14:16 December 20, 2010
These days, domestic flight carriers seem resolute to record new lows in customer service - diametrically opposite to the very core of their business - scaling new heights in the air. My recent experience with the carrier Go Air is a strong case in point...
It all began with the now-prevalent announcement - cancellation of the flight after a long, torturous wait. Well, not that we expect flights to be cancellation-proof ... we perfectly understand the ‘flying’ pressures on aircraft carriers these days - air traffic congestion, bad weather, poor ground facilities, more flying routes....
What we certainly expect is adequate, if not excellent, customer service for prompt crisis management and control. There was high drama following the announcement - it was apparent that Go Air guys did not have a Plan B in place - to control the likely commotion that grows to a chaos during such events - customers were not attended to, no water offered, no alternative flights assured, no interim accommodation offered, no transportation arranged (for most, I was among the lucky few that got a transfer since we hung around the airport) ...worse, Go Air officials were seen evading passengers in a vain attempt to escape counter action. Naturally, irate passengers were on the verge of getting physical with the visible authorities, giving vent to their pent-up anger.
Being a student and ardent fan of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), I feel the domestic aviation industry could gainfully employ an elaborate BPR exercise to identify the pain points and re-engineer the business for weeding them out. History is replete with instances where BPR have shown 1,000% improvement in process efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Re-engineering can be related to the process or linked to customer service.
There are amusing accounts of apparently simple but radical innovation in business…
...like how edible ice cream cones were essentially born of the dire need to avoid the mess that paper, glass and metal containers caused while eating ice creams.
...like how Tata Docomo turned the elusive ‘Pay per Pulse’ feature of the telecom industry into a hit by simply calling it ‘pay per second’ as consumers could easily grasp the benefits when the term was renamed.
...like how SpiceJet achieved substantial cost savings, more customer delight and better employee motivation through in-house composition of the in-flight music to be played while boarding and deplaning.
...like how Bennet & Coleman deliberately tweaked their process, delaying the dyeing of clothes, to better reflect the changing color preference in the world of fashion.
...like how the Four Seasons Hotel chain cross-trained its employees such that back-end staff also had the opportunity of customer-facing, while the front lines tasted the experience of the backroom. This created a ready buffer pool for peak level customer service.
...Like how the internet retailer L. L. Bean offered the displaced employees the opportunity to work from home when it shut down one of its call centers, a fine instance of outsourcing to one’s own employees rather than to some vendor in some far-away country.
The first step of any re-engineering is re-examination. Understanding all aspects of a business process help not only re-engineer it but also makes it customer-friendly. Ideally, airlines must already be aware of the common grievance areas like flight delays, cancellations and misplaced baggage. An in-depth study of the process and its pain points will eventually throw light on the possible areas of improvement. One does not need a high-flying consultant to pin point the apparent missing links of day-to-day business.
For instance, if the flight’s voyage is likely to be delayed, what are the simplest things that airlines (however low-cost they may be) can ensure...?
Let the passengers know. Don't keep them guessing. They deserve to know.
Offer them a glass of water (buy bulk bottles - it doesn't cost much, nothing compared to the brownie points one earns through customer delight); if the delay was avoidable - offer food (even chips or biscuits help)
Ensure a healthy stock of Magazines and Newspapers (even old editions suffice); this is useful especially when passengers are already on-board a plane that’s not taking off.
Other areas of improvement (to ensure least discomfort before actual boarding) -
seamless bus travel, hassle-free queuing at Boarding pass counters, smooth baggage handling, prompt money refunds....... A tweak as simple as giving the smaller piece of the Boarding Pass to the customer will prove rewarding. Kingfisher did that initially.
Baggage theft on international flights is a common problem - most of the airlines wash their hands off offering a mere $100 in insurance compensation. If a company is held liable to pay damages, it will work towards theft prevention or misplacement. I have seen instances of daylight robbery of bags - locks broken and ransacked and still, the airline gets away with a measly $100.
Kingfisher had set good standards in service but is currently going through a debt crisis. Not surprisingly, the free pouches, pens, tea and non-vegetarian food on domestic flights have suddenly gone missing.
In today's times of low cost travel, the pressures on carriers are immense and margin for errors is very thin. It’s understandable if a low cost carrier is not able to arrange interim accommodation in emergency situations. What’s not is the lack of prompt intimation as also the failure to address the simpler issues enumerated above.
Availability of trained and skilled manpower is a serious problem in this country. The retail service is unfortunately not able to cope with the demands of retail boom. Airlines are invariably seen fighting and fidgeting to grab market share - why not try and excel in terms of service staff efficiency - why only look at price-cutting, cost cutting for garnering market share. Price and cost alone can’t help them win competitive edge.
Precisely why, most of us don’t prefer to fly through Air India in spite its offer of the cheapest rates. Reason - we wish to escape the litany of issues that come bundled with the low-cost.