Airplanes, Magic Stickers and Four Lessons on Customer Experience

You might be asking whether the world really needs another blog which uses an airline experience to talk about poor customer service.

Possibly not. But the opportunity is too good to pass up.

I recently arrived at the airport to find everything a business traveler looks for: a plane already at the gate, a crew already on the plane and an on-time departure listed.

About 30 minutes after boarding, the pilot informed us that the plane could not be flown. There was no mechanical issue. Rather, a decal was not on the wing. “Maybe it fell off during the previous flight?” he said. We would need to disembark and they would let us know what we should do next.

Lesson #1: The why is just as important as the what. Customers are more informed than they have ever been. Incomplete information is a dissatisfier, especially if an experience is not meeting expectations. (Just why was this sticker so important? Why did we need to get off the plane?) Communicate completely what is happening, why it is happening, and what the next steps are.

After another 45 minutes we were sent to a new plane, 30 gates away. (At least that was some steps for me). After more time passes, we were informed by the captain that this plane too had no decal and could not be flown. (Sure, one plane might have lost a decal in flight. But two?) In response to passenger grumbling, they brought out snacks… and ran out before all the passengers got some.

Lesson #2: Get recovery right. Find a way to recover from a service failure that will not require the customer to have to expend their time, energy or other resources. And be sure to get all the details of the recovery right the first time. If you fail at the recovery, customer dissatisfaction goes up exponentially.

More time passes and a third plane is located. Shockingly, it is missing the infamous decal too. More time passes. A fourth plane is located. (I know the suspense is killing you). It is missing the decal too. Apparently four planes lost these critically vital decals during their flights immediately before landing? I can tell just looking at the gate agents that something is afoot. Someone is trying to make a point and we are the unwilling hostages.

Lesson #3: Manage all the dimensions of an interaction. There are three dimensions to the experience. The business dimension is what you are trying to get accomplished (on-time trip home). The human dimension is how you feel about it (empathy with my feelings about being late and dragged around the airport). The hidden dimension is all the internal processes, systems and procedures required to get it done. The hidden should be kept invisible to the customer. Exposing the customer to your internal problems shares your burden, not provides good service.

Finally, the pilot announces that they will get permission from the FAA to use a “temporary placard”. What does that mean? The picture above is a guy using a Sharpie to draw on the plane wing.

On the way home, hours delayed, the pilot apologized on the intercom by blaming ground maintenance and the airplane manufacturer for not applying the stickers well enough to begin with. He also pointed out that his flight crew (unlike others working for the same company?) did the right thing by refusing to fly planes that were not flight ready

Lesson #4: Don’t spread blame. Blaming a customer inconvenience on others doesn’t absolve you of the negative experience. It only makes the customer frustrated with you and everyone else. And if you are blaming others in your organization, the infamous ‘they’ who made you do something, now you have done some serious brand damage.

All in all, another day in the glamourous life of a business traveler. And a good reminder that service isn’t easy, and the bigger and more complex your organization, the harder it is to get it right.

Incidentally, I still don’t know why the sticker was so important.
I like to think it must have been magic.

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