If you don't care, why are you here? Walking your walk.

A couple of weeks ago now I was having a flick through Twitter – losing probably a good hour of my life that I’m never going to get back – when I spotted a tweet that caught my eye. And I was not alone.

A customer of an airline – let’s call that airline Brianair – had tweeted them in desperation to let them know that a group of, now what shall I call them? Ah yes, twits (you know there was another word I was thinking of there don’t you), were causing problems on her flight. This group of people had been chucking homophobic chants her way – and the flight crew hadn’t done anything to stop it. She’d even caught a picture of her fellow passengers’ behaviour in action. What a lovely way to start a holiday with your partner.

Her tweet and picture alone drew a substantial level of interest from the Twittersphere. People were, quite rightly, appalled and complete strangers offered kind words of support and advice. Twitter has many faults but every now and again the milk of human kindness finds its way through the bile. But guess what drew in more crowds, caused more outrage and press attention? Yep, you guessed it. The response Brianair posted back to their customer on Twitter.

It asked her to submit a complaint through their online form so their customer service department could investigate it.

Now expressions of dissatisfaction can sometime be a bit vague, but there was nothing vague about this. The customer told Brianair where she was flying, what time she was flying, what she’d been called and helpfully her picture (if you zoomed in close enough) gave you the seat numbers of the people caught in the action ‘mid-abuse’.

Was this a case of a poorly instigated automated Twitter response? Or worse still, a member of staff completely missing the fact that the complaint was right in front of their nose and they already had everything they needed to start looking into it?

Thinking about it, I take that last sentiment back. What is worse than both things, is where the culture of an organisation encourages its processes and staff to block, or not to see, the bleeding obvious even when it’s stood right in front of them shouting, ‘Hello? Yes, I’m a complaint. I really am. In fact, I’m quite a serious complaint.’

Businesses can spend millions investing in customer experience, but for me the true mark of a business (and its true colours when it comes to its attitude towards its customers) is how it responds when something has gone wrong.

Quite rightly other twitterers (is that a word?) picked up on the fact that the airline pretty much had everything it needed to get on with things sharpish.

People were absolutely incensed that something so obvious and so serious got such a blah blah response from the airline. I think a ‘right royal fobbing off’ describes it beautifully.

To her credit, their customer then (as they asked) took the time to write an articulate and very descriptive account of the whole situation on their hallowed online form.

Their response? To send back yet another templated response (and this was their full and final response by the way). And wait for it. Here’s what it said:

Dear Customer

Thank you for contacting Brianair.

We pride ourselves upon the high standards of service and professionalism provided by all of our staff and maintain these standards which ensure that our staff are constantly reminded of their most important function; to be friendly and professional at all times.

I do sincerely regret that this was not reflected to you on this occasion.

Where do I start? Now, forgive me if I’m wrong but I thought the most important function of flight crew was to ensure the safety and welfare of passengers? And do they really have to be ‘constantly reminded’ to be friendly and professional at all times? Really? I’m not going to go on a Brianair-bashing spree. I’m really not. So why am I sharing this story with you? Because this is a perfect example of how not to deal with a complaint.

Look at the words, the prissy tone and the (lack of) punctuation. I do hope the person who wrote this didn’t end up collapsing in a heap through lack of oxygen. And I say that because there is no way they could have taken a breath when they read this back. If they ever did. Which I doubt.  

There’s no acknowledgement or recognition of the situation, let alone the impact this situation had on their customer. The response doesn’t relate at all to the actual complaint she made and just to add insult to injury the response wasn’t even addressed to her personally. As a member of the public so eloquently put directly to Brianair, “Your reply to….shows not one ounce of humanity, dignity or respect.”

If you wanted an example of a response to a complaint that is not going to placate, reassure or win over your customer, this is it. And not unsurprisingly, when the customer shared this with the people now waiting to hear how things went – Twitter exploded again, and the story ended up in the mainstream press. And now the airline had three issues on its hands. The way it was seen responding to its customer’s complaint, its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion and protecting the safety and welfare of its passengers. It chose to go silent. On everyone.

Now thankfully we’ve come an awful long way in financial services. In fact, I think I can say with some confidence that many businesses across many industries have got much better at handling complaints. But although the behaviours and errors we’ve seen here seem rather extreme in ‘our worlds’, there are three things we can all take from this example:

  • The importance of a healthy corporate culture around complaints
  • Not letting process get in the way of common sense
  • Getting the basics right.

It’s often the smaller things, the obvious things, that can trip us up. And any one of the things I’ve picked out from this story has the power to completely scupper a perfectly good investigation.

When things go wrong your customer will be looking for you to reveal your true colours. And in a world where what we offer becomes increasingly the same, it’s the interactions we have at key moments that can make or break a future relationship. Price is not everything. And I sincerely hope the airline involved is, behind the scenes, taking a long hard look at its complaints handling regime.  

The moral of this story? Don’t do things that make your customer feel worthless, ignored and yes, I’ll end with this one. Fobbed right off.

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