Customer service

Great companies manage their brands extremely well. A strong brand will endure, take hard knocks, recover and allow its values to endorse other products. Virgin is probably the best example of how to do it. There are many factors we should take account of when building a brand and setting out to capture market share. David Mansfield, visiting professor at Cass Business School, has some answers.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the in-flight catering tie-up between British Airways and M&S. How they needed to improve and the lessons we could learn from that relationship.

Shortly afterwards I was due to fly long haul BA to Toronto - two days after their computer system had crashed leaving thousands stranded. The BA response was pitiful in every respect, but as you’ll have read about it elsewhere we don’t need to dwell on it here.

As I approached Terminal 5 I was feeling less than confident. However, in the event, the place was calm with little evidence of the previous chaos. The check in queue took forever because the machines weren’t working and most of the BA desks were unmanned. No time to do anything other than board the plane after a 1.5 hour wait.

I’ll come clean up front and say I’m not a great fan of BA. I’ve had some bad experiences and if possible will always choose another carrier. On this occasion it was the only real option so I’d pressed ahead and booked the ticket.

I travelled in premium economy and the experience was surprisingly good. We took off on time, hot towels, fizzy wine, OK food and the in-flight entertainment worked. I thought maybe they’d turned a corner. Nothing to dislike, almost enjoyable!

The challenge for any brand is to consistently deliver. Take Ryan Air, its stripped back approach and low fares manage the expectations of customers and it consistently delivers. When you fly Ryan Air you know what you’re going to get and you get it. easyJet is similar. They have a very tight operating model which delivers virtually every time.

Both these companies recognise that achieving their self-imposed standards is critical to generating repeat sales. In a competitive market you don’t want to be the brand of last resort. I can remember many years ago the Marketing Director of Woolworths saying that people only shopped in his stores when they’d tried everywhere else. “Maybe Woolies will have it”. And that came to a very sad end as we know.

So back to BA. Could they deliver the same standards on the return leg of my journey from Atlanta as they had to Toronto ten days earlier. Sadly not.

The check in experience was quick but not without issues. “Mr Mansfield, I have good news for you. I can upgrade you to business class on this flight. Would you like me to do that for you today?”

Well why not. I wasn’t sure why I’d been singled out but I wasn’t going to argue.

“Yes please, great news, thank you I’ll take it”

“OK Mr Mansfield that will be $850”

“What? I thought you were upgrading me not selling me another ticket”.

“That’s the charge and I have to tell you that where you’re sitting it’s pretty crowded back there”

“No thanks, I don’t want to spend $850 and I have an aisle seat so I’ll be OK”

“Well you may not have, I’ll need to check that”

“I’d better have because I’ve paid extra for it”

“Mr Mansfield you have that seat but now we have a problem”

“Really what’s that?”

“Your bag weighs 23.4KG and the limit is 23KG, please remove sufficient items to your hand luggage or you’ll need to pay a surcharge”

With that I left for the lounge.

On board the experience was less than good. Unlike before no fizzy wine, just juice or water. Unless you were the lady sitting next to me who knew the crew and was given champagne.

The food was terrible, the entertainment system barely audible with an overnight flight of 8 hours to look forward to!

What should have been a consistent experience was sadly lacking. Why would anyone want to continue to spend with a company that is so hit and miss on delivery. Is BA is becoming the airline of last resort?

What can we learn from this?

If there are problems and your customers are going to suffer communicate early on. Tell them what’s happening and why.

Be very clear about compensation. It shouldn’t be a negotiation. BA told their customers to contact their insurance company first, until they were told it was their responsibility to sort out refunds.

Focus on consistent product delivery. Doing business with a brand should not be a random experience. “I wonder what it will be like this time?”

Believe customers share their experiences. You may not use Trip Advisor but millions do. Be very aware that good and bad will be shared.

Recognise that when things go wrong you can turn a negative into a positive. Customer loyalty increases if you compensate beyond what’s expected.

Ensure you use mystery shoppers or other real life research methods (not focus groups) to really understand what’s happening.

Personally experience you brand as a consumer.

Do all this starting next Monday.