Companies can’t rely on solo stars to get customer relations right - the whole team needs to be on board
A recent British Airways flight gone awry served as a perfect example of how brands get it right and wrong, says Chris Blackhurst
Last week I flew to Dubai on business with British Airways in what turned out to be a masterclass in how to get customer relations right – and wrong.
My return flight was the overnight BA106, departing 2.25am to land at Heathrow 6.07am. Except it didn’t. We were delayed 28 hours.
At first, as we waited in the lounge, no explanation was given. Then it was announced a faulty part had been discovered on a wing flap. BA was working to fix it.
Then came the news a new part was required and they were hoping to find one at the airport. The captain came to talk to us.
He played an absolute blinder.
Swinging by the lounge, he chatted freely, taking questions. He treated the passengers like human beings, like grown-ups, describing how the wing flap was not operating properly when they tested it, and on inspection, a tiny bracket was found to have snapped. BA didn’t have one, but he was optimistic that Emirates did. It could be fitted fairly quickly, and we would soon be able to fly to London safely.
After an hour it emerged Emirates did not have the part, after all. KLM might, we were told. Before long, the captain was back to tell us we would not be flying that night. We would have to wait 24 hours, for the bracket to be flown in from London, while BA would put us up in hotels.
He was calm, open and authoritative. As we clustered round he dealt clearly with all our queries. Nobody had any complaints. Thanks to the captain’s communication skills, the mood was one of good-humoured acceptance. He said he would see us the following evening, bade us farewell, apologised again, but stressed that our safety was paramount, and returned to his aircraft. Not one person had a bad word to say about him, or BA.
If anything, as a result of his performance, BA’s stock actually soared. We understood that these things happen, it was just our bad luck the break occurred on our trip but, thank God and thanks to BA’s diligence, it was spotted in time.
Alas, the company’s standing was to sharply plummet. There was no one to guide us out of the airport, the hotel we were due to go to kept changing, there wasn’t a bus to take us there. We felt abandoned, at 5.30am at Dubai airport, a huge, sprawling place, buzzing with people even at that hour in the morning. After waiting forlornly for a coach, some of us took a cab and headed to one of the hotels that had been mentioned back in the lounge.
When we got there, the hotel reception was unprepared for our arrival. Another wait ensued, while they tried to contact a local travel agent who was liaising with BA. Finally, at 7.30am, we went to our rooms.
At night, we again went off to the airport. Again, there was no bus, no one co-ordinating our departure from the hotel, nobody taking care of us. Again, we had to jump into taxis.
Once more at the airport, there now was pandemonium. We had to check in, at the same time as the passengers booked on that night’s BA106. Two sets of customers all trying to check-in simultaneously on flights bearing the same number. Eventually, after much shouting, those due to go as scheduled that evening were allowed to go first – we were informed our plane would be taking off an hour after theirs, at 3.30am.
Check-in staff were swamped, not least because many were also checking in for connecting flights at Heathrow. We reached the lounge, and waited, and waited.
We saw the other passengers leave for their flight which took off as planned. Ours, due to depart in an hour, was still not being shown as ready to board. A tannoy announcement said it was being pushed back further. No reason was offered – that was it. Now there was anger, and mutterings of “next time I will fly Emirates”. Finally we left Dubai, 28 hours late.
The contrast between the earlier delay and this one, between the captain and the ground staff, between the orderly manner in which he told us we would be staying in Dubai for 24 hours and the chaos subsequent to his news could not have been starker.
Why? A captain feels responsible for his aircraft, its crew and passengers. Ours was driven by a sense of duty to see that we were okay, that we understood and appreciated the situation. The ground staff, and whoever was meant to take care of our well-being after we left his charge did not share his feeling of responsibility. They were local, they were dealing with numerous flights all day long, not just one that was late.
The captain was driven by ownership; they were not. The captain had been well-taught but he also came across entirely spontaneously. His colleagues had either missed the lesson or had not taken it in. Rather than behave naturally they stuck to an all-too familiar, inflexible, robotic style of delivery. No one was in command, nobody cared about the customers.
Sadly, all the captain’s efforts were undone. BA must try harder: it’s no use one person stepping up, if the others around him fail to do so. It’s about everybody working together, and them all being joined up, not an individual operating solo. He may have been brilliant, but the brand still emerged as the overall loser.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns, strategic, crisis and reputational, communications advisory firm