Who would have thought that Europe would be almost completely shut down by a volcano? From Iceland? For nearly a week?
Clearly no one did. Governments, the public and the airlines were completely unprepared. Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), described the closure as "a European embarrassment and a European mess. Airlines criticized governments for the across-the-board airspace closures. And passengers were furious with the airlines for abandonning them and not seeming to care! The blame game continued. "There is no internationally accepted standard explaining what level of ash concentration poses a threat to planes" said Roberto Kobeh Gonzales, head of the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO).
No one was prepared because we didn't think about the possibility of a volcano shutting down transportation. We also hadn't imagined that terrorists would fly planes into buildings in 2001. While we may not be able to predict what may stop people from flying, or the exact cause of a business shut-down, it is clear now that we must be prepared for the likely event that SOMETHING will do this.
There is an appalling lack of preparation for taking care of customer needs during even the most minor of interruptions. But this week, in the wake of being stranded myself, I realized that in spite of repeated disasters, this problem does not go away.
Some examples. A new flu virus strikes and we need quick development and distribution of a vaccine. Earthquakes cause tsunamis all over Asia and the destruction of the entire infrastructure of Haiti, and we need to get immediate search and rescue and medical care to the survivors. A hurricane breaks through aging levies, flooding an entire city and we need to evacuate, feed and shelter large numbers of people. And for a less dramatic example, passengers post on Youtube videos of transit workers sleeping on the job and having coffee instead of driving a bus full of passengers and the management needs to act quickly to prevent the anger between passengers and staff from escalating into an all out war. But each of these events were badly-handled logistical nightmares.
Organizations need to know that things will go wrong and determine what they want to have happen before disasters occur. They need to put in place the following three essentials:
A Customer Philosophy to design the experience they want their customers (or clients or patients) to have.This would include mechanisms for automatically gathering feeback without annoying customers as well as identifying when and what events will cause them to re-evaluate and improve their customer systems.
A Normal Customer Transaction Process to ensure consistency of great customer care across the organization.
An Upset Customer Process or an Emergency Process to switch into being helpful for customers with a problem. This way everyone will know what to do to take of the customers whenever there is a problem.
While this may seem self-evident, very few organizations have all three. Fewer still have trained their employees how to behave in these different circumstances. Front-line staff are left to fend for themselves. Every organization has service delivery failures for one reason or another, so it is in their best interest to be prepared. No company wants to have a "United Breaks Guitars" video circulating the planet to show the world how uncaring they are.
The challenge is to get organizations to truly have empathy for their customers instead of protecting themselves from their customers. Neither Air Canada nor Air France have phone numbers for customers who want to complain. What the airlines fail to realize is that travellers do not want to get on an airplane. They want to go somewhere. It is about the destination, not the journey. That is unless the journey is unpleasant and then it becomes about the journey, but not in a good way.
Most front-line employees are told to stay calm when faced with an upset customer. This behavior convinces the customer that staff don't care about the customer's plight; that this sort of issue happens frequently and the company has done nothing to rectify the situation. No wonder customers lose their cool. But what if staff were encouraged to become advocates for their customers; to get upset on their customers' behalf? Then the customer would have someone was on their side.
In the wake of volcanos shutting down air travel, stranded passengers knew that the airlines could not get them home immediately. But they were within their rights to expect two things from their airline: information and empathy. Information, even just to say, we have no information at this time. And empathy; someone to give out blankets. Someone to acknowledge how upsetting the situation is when you can't get home. Someone to help people find reasonably-priced accomodation while they waited. And some kind of emergency shelter for those without money.