British Airways’ Problem Wasn’t The IT Failure – It Was Their Communication

Recently, British Airways suffered such a serious IT issue that there were no flights for nearly 24 hours, on one of the busiest single days of the year. What will be remembered will be the pictures of delayed passengers, waiting in very orderly queues that snaked out of the terminal, along the taxi ranks and out into the car park. Listening to what passengers were saying, to reporters and on social media, their frustration and increasing anger was less about the delays and more directed at the lack of any communication they were receiving from the airline; they wanted to know what was happening, why it was happening and an idea about when it was going to be resolved. It was the hottest day of the year, families were going on holiday and one man interviewed was taking his mother abroad to celebrate her 80th birthday – and they hadn’t even been offered a bottle of water. Lack of any available staff at the airport to talk to, added to the perception that the airline had contempt for their customers.

The big issue here isn’t the IT failure. Things will go wrong and continue to go wrong; It’s the level of displeasure the customers experienced and the little or no communication they received from British Airways that is the problem.

Modern expectations are at such a level that when 24 hour delivery of an item ordered on-line gets closer to 36 hours, then we are dissatisfied. Customer expectations are always rising – the cliché that today’s added value is tomorrow’s expectation has never been truer, particularly to a generation that expects instant gratification.

But if communicated with properly, people are surprisingly understanding when there are failures in systems, deliveries don’t arrive on time and things go wrong.

Great customer care isn’t created by laying down rules or setting up a process; customers are best served by staff free to use their common sense; Timpson’s which has survived and thrived on the High Street while other businesses have disappeared, has done so by being close to their customers and empowering all branch staff to make decisions for them. Branch staff also have total freedom to serve each individual customer in the way they want (and as a customer, that shows every time I go into any of their shops) and have the authority to spend up to £500 for a complaint without approval from the boss.

The airline staff apparently couldn’t or wouldn’t even offer a free bottle of water to stranded passengers; they can’t all have been fixing the IT. Nor the CEO, who chose to make a You Tube video to say sorry rather than be interviewed on live television.

So, in today’s world communication becomes even more critical: the Chairman of the ENO, Harry Brünjes, recently said, “The one thing that unites all the disciplines I’ve worked in is good communication – be it in order to ready yourself for a performance backstage, or having the right answers on figures in the boardroom”. Communication to customers by front line service providers – and communication between different departments and functions that support the external customer- is critical.

Communicating with customers – from greeting them (whether in person, on the phone or by email) to understanding their needs, issues, explaining the what and the why – and ensuring the customer has been heard and understood, should be easy. When there is bad news to deliver, service providers sometimes hope that the problem will go away or not be noticed; they in turn disappear, put their phone onto voicemail or don’t respond to emails. So the problem escalates and the result can be a cost to the business, future business (lack of – we all have choice) and damage to the company’s reputation.

The skill of giving bad news, of being honest – and sincere – with the customer is one that can be learnt and applied to great effect.

Jenny Powell, Co-Founder, Miradorus

At Miradorus we believe communication is the hidden secret to business success and we are on a crusade to help everyone understand how communication affects us inside and out. If you’d like to know more about how to communicate more powerfully and effectively just drop us a line.

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