Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Air Canada shows impact of customer-facing employees on PR

This isn't another I-hate-Air-Canada blog post - there are many of those already (don't believe me? Google it).

This is a blog post about how a company's customer-facing employees are just as important to its PR as its PR people (if not more).

The back story (OK, a bit of a rant)

On Sunday evening, my family and I had the misfortune of having to fly home to Winnipeg from Ottawa. (For the record, that's a misfortune because of the circumstances of the travel, not the destination!)

It was a terrible night weather-wise in Toronto, which was the site of our connecting flight. Terrible weather is out of the airlines' control, and I completely understand that flights sometimes have to be delayed as a result. But how an airline handles its customers when things get hairy has an enormous impact on how they see the company.

Our flight to Winnipeg was originally scheduled to leave Toronto at 9 p.m. Because of weather-related delays elsewhere, our Ottawa-Toronto flight arrived late, and we were worried we'd miss the connection. We asked about it as we exited the plane, and were told to ask the customer service agent who'd be waiting for us at the top of the jetway.

That agent told us to go to the same gate for the same time as she'd provided the man in line in front of us, who'd given a different flight number. I asked her to confirm that was right; her response: "Here, I'll write it down for you."

We arrived at the gate she'd indicated, and it was indeed boarding another flight. I asked the woman working that gate, who told me her job was to load that flight, and that I'd have to find the departures board to get my answer; she was also too busy to tell me where that board was.

As I looked for the departures board, I saw another employee on the phone at a gate which didn't have any flight listed. I stood there for a few minutes while she pretended not to see me, and was then told "Look, I can't help you. I was just passing by here and needed to use the phone."

I found the board, and our gate. When our flight finally boarded an hour late (not Air Canada's fault: remember, weather), it was approximately 10 p.m. When our flight actually pulled away from the gate for our flight, it was midnight.

In between, our Airbus 320 full of hot, cranky customers sat at the gate, without air conditioning on, waiting. And waiting.

Every 20 minutes or so, we'd get an announcement over the PA system reassuring us that the delay "shouldn't be too much longer now" or something to that effect. At one point, they added that we were just waiting for the pilot.

Waiting for the pilot?

After well over an hour, another pilot who was on our flight to travel home to Winnipeg after a 15+ hour day of his own came on the PA, and explained that our pilot's previous flight had been diverted to Ottawa due to Toronto weather, and they'd only found this out as we'd finished boarding.

More than an hour earlier.

While we were grateful that someone had finally respected us enough to tell us what was going on, the content of his announcement was infuriating: somewhere along the line, someone had decided that while these poor suckers on the plane were going to have to sit through a very uncomfortable couple of hours, it was better to leave them all there on the plane than to go to the trouble of letting them off and then re-boarding.

It's not like we'd pushed away from the gate and would have to drive back in: the gate door was open, and we could easily all just have walked off. (At least, that's how it seemed to us as we got progressively angrier: if there's some Transport Canada regulation preventing it, they could have done themselves a favour by telling us that.)

A woman sitting behind me began to sound panicked about an hour into the wait, telling the flight attendants she was about to pass out from the heat. Their response: "We'll be coming through the cabin shortly with a water service." The temperature in the plane got so hot that when the pilot did finally arrive and turn on the air conditioning, we could see the condensation in the air, like when you exhale on a cold night.

The best timing of the night award went to the flight attendant who, immediately after the announcement that we were waiting for the pilot (without explanation yet as to why he was delayed), came through the cabin offering headphones so we could enjoy the on-board entertainment system while we waited... for three dollars. Credit cards only, please, we don't take cash. I'm not making this stuff up.

What does all this have to do with PR?

I attended a presentation years ago at an IABC International Conference in New York City, by a Swedish PR guy who talked about the role of customer service in defining your company's brand.

He gave an example that struck home, and has remained with me since. He pointed out that his wife doesn't love him because he issues a news release every morning at breakfast extolling his own virtues: she loves him because of the way he treats her. He shows concern, he takes out the garbage and helps with the kids, he is interested in her and what interests her, he makes her laugh -- it has little to do with messaging or positioning or tactics.

His excellent advice: corporate PR departments need to realize that our customers' relationships with our brands work the very same way. As he put it, if your customers are having a bad experience of your brand in your stores or at your events (or in your airplanes), nothing you can say in a news release is going to change their perception of the brand.

So, pack up the PR department and go home?

Of course not; rather, his advice was for PR to realize that our customers have far more interactions with our front-line employees than they ever do with the products of the PR department -- so we should prioritize employee communications in our corporate communication strategies.

Employees who understand their role in defining the company brand, who understand what customers need, want and expect, who are motivated to give those customers a good experience, and who are empowered to do so, will have a far greater impact on your company's reputation than anything else your PR department will ever do.

It's entirely possible that there were reasonable explanations for all the decisions my fellow travelers and I cursed Sunday night; but even if there were, no-one told us. So our impression of Air Canada's customer service was set.

Customers are a fickle bunch. Over the years, I've had plenty of uneventful (i.e. good enough) flights on Air Canada, and have even experienced excellent Air Canada customer service for myself (a flight I try to forget, on which my then-infant daughter threw up all over me and flight attendants did everything they could to help me and mitigate the mess for my fellow travellers).

But Sunday night, as my now-three-year-old looked at me, eyes glassy, little face red as a tomato and hair soaked with perspiration, and said "We coming down for a landing?" before we'd even left the tarmac, none of that mattered.

Unfortunately for the companies which serve him/her, a customer's impression of a brand is only as good as his/her most recent interaction with it. So PR folks are well-advised to make sure employee communications is at the top of their strategy list.


  1. Oh no, that's an awful story! I've never quite understood why they make passengers wait inside a hot plane when there's a delay, especially when you're still at the gate.

    Bad weather is unavoidable, but that's no excuse for poor customer service. If you got bad service from one employee, that's forgivable, but it seems like every single employee you encountered was rude or unhelpful. That's a serious problem.

    While you were waiting on the plane, Air Canada should have been more open about why they couldn't let you off, and why there was such a delay.

  2. You're right, Jennifer: it's amazing how forgiving customers will be if you just explain why you can't give them what they want. If there's no good reason, though, you may need to re-think your decisions.

    As far as everyone being unhelpful, there was one employee who had the right customer service instincts: the off-duty pilot who took it on himself to give us whatever info he could!

    I should also say that the flight attendants on board, though apparently only allowed to stick to the script, were pleasant despite the challenges.

  3. I've been stuck on "delayed" planes a couple of times. So I know the feeling of wanting to bang your head against the seat infront of you. However, when I think I have it bad, I look at the people flying with young children and wonder how they do it!

    It's always difficult dealing with airline customer service. It's not like a restaurant or retailer, where you can just pick up, leave, and go to another location! And sometimes I feel like airline companies use that to their advantage.

  4. Awesome post. How an employee treats a customer demonstrates EXACTLY how they regard that customer. Indifference is far more damaging than rude or dumb; it clearly reflects their attitude and is rarely caused by conditions, but conditioning and tolerance by the company.

    I have seen this far too often with AC, and don't have any great experiences to balance my opinion.