern selling, operations and HR advisory consulting, mentorship and occasionally angel investing.
You can find my content on Linkedin & Twitter by following the hashtag #flyvrai.
Fairy dust: Have a laugh at these relatively simple robots today. It won’t be long before we see quantum improvements in such technology resulting in robots not only delivering items to us, but interacting with us intelligently.
source : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/customer-experience-chronicles-2-robotic-inflight-rai-%25E4%25B9%2589%25E7%258E%259B-%25E5%25BA%2593%25E9%25A9%25AC%25E5%25B0%2594-%25E9%259B%25B7-/?trackingId=S2j%2FnFlHWB2%2Fy%2F%2Boh3tVWw%3D%3D