A tale of two airlines: How Singapore companies can touch customers Hearts

In a highly competitive environment, how do you win raving fans for your business? How do you turn your detractors to your supporters? if you can do this, your business has an edge. Read about it in my latest article first published on the Singapore Business Review on:

Singaporeans have always complained about service providers. Why is it so? Is it because service is really bad, or are companies doing their best, but just not being able to meet their customers’ needs? Granted, there will always be customers who are unreasonable, but what about the bulk of people out there who just want to feel valued and get value for their money? Are they unreasonable as well to ask to be cherished and to get value for their money?

The term ‘value for money’ is contentious. How do you measure this? Unfortunately, the ‘real’ value of a business proportion is often revealed when a ‘crisis’ occurs. While this article is not a scholarly piece on customer service, it is an observation of a recent case where I believe a complaint could be turned into an opportunity to build raving fans by proving that the value of their product is beyond what money can buy. That is the assurance that the vendor can truly meet the needs and fears of the client, not just the wants. However, unfortunately from this instance, we can see that the company was only interested to meet the wants, which is the product they paid for, versus the needs and fears of the customer. In other words, the company was not selling what money could not buy.

As a business coach, I like to ask my clients this question:

“What is your client buying from you that money cannot buy?”

Are you selling a budget air ticket? Or are you selling convenience and happy times for family and friends? Are you fulfilling a transaction, or are you building a relationship? While safety is important, I excluded it from this discussion because it is a must for this industry.

Recently, a couple of budget flights from a Singapore based airline were delayed more than 20 hours, and passengers complaint that little was done to make up for their inconveniences. Even senior citizens and little children were not given assistance their age required. The delay was so bad that some passengers were even told to go home. While I am not going to discuss the reasons for these incidents or company policies, I will look at how their response to complaints revealed that they did not have their core customer’s needs and fears in mind, and therefore did not know what their customers were really buying from them.

After the furore of the incident went viral on social media, which some passengers described as almost like a riot, the budget airline first explained that the reason for the flight delay was due to safety. I won’t fault them for that because safety is paramount, and I would rather be late than not arriving at all. What happened later, according to the people affected, was a public relations disaster, even though the CEO gave a public apology.

What I find strange was the CEO’s need to remind his customers that they bought a budget ticket, and therefore should not expect anything more than ‘getting from point A to B’. He even emphasized that this is the ‘understanding’ between buyer and seller when they transacted. While the whole letter and other correspondences from the CEO sounded really sincere, I wonder why he needed to remind passengers that Scoot is going beyond their promise to issue some vouchers as compensation. Do you think it makes your disgruntled customers grateful?

I find it puzzling why he needed to remind them of that – especially when they were hugely inconvenienced by his company’s poor handling of the matter. Legally he may be correct, but is playing the technicality game going to win you customers? The delay was so bad that passengers were even told to leave the airport and go home. Precious moments of having fun together with friends and families were lost. And these could not be replaced. Will people whose happiness got dashed by your poor service be convinced by your ‘legal correctness’? You can hide behind the ‘Buyers Beware’ clause, but it will not make you raving fans, which is the point of business.

In this case, the response of the company seemed to arise from the need to defend itself more than to assure the customer. In an argument with customers, especially one that was caused by your own mistakes, you almost never win because they contribute to your livelihood. And they have choices. What is worse, staff echoed the view that if you want better treatment when the airline messed up, passengers should buy a seat on a premium airline instead of a budget – and they had no qualms posting that on Facebook. This reveals condescension for those who are paying your salary. I wonder if internally, the corporate culture is one of contempt for their customers. To be honest, I was contemplating a trip to Taiwan next year on this airline with my children, three years and seven years old, but after this incident, I decided I will try other airlines. I shudder to think what they will say to me if such an incident happens and I have two young children stranded.

So I wonder why they felt a need to respond in this way.

Does it make customers feel better? Are you assuring them that you know what they are really buying from you – which is time with family and friends, convenience and happy memories? It seems that the airline just want to push a product to the customer without establishing a bond with them. When things don’t go well, too bad – fall back onto the T&Cs. This is why they will not have raving, loyal fans. If they want to keep things to just a monetary transaction then they will get the same level of loyalty from their customers. In highly competitive markets, this might not be a good idea. No amount of cute marketing will win you raving fans more than a wrong made right. Being ‘legally right’ certainly wins you no future business. Showing contempt is even worse.

So how should they have responded? A good case study would be Air Asia’s response to complaints that their flights are not safe for disabled passengers because disabled passengers had to be physically carried up by people to the plane. This caused the criticism that it is not safe, because the passenger could easily fall if the personnel carrying him lose his balance. Air Asia recognised that their customers’ need is not just for an air ticket – which anyone else can supply, but comfort, assurance and the timely access to loved ones and time with them. No one likes to have a potential holiday or a visit to family spoiled by an accident.  So instead of ‘defending ‘their lack of infrastructure to support disabled customers simply because they are a budget airline, Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia, said,

“It is great to finally see that our disabled friends are able to fly with us more comfortably today with the assistance of the ambulifts and aisle wheelchairs. After understanding the needs of our disabled friends, we have also enhanced our booking system to enable everyone including our disabled friends to now enjoy low fares when they log into our website. As a low cost carrier, we acknowledge that there are certain limitations on our end with the services that we can offer but we will enhance our services and accessibility where possible and we hope to set the example for other LCCs to work towards an improved environment for our disabled guests in terms of enhanced amenities for greater mobility and comfort.”

He did not defend his business’s failings. Best of all, he did not claim that as a budget airline, he could not afford to purchase the equipment that made it possible for disabled people to enjoy what Air Asia was truly selling – convenience, time with and access to loved ones. His reply showed customers that Air Asia understands what really matters to the customer and is on their side despite their limitations.

Why did he do that? After all, disabled passengers only take up four seats per plane. Is it worth the cost of buying the special equipment for them? Some things are not about money. As Peter Drucker said, the sole purpose of business is to serve its customers. This is what it means to put customers ahead of money. And perhaps this is why Air Asia is an award-winning business despite being a budget airline.

What is your business selling that money cannot buy? Find that, emphasize it, inculcate that into your culture and you will make raving fans. When you face a complaint, see it as an opportunity to go beyond the T&Cs, and people will love you for it. When you have raving fans, business will not stop flowing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s