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Brutalized by an Airline: How Corporate Culture is Reflected in Poor Customer Service

October 12, 2014

airplane-rain-clouds This is a story about leadership and customer service; or to be more precise it’s about the absence of both.

One of my daughter’s recently got married. The wedding venue was an hour west of Ottawa in a beautiful setting. With a large family on my wife’s side, there was a decent-size contingent which drove and flew up from the Province of New Brunswick (1,000 km away). We were thrilled that both our daughter’s godparents were able to come. And this is where this sad story of abhorrent customer story is focused, specifically Joanne’s god mother, Karen.

The guilty culprit in this saga is Air Canada, once an internationally respected airline for its safety record and very good customer service. While its safety record is still excellent, unfortunately the company’s customer service aspect has deteriorated to the level one might expect to find in a banana republic.

Here’s Karen’s story.

Karen drove to Fredericton from Saint John with a cousin to join another cousin to take an Air Canada flight to Ottawa. Two of the three had no problem getting on with their carry-ons; Karen’s bag would have to be checked but the desk agent said that it was too late. She would have to miss the flight and get another one eight hours later.

Having flown out of this airport dozens of times in the past when I lived in Fredericton I’m very familiar with its size (two gates) and that planes are parked 50 feet from the building. To add insult to injury, when her two cousins walked across the tarmac to the plane (with Karen left in the terminal) another Air Canada employee said there was no room on board for any more luggage but that he’d put it the cargo hold.

frustrated-customer What?

It’s called communication, which apparently was not present early that fall morning.

Why the inconsistency?

No explanation was ever given to Karen. To add further insult to Karen, Air Canada staff, who made every attempt to be rude, said that she would have to buy another ticket. Fortunately, for some unknown reason, one of the employees later waived the fee. However, even though she did get a flight a few hours later, she had to wait in Montreal for several hours for her connector. Interesting, since there are six afternoon flights from Montreal to Ottawa.

The story got much more perverse when Karen was preparing to fly home two days after the wedding. When she went online the evening before to get her boarding pass a message appeared telling her she would have to go to the desk to check in; her two cousins had no problem with obtaining boarding passes online.

Once at the ticket counter (her cousins accompanying her) she was then told that the flight was overbooked and that she would have to take a flight the next day. The only thing that saved Karen in the end was a woman getting sick in the waiting lounge, prompting the arrival of four paramedics with masks and gloves on (undoubtedly fearing Ebola or some other communicable disease).

Frustrated-woman 2 There were so many mistakes made by Air Canada staff in both Fredericton and Ottawa that it’s difficult to know where to begin. But let’s take a shot anyway. Here are some dos and don’ts on customer service:

1) DO treat each and every customer with the respect he or she deserves.

2) Do not treat customers with contempt, no matter how you, as an employee, may be pissed off at your employer.

3) DO take the needed time to explain why certain decisions have been made. Communicate.

4) Do not treat customers as being not being worthy of explanations, such as with company policies.

5) DO smile and even, where appropriate, use subtle humor.

6) Do not pretend that the crappy service you’re providing masquerades as being adequate–find another job.

7) DO be pro-active by thinking creatively on how what may appear to be an insurmountable problem actually has a solution. Place yourself in the customer’s shoes.

It’s becoming abundantly clear that most of North America’s airlines (notably the large carriers) could care less about customer service and giving people a pleasant flying experience. The major airlines have become bullies by implicitly colluding to jack up fees, squeezing out as much space as possible on their airplanes and making the bottom line the primary focus. The situation will likely deteriorate further.

In the case of Air Canada it’s a very sad story, that a wonderful gentle person who rarely flies was, in effect, bullied by a once-proud airline.

Those involved in Karen’s very unpleasant experience should all hang their heads in shame and reflect on whether they should continue working in the airline industry. And it’s very clear that leadership from the top of the company is missing in action. Until that is corrected, not much will improve in the area of customer service with Air Canada.

The customer’s perception is your reality.

Kate Zabriskie

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