Chaos from snow is understandable but poor customer management is not, when the tools are easily to hand to solve the problem. Tools we deal with regularly in ecommerce. Philip Rooke, CMO, Spreadshirt, looks at how last months snow chaos could have been avoided…
My second attempt to get home to Berlin failed not because of snow at Heathrow, but allegedly of snow at the other end. Trouble is, this was not true and the crowd of Berlin-dwellers, who had been told 10 minutes before to start checking in, could prove it. The second it was announced that we were probably cancelled, screens appeared everywhere: iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops.
I instantly see on my laptop the arrivals board at Berlin showing planes still landing. Another traveller, Facebooking from his phone, gets an instant response from a friend in an office overlooking the supposedly closed airport reporting clear skies and planes landing. Yet another finds a webcam showing the same picture and passes it around the now disgruntled crowd. The airline is now well and truly busted.
The airline insists that there is no chance of getting another flight today and that we should leave the airport and re-book later. But we are wiser now, we have screens and data; we are not going anywhere.
Checking the airline’s website, it definitely has no flights, but still shows our flight not cancelled. Checking a number of travel comparison sites shows some business class flight availability at high prices, and then someone else finds an iPhone app for Swoodoo.com, which is still selling standard, cheap tickets for a flight from the same airline in 5 hour’s time. In fact cheaper than any of us had seen in months. We book and kick around.
We weren’t alone. Poor customer contact management meant that travellers whose flights were already cancelled were still turning up. Why do airlines take your mobile and email details and then not use them? In 10 years of working in ecommerce it has always been standard good practice to contact customers when orders fail, so why don’t airlines?
Conflicting information and lack of pre-emptive communication meant more and more people turned up with and without bookings. Nobody left, but wireless services became busier and slower; users more frustrated. Tape barriers got moved, pushed out of the way and check-in became a frightening crush of desperate travellers most waving screens of various sizes.
Then my 3rd flight and bunch more are cancelled. It becomes a scene of frustration, tears and anger; rumours grow. The valiant staff tried to sort out the chaos, but how can they argue when the customer is waving a screen saying not cancelled, or showing confirmed bookings taken only a few hours ago, or snow free weather reports.
Airlines are now ecommerce businesses and learning the simplest of measures could have solved this:
1) Contact your customers. Use all that mobile/email contact information to let customers know they are cancelled as soon as possible. You can even tell them definitely what to do and that other data sources take time to catch up. Any half decent ecommerce business does this.
2) Put needed information first. Airline websites seemed to have the details of what happens when your flight is cancelled buried deep. Understandable normally, but in desperate times, when call centres are over run, they can be moved to the front in minutes. Many people stayed because they could not find out what else to do.
3) The truth is out there, or not. Don’t forget, that it only takes a few clicks to show if the destination is OK or not, or if tickets are available or not.
4) Protect your staff. Prepare them with reasons as to why information may differ.
5) Where possible, synchronize data fast. If you have an availability problem you can force updates through comparison engines. Again, standard good ecommerce practice
In ecommerce we regularly have problems, but we learn to handle them. I have even post surveyed affected customers and found their brand loyalty to be higher after we messed up when handled properly.
My heart goes out to the ground staff. They got unfairly shouted at. But if my customer a service team gets shouted at, I consider it my failure when I don’t carry out good standard ecommerce problem management. So just brainstorm some situations and prepare for them. And use the ecommerce tools available.
By Philip Rooke