Will someone please tell me what’s going on?

In the last few weeks Britain has witnessed a catastrophic disruption to its transport services as a result of almost arctic weather conditions.

In one case this week, there was a queue half a mile long at St Pancras station, London, of people who had to stand for up to eight hours in sub-zero temperatures waiting to board Eurostar trains to France and Belgium that had been delayed or cancelled.

Travellers, boosted in numbers in the last week by people trying to get home for Christmas, or trying to get away to warmer climes for Christmas, have been stranded at airports and BAA, the operator of Heathrow Airport, one of the most affected, has promised a thorough investigation into how it has handled the freezing weather, with boss Colin Matthews promising to “crawl over every aspect of these last few days”. It is to be hoped that, in this process, the penny will drop about the most consistent complaint that displaced passengers have made: the lack of information about what is happening to them.

The bottom line is that exceptionally bad weather is inevitably going to disrupt travel. People know that and are able to accept the difficulty it brings, provided they are able to make decisions about their own welfare and, thereby, are empowered to take whatever  action is necessary to minimise the effect it is having on them. Airport authorities, train companies may be criticised for a lack of preparedness, for lack of investment in snow clearing equipment, or poor design of their trains that malfunction in sub-zero temperature. All of this is debatable, open to cost-benefit analysis arguments, and possibly excusable. However, what is inexcusable is the almost total disempowerment of human beings, thrust into appalling conditions as a result of them buying the services of these companies.

To allow people to stand outside in appalling conditions for hours on end without a warm drink, or sleep on airport floors with no provision of food and water is one thing, but to have them do that whilst failing to give them any information at all about what is happening, even if nothing is happening, is an outrage. It deprives the individual of the means to make his or her own decisions based on available information (even if it is information about no progress, regular updates on intractable situations are just as important as news of breakthroughs).

It is surprising what people are capable of tolerating if only they have a sense that all that can be done is being done to help them. The key to this is communication. No doubt, managers and executives have been working hard to resolve the myriad of issues they have been facing, but where has been the communication, the relationship with customers? Nowhere, if the repeated complaints in that area are to be believed. Instead passengers have been treated as a commodity, a shipment item, rather than the living, feeling, thinking people, capable of making decisions about their own welfare.

One of the problems, of course, is that the organisations that run airports and railway stations, are not the carriers. They provide the facilities for carriers to use for their passengers. That means they don’t see the people who pass through their concourses etc. as customers. For them the customer is the airline, or rail company. This is one of the major contributors to the problem but it is not the only one. Airlines, in particular the low cost airlines, are notorious for treating their customers as commodities too.

Jan Carlzon understood this crucial point. In 1981, he took over as CEO of the problem-ridden Scandinavian Airlines, SAS and when he left the company 13 years later, he had managed to turn it around by focusing on what he later called Moments of Truth. These were defined as the points of interaction at which the airline’s staff encountered its customers. In a 2006 interview, he said this:

What I saw was that we had to change the culture of our company and leave behind the focus that we used to have on technical operation issues and, instead, turn our focus to the market and be customer-driven. The whole case that I was driving was to make this very proud and very successful technical operational organization become a business enterprise or business organization. The way I described it to people was I said, “We used to fly aircraft, and we did it very successfully. Now we have to learn the difficult lesson, how to fly people.” … when we questioned our passengers, it showed that 90 percent of them didn’t even know what kind of aircraft they were flying. Where did they get their impression or perception of the company? We found out that they got the perception in those meetings with human resources, the employees working in the company: a salesman over the telephone; a girl behind the check-in counter; a stewardess on board the aircraft; the captain, the way he spoke over his microphone. And all these meetings really constituted the company as such. That’s why I said that if those meetings are good meetings, our asset side on the balance sheet will increase. If those meetings are bad meetings, the value of our assets on the balance sheet will decrease. In other words, the only thing we have to do is to see that those critical meetings are as good as ever and that they exceed the expectations of the customers. Then we are going to be a successful company in moments of truth. To build relationships with customers (and, thereby, gain sustainable competitive advantage), organisations must relate to them on a human, emotional, level.

It is an interesting speculation how many moments of truth have come and gone in the last week for airlines, rail companies, airport authorities and rail station operators. There has been little evidence of any sense of relationship with customers being given any meaningful attention. The bosses of these organisations have not been seen moving amongst the poor, refugee-like people who have had the misfortune of having to use their premises and ‘services’. Staff have not been mobilised to offer customer care. No initiative seems to have been exercised by people on the ground to preserve the customer relationship.

The need for attention is operating in virtually all human interactions and if you understand this you understand the need for SERVICE-ABILITY. The core-product benefit, whether it be tangible or intangible, is only one part of the satisfaction a customer obtains from an organisation, the tangible issues of packaging and presentation (and that includes premises and facilities) are another, but that most vital of ingredients, the nutrition of attention lies in that outer ring of augmented value. Customer relationships are not built solely on transactions, people are not commodities to be processed, they have needs that must be met, and it is vitally necessary for organisations to understand this, especially when things go badly wrong, as in the case in point.

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