The trend in sales and marketing has shifted focus from selling to “helping” customers. Your customers expect you to build a relationship with them, and they are concerned with how you are going to treat them throughout and beyond the sales cycle. To me, this isn’t a new concept for small business owners. Our customers are often like family to us. However, that’s not so for all companies; fortunately for us, we can learn from their mistakes.
The March 20, USA Today article, Trip Report: American’s 777-300 bringing luxury back, says that American Airlines is taking efforts to “…court the highly coveted, premium paying flyer.”
The airline has added a first class suite with turn-down service and a complimentary pair of pajamas. What strikes me about this upgrade strategy is that it focuses on a very narrow market, albeit that market is the airline’s bread and butter. However, the airline is still significantly deficient in other service offerings, case in point, the services it offers travelers with disabilities. (According to a Harris Poll, in one year, this group took 32 million trips and spent more than $13.6 billion on travel.)
A real story.
I contacted American Airlines last week because my husband and I were preparing for a trip to attend my parents’ anniversary celebration. The airline tickets are going to cost $1300.00. Ouch. My husband is a C 4-5 quadriplegic, meaning at his level of injury, he is immobile from the chest down. He uses a customized electric wheelchair that won’t fit on every airplane, so when we travel, we have to do a LOT of planning.
Once finding a few schedules that might work, I called several airlines to ask important questions. Can his wheelchair fit through the cargo opening because the chair won’t collapse? Can he take his chair all the way to the gate? How much layover time should I allot? These are all questions that need answering, to help me with my buying decision. When I called the American Airlines reservation system, I followed the instructions on their website and asked to speak to their Special Assistance Coordinator (SAC).
I was told by the reservationist, “They won’t talk to you unless you have already booked your ticket.”
I clarified with her to make sure she in fact said, “they WON’T talk to me unless I buy a ticket,” and she confirmed. I explained that I needed to know specifics about the plane to see if they could even accommodate us. She didn’t have the answers, so she offered to call them to see if they’d talk to me.
When she returned to the line, she said, “They told me they will not talk to you, but that you can give your questions to me and someone will call you later.”
Yes, that’s what she said. (I’m wondering if those premium passengers who buy the “suite tickets” also have to buy the ticket before their questions are answered.) But, I gave her the questions and as of five days later, I still have not heard from anyone. We can’t risk spending over $1300 on a flight that we can’t actually take.
Here’s the issue: I don’t matter.
The truth is, I’m not a coveted premium passenger, although a $1300 price tag seems pretty premium to me. But for whatever reason, American Airlines has set up a process that severely and negatively affects their customer service.
The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to disclose any limitations on the airplane’s ability to accommodate a passenger with disabilities and availability of storage for assistive devices. American Airlines only helps its existing, booked passengers. But switch to the power of social media. All the regulations and processes in the world go out the window if you use social media to voice a concern. Companies go into crisis mode because the consumer now has an audience listening to them. I sent American Airlines a private message on Facebook explaining what happened. Here is the reply I received. Unfortunately, it mirrors the service I received earlier.
Call to have my situation reviewed? Or call the SAC again? Why, have they improved in the last half hour?
As with any good social media fight, I responded. And please forgive my frustration-induced type o’s, mistakes, and spelling errors.
I, like any customer, hate to be dismissed. My business is worth something. To their credit, American Airlines quickly responded again with a very apologetic message (below). This should have been their initial reply to me, but it was too late. What I believe to be true is, their first and second replies were a clear demonstration of how they treat customers, the one below is how they respond to a crisis.
What is missing with American Airlines?
1. Consult with your special needs audiences so you understand their needs and are able to accommodate them, if at all possible. If you’re not disabled, you have no idea what it’s like to be disabled, so reach out to this audience for help with setting up your services. Talk to the people you are helping.
2. Educate reservationists so they can answer questions and help assist the passenger through the buying process. Consider empathy training and exercises to help employees understand their passenger’s perspective.
3. Empower employees to help people, whether they are your current passenger or a prospective passenger.
4. Educate everyone on the team about the ramifications of poor service and how the issue isn’t over when the call is disconnected. Strive to be the image you portray through social media. Customers want your help, it’s how you win their trust and loyalty.
5. Publish your mission statement online. I can’t find American Airlines’ mission statement on the aa.com website. However, creating a mission statement is only the first step. Inform employees of the mission statement, so they can have a solid foundation from which to base decisions.
If you are operating in a highly regulated industry, that’s OK, we get that, but don’t take our business for granted and don’t dismiss us. Can you really afford to?