Opinion: Communication is king with the customer

Brighter PR executive chairman Steve Dunne

I was out at the Institute of Travel and Tourism conference in Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates last week.  As a conference it was the usual mix of excellent presentations and some that, well, didn’t quite hit the mark.

Interestingly, the presentations that did resonate with myself and many of my fellow delegates were the sessions in which the customer was discussed. And there were many.

Tui UK Chief David Burling talked about personalisation for the customer; Thomas Cook’s UK Chief, Salmon Syad, focused on the need for a customer centric approach for his brand, while the RSA’s Matthew Taylor said: “companies should insist that their employees only ever give customers advice that they would give their best friend”

At one point in the proceedings we saw on the big screen a picture of Michael O’Leary, hardly famous for being the customer’s champion, quoted as saying “If I had known being nicer to customers was going to work I would have done it years ago”.

It was a sort of inadvertent theme that weaved its way through the eclectic range of presentations.

From the ITT angle there was no doubt in my mind – the travel industry values the customer and the old mantra of “the customer is king” is alive and well.

However coming home after the conference I saw a very different customer relations approach in action – one that we have seen in the industry several times in recent weeks from many big travel brands.

I saw it up close and personal. And I saw how a brand, in this case an airline, made one fundamental error that created a potential minefield for itself in customer relations.

In all likelihood it came about because the airline staff were inexperienced and perhaps overwhelmed by the situation. 

The situation, I should explain here, was that the flight to the UK, carrying many ITT delegates and speakers was delayed. It was delayed by several hours before eventually being cancelled and passengers being put onto other carriers, often flying to airports back home that they hadn’t originated from. 

Now it didn’t help that the scheduled flight time for the journey home was 01.55am, so ITT delegates were no doubt feeling tired and fragile after the exertions of a final conference day, frantic networking and a farewell party.

The drama started simply enough.

The departure time came and went almost effortlessly and some 25 minutes after the expected time of take off the full departure lounge was aware there was an issue – certainly well before the first official announcement of a delay was made.

Very quickly the reasons behind the delay was the main topic of conversation for the couple of hundred customers at the gate. The official announcements were few and far between and when they came they were greeted with a certain frisson in the air for the passengers.

Needless to say, as the first hour crept into a second and then a third the atmosphere became more fractious.

The ground staff of the airline struggled to answer a barrage of individual questions while dealing with the bigger issue of getting a couple of hundred people back home. Everyone knew it wasn’t their fault but there was no other focal point for the passenger.

And there just wasn’t enough staff about. Instead of ramping up the presence of uniformed staff and management the airline seemed to go in the opposite direction with staff being almost conspicuous by their absence. There were just a couple dealing with the gathering crowds around the desk.

Senior management, evident at the start of the evening, had disappeared and with no information forthcoming in a timely or organised way, rumour became rife spreading through the terminal like a bush fire.

And that was the issue in a nutshell.

Everyone knows that problems occur. In a service based industry such as travel it is inevitable that there will be issues from time to time.

If I have learnt one thing from all the years of working with crisis and issues in the travel sector it is that you need to keep a steady and constant flow of information coming, even if it is to say there is no more news at present. And, perhaps above all, there is a requirement for the brand and its staff to show leadership.

Without leadership customers quickly lose confidence in the situation and in the brand itself; without a steady flow of information the customer starts to develop and drive the story themselves – with rumour and conjecture fanning up the flames and plunging the mood into a fractious state that is difficult for the brand to recover from.

Phrases like personalisation and customer centric are great marketing buzz words. However that is what they will resemble if they are not underpinned by leadership and communication – just meaningless buzzwords.

If the airline had taken charge of the situation in those long early morning hours in Dubai and issued regular 15 minute updates over the PA system (the PA system on the night seemed to be the airline’s least preferable method of communication) and if management had been more visible, acting as a focal point for questions and advice it could have been so different.

Instead of appearing to be shambolic the situation could have been seen as unfortunate but resolvable. The brand could have been showcased in an exemplary way.

So before we all get too carried away with phrases about personalisation and being customer centric let’s ensure that the basics are in place. That we show our customers leadership at all times and that we understand that communication is king in a customer relationship.

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