What happens if your company overreacts? Your customers exert unnecessary effort!


Overreaction

Last week I had the pleasure of writing a Customer Experience Review on low cost airline Norwegian. I intentionally say ‘the pleasure’ as I was pleasantly surprised by the experience – not a common feeling I have in my experiences with airlines.

I wrote the review after my outbound flight with them to Oslo. If I had written the review after my return flight to London Gatwick, the result may have been very different. Whilst the Norwegian ‘everything is working as it should do’ experience was surprisingly good, the ‘what do we do if something goes wrong’ experience was far less acceptable.

What happened to me and my fellow passengers on the afternoon of the 12th December 2014 serves as a brilliant example of how NOT to deal with an exceptional event – when something goes wrong. I would like to share the story with you.

I was due to fly from Oslo to Gatwick on the last Norwwegian flight of the day – the 18:10. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time and settled myself in a cafe near to the departure gate. I opened my laptop in anticipation of catching up on emails. I often have a quick check of the news – on this particular occasion it proved to be a useful move. I discovered at around 16:30 that there was a problem with the air traffic control systems in and around London.

My instant reaction was to check the departure boards in the terminal building. I wanted to know if London bound flights were going to be affected. The BA flight bound for London Heathrow was already showing a delay. My Gatwick flight was still unaffected. That was about to change…..

Flight cancelled

Just past 17:00, the departure screens showed that the London Gatwick flight with Norwegian had been cancelled! Cancelled! I was slightly shocked. No other London bound flight had been cancelled, but within thirty minutes of the problem being announced, Norwegian decided the flight could not depart. Now I must clarify some things here. The air traffic control issue was in no way connected to any airline. It was therefore not Norwegian’s fault. However, how Norwegian dealt with the issue is very much in their control and what happened next did not get anywhere near meeting my expectation.

Having seen the cancellation on the screen, I hunted out a Norwegian member of staff. I found a lady at a departure gate. She was not able to give me any information other than to ‘hang around and listen to the announcements’. At this stage I had no idea if I would be getting home for the weekend. As other confused passengers started to arrive at the gate, a different member of staff arrived and announced something in Norwegian. She had to be asked to repeat what she said in English.

We were told that due to the issues in London, the flight had been cancelled. We would need to return to arrivals, find the ticket desk and they would ‘sort things out for us’. That was it – no more, no less. So 15 minutes later, we were escorted back to the corridor leading back to passport control for arriving passengers. The airport in Oslo is extremely long – we had to traipse the entire length of it. Having got through passport control, the absence of any Norwegian members of staff was notable. Where were we supposed to go?

With no assistance at all, the group of passengers I was huddled with eventually found the ticket desk – already besieged by concerned passengers. Fortunately everyone was extremely calm – and patient. The fact that Norwegian had a ticketing system in place helped matters. I prepared myself for a long wait. Whilst waiting, no member of Norwegian staff came to speak to us. There is no seating anywhere near the ticket desk – it is really not a pleasant experience.

Another fifteen minutes later and the situation took yet another turn. A senior member of staff arrived behind the ticket desk and gestured to all waiting passengers. We moved in as close to the desks as possible. The lady made an announcement in Norwegian this was met by audible sighs and cheers from 50% of the passengers. The other 50% had to demand that she repeat her announcement in English.

Norwegian had decided to ‘un-cancel’ the flight – it would be leaving after all – at 19:30!! I have never heard of a flight being cancelled and then un-cancelled. My relief (at knowing I would get home) was replaced with intense frustration. This meant that all passengers would have to completely repeat the airport departure process – starting with airport security all over again. We burned a few calories on Friday night I can tell you.

The moral of this story is as per the title of this blog post. If a company overreacts to a problem, it is very likely to cause its customers unnecessary customer effort. When Norwegian cancelled the Gatwick flight on Friday afternoon, it did so far to quickly and readily. It was the last flight of the day – it would have done no harm delaying it until they were certain that the problems in London were going to be prolonged. In acting too soon, they created a bigger problem than was necessary.

Aside from the unnecessary physical effort exerted by passengers, we must not ignore the psychological effect the Norwegian overreaction had. Many of the passengers were returning home to friends and family. Cancelled flights do not just inconvenience, they also cause distress. Cancellations are an event that drive an emotional reaction in customers – it is therefore critical that the event is dealt with clearly and empathetically – in my opinion, Norwegian failed on both fronts.

If something goes wrong in your customer experience (which it inevitably will on occasion), it is vital to consider the following steps:

  1. Are you in possession of the full facts? Do not make any decisions until you are certain of the situation
  2. Keep your customers informed at all times – customers will understandably be anxious. To assure them that you are in control of the situation, provide them with information on a regular basis
  3. Cancel the product or service as a LAST RESORT – if at all possible, delay making the decision until there is no other option
  4. Provide customers with face to face support throughout the experience – have members of staff in situ to talk, reassure and help customers. If customers need to move to a different location, ensure that you have sufficient members of staff in place to clearly direct them
  5. Demonstrate to customers that you empathise with them – things will go wrong most humans acknowledge that, but if staff act as though it is just ‘part of the job’, it will only serve to irritate and frustrate

Norwegian failed to follow these steps. As a result, their overreaction to a problem and lack of support throughout the experience left a sour taste in the mouths of most customers concerned. Fortunately this type of thing does not happen on a regular basis – it is therefore unlikely to have a detrimental effect on customer loyalty toward the airline.

However, I very much hope that Norwegian (and other airlines for that matter) read this post – and the review I wrote the day before this event occurred. In that review I make it clear that whilst they are doing well in the delivering the experience they do, they must as a business be conscious of the complete ‘end to end customer journey’ – failures like this, whilst an exception, are part of that end to end journey.

It will not take much for them to improve the experience for the next set of passengers that find themselves on the receiving end of a cancelled flight. I only hope they can acknowledge that the way they approached the problem on Friday 12th December is requires improvement!

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