A case study in how not to deliver service disruption

I generally try and avoid negative mentions of any specific businesses or brands in my weekly posts – we all have ups and downs and making changes for the better is always a challenge. But recent events in a large UK business have warranted a case study in how not to treat your customers. When people start to feel sorry for your customers, you really know it’s time to take some serious steps to fix what’s wrong!

I’d mentioned to a friend that despite having had original flights for my birthday cancelled by the very same airline, I’d rearranged a weekend of travel with British Airways, hoping that all would go according to plan with the second set of flights. Then, with much finger-pointing at the pilots’ union (despite the fact that I paid British Airways for my flight, not the pilots’ union), British Airways advised me that my flights probably wouldn’t happen, and that they’d let me know nearer the time of my flights. Once AGAIN all four flights for my birthday weekend where in disarray. My friend rolled her eyes and said:

“I feel sorry for you flying with that airline. Good luck with actually getting anywhere with them….”

It’s not the sort of reaction you want people to feel about your brand, so how exactly did this come about? This year, British Airways is celebrating 100 years of existence, since the founding of the original companies, following a long chain of (sometimes government-imposed) acquisitions and mergers, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) merged with the British European Airways (BEA) in 1974 to form British Airways. So in fact, British Airways is celebrating their 45th, not 100th birthday.

One might assume that as a business that reached its centenary, British Airways is naturally laden with baggage, old process and complex staffing issues. In fact despite the turmoil of the 70s and 80s, British Airways emerged as a stalwart of “Brand Britain”, representing all that was good about the British way of life and the premium experience one might expect with a British business.  Saatchi and Saatchi came up with the pioneering and memorable marketing slogan almost 40 years ago that summed up the British Airways ethos: The World’s Favourite Airline. This strap-line served British Airways well through various iterations of operating model and management changes for two decades until it was abandoned a decade or so ago.

Whether it’s 45 years or 100 years, August 2019 was a month of high spending by their marketing and PR teams, with give-aways, special menus and plenty of pomp and ceremony to celebrate the 100th birthday.  Instead, once again, British Airways is in the media for all the wrong reasons. 3 days of strike action by pilots over a pay dispute quickly turned into a fiasco when those responsible for customer communications sent out notifications not only to affected customers that their flights would be cancelled, but also mistakenly notified a large number of unaffected customers. In a typical knee-jerk approach, the company initially refused to reimburse those unaffected but advised that they were affected customers, leaving loyal customers considerably out of pocket, due to a British Airways mistake. For those genuinely affected by the strike, the airline regulator is currently investigating why British Airways has refused to comply with legal requirements to assist passengers in moving to alternate flights, rather than forcing customer to pay for premium priced last minute alternate flights.

Recent events at British Airways have gone beyond the acceptable, utterly eclipsing what should have been a fantastic year to celebrate history, big up the brand (especially in a tricky year with Brexit chaos looming) and create a feel good vibe for staff. With the IT-meltdown disaster still fresh in the memory of many of us who regularly (used to) fly with British Airways, as well as another significant IT cock-up stranding thousands of passengers this month, it feels like a catalogue of how not to run your business, or at least how to loose loyal customers through poor service recovery. Mistakes and issues happen, but if you consistently mess up how you deal with customers during disruption, you will be and should be judged accordingly.

In recent times, British Airways has not always treated their customers with appreciation and respect.  As a seasoned customer experience, support and success professional, I know how easily things can go wrong, then spiralling out of control. But however the scenario arises, what is unacceptable is for a business to consistently mis-manage significant issues, then compound the matter with further mistakes, absent management and poor communication. It’s not acceptable when a business tries to deflect blame and responsibility for their failures and customer experience disruption (in the most recent case, British Airways blaming the pilots’ union.) If you take peoples’ money, accept the responsibility that comes with that, including providing the products and services they paid for! And when things go wrong, hold your hands up, react quickly and you may well find you build greater credibility and loyalty by doing the right thing by your customers.

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