CEO Blog

Don’t judge by the look

Written by Ravindra Bhagwanani on . Posted in CEO Blog

19 January 2017

Some CRM basics might be well known. But not always they are executed by frontline staff, pointing to the huge industry issue between boardroom knowledge and delivery at customer touchpoints. A recent experience.

I do not always reflect everything while on travel, but sometimes I really feel like travelling in time. Back to the darkest times in customer service history.

On a recent flight from Munich to Toulouse, that is what happened to me. Okay, not to me personally, but I’ve witnessed a shocking scene. Shocking for anybody living up to the principle of creating loyalty. I am not mentioning the airline as it might could have happened on other airlines as well. Though a bit unlikely. (Small hint: there is only one airline operating between the two cities.)

When we finally boarded the aircraft with heavy delay because the crew couldn’t find the plane on the tarmac (no joke!), I was one of the last persons to board. When greeted by the purser at the front door, you’ve already felt that charm of a Soviet airline in the 70ies or the attitude of many state-owned railway companies considering the customer as a factor of disturbance. But she also looked like she had indeed started her career at Interflug. (All readers below 40, please google “Interflug” for your general knowledge!)

Just before me, a guy at the age of 50 boarded. Not too well dressed, with a big plastic bag. Not necessarily looking like an executive or frequent flyer, I agree. As the plane was already pretty full and the first row of the cabin – Business Class section – was empty, he took the freedom to stow his plastic bag in the overhead bin above seat 1A. The reaction of the purser was immediate: She started to yell over my shoulder at him (I mean y-e-l-l-i-n-g) that he should take out that bag immediately and take it to his seat. First in English, then in German. He had turned his back to her and either didn’t notice what this was about or just ignored her. In the meantime, the purser was even complaining loudly to the ramp controller, who was about to leave the aircraft for our departure, about him and stupid customers in general (what does he care? Please get our plane off the stand as quickly as possible…). Afterwards, our gentleman settled down in seat 1A.

Before I even had a chance to continue to move down the aisle towards my seat now that my way was free, the purser pushed me aside and shouted at him in a humiliating arrogance: “I don’t think this is your seat. Show me your boarding pass!” I was afraid for her blood pressure. At certain age, you should not be kidding with that.

He subsequently showed his boarding pass, which apparently read 1A. Without any excuse, she turned furiously away. I was sitting too far away to see what happened between the two of them during the rest of the flight.

Yes, one of the first lessons you learn in any customer-facing business is not to judge anyone (anymore) by its look. You can too often be wrong – in both senses, by the way (some people still think they would get a free upgrade by dressing up properly!) – since certain society standards have evolved.

But what is the purpose of management understanding that and other CRM basics if that message is not executed at 110% of all cases by frontline staff? One weak element in the chain is enough to spoil all theoretical knowledge. As a matter of fact, the main challenge is not to understand the theory, but to translate this into concrete action executed by somebody else.

While there is no doubt that our experienced lady is very fit when it comes to safety procedures etc. having served already for such a long time, it is too easy for airlines to hide behind their favourite statement that flight attendants are there first of all to ensure the safety of passengers. In all businesses, people have one particularly assigned duty – plus the one to enhance the customer experience if they work in a customer-facing function and their employer subscribes to the basic principles of applying a CRM orientation.

As long as companies are not willing to address that, which starts with the recruitment process and involves constant (personality, cultural etc.) training, all CRM efforts are ultimately poised to fail. While implementing a technical platform to support CRM activities might be a huge one-time effort and investment, these ongoing delivery aspects are actually far more important and should therefore enjoy corresponding attention from management.

The fact that there are airlines – thinking of the leading Far Eastern carriers -, where you can be 99.9% sure that this would never happen as long as you behave correctly as passenger yourself and that there are carriers in other parts of the world where you are at much higher risk, shows that this could be resolved.

While we will see other trends come and go, the desire by customers to be treated with a minimum of respect and politeness will remain. Investment in that area will therefore ultimately pay off because no business will ever be able to have loyal customers in a sustainable and profitable manner if they fail at that level. Only a holistic loyalty-CRM-delivery approach can address that challenge – which unfortunately still doesn’t really exist at any airline as it should be.

By the way, when we deplaned after arrival, the purser was not standing close to the door to thank the departing passengers as she was supposed to do, but she hid in the galley turning the back to the passengers. At least she might have felt ashamed after all. There is even a glimmer of hope with the weakest of the weak elements.


Global Flight has partnered with FlightGlobal to organise the Loyalty@Freddie Awards conference. To gain more insight from airlines and their commercial partners, make sure you join us in New Jersey on 26/27 April 2017. See what topics will be taking centre stage.