Bad Processes? Great Service Makes Up For A Lot

Every process blogger loves to write about their own good and bad process experiences, and I’m no exception. This weekend has been a case of incredibly bad processes, but really good customer service that made up for it. I’m stuck in Frankfurt on my way back to Toronto, and I’m actually not unhappy at all, due to the outstanding service that I’ve received all along the way. The short version: my flight out of Oslo was delayed, which caused me to miss my connection in Frankfurt to travel on to Toronto.

Here’s how the process was seriously broken:

  • An SAS flight from Oslo to Frankfurt was leaving 15 minutes after my originally scheduled Lufthansa flight, but I was not allowed to switch to that flight because the transfer time in Frankfurt would be below their threshold. As it turns out, if I had taken that flight, which left on time, I would have made my connection, which left 30 minutes late. Instead, I had to take my original flight, which left over 2 hours late, and missed my connection.
  • With no Lufthansa or Air Canada presence in Oslo, SAS (which is a partner airline) services their customers. When the SAS agents were working with Lufthansa on the phone to try and rebook me, Lufthansa claimed that they couldn’t access my ticket since it was booked on Air Canada. I called Air Canada in London, who said that any changes had to be done by Lufthansa since the first leg of the journey was on Lufthansa. SNAFU.
  • In Frankfurt, it took over 2 hours for the first/business/gold line to process the 6 people ahead of me (luckily I was not in the plebe line, which had 200+ people). When I got up to the agent, I could see how cumbersome her process was: although my flight had already been rebooked, she went through the options for an earlier flight (I would have only been waitlisted, so didn’t bother), had to reprint a new ticket, book me into the hotel, then manually write up hotel and taxi vouchers. Even worse, the taxi voucher was a 4-part carbonless form; she filled it out, then ripped off and discarded 2 of the parts. My time with her, even though I was on a direct flight that had already been rebooked so was presumably the simplest possible case, was more than 20 minutes. People with more complex routing requirements were taking 45-60 minutes each.

I’m pretty sure that SAS/Lufthansa/Air Canada knew that I wasn’t going to make my connection before I left Oslo; they should have just put me up there for the night and flown me out in the morning. It would have taken me about 10 minutes in Olso rather than the 2+ hours in Frankfurt to deal with the rebooking.

There were some successful process bits:

  • Someone, somewhere, rebooked me on today’s Air Canada flight when I missed yesterday’s flight, ensuring that I have a seat.
  • In cases like this, Lufthansa just puts everyone in a hotel with meal and taxi vouchers, without questions. I may have had slightly better privileges because of my gold airline status, but it appears that everyone was being housed for the night, at least.

What really made the difference for me, however, was the level of service that I received along the way from people who knew that they worked for companies with stupid processes and policies, and did whatever possible to make things better for me:

  • The SAS agent in the lounge in Oslo worked diligently on my behalf on the phone for over 30 minutes, and apologized when he couldn’t do more.
  • The Lufthansa agent in Frankfurt was cheerful, even though she had been dealing with irate customers for several hours, and told me how nice the hotel was that she was sending me to (she was right).
  • The Radisson Blu Frankfurt, in addition to being a lovely hotel, has excellent staff. In particular, when I slept in this morning and missed the breakfast for which Lufthansa had provided a voucher, Nawid at the front desk had a great solution: he ordered me room service breakfast to eat in lobby, even though I had already checked out, and covered it with the voucher. He even thanked me for being tolerant of their rules about using the voucher (it couldn’t be used for lunch, only breakfast), and cajoled me into a much more extravagant breakfast than I would have ordered – I won’t need to eat all the way to Toronto.

To top it off, I also met Graham, an Australian trying to get home, in the line at the airport; we ended up at the same hotel and had dinner and a really interesting chat together. The whole effect – except for the extra stressful hours spent in the airports – has been to have a good dinner, a long restful night and a great breakfast at a nice hotel in Frankfurt, for free. And since I only had carry-on luggage, I even had clean clothes to put on today. Of course, if I weren’t on my way home to a chore-free Saturday, I might not be so sanguine about all this.

Severe delays due to weather don’t happen that often, so I can understand that the processes around them might be a bit inefficient; however, some of these seemed excessively bad. Some things that could have been improved in the Frankfurt rebooking process:

  • Email or text customers to tell them when they have been rebooked on a later flight. If I had known that, I would have had much less stress during my long wait. This would also reduce the number of people in the line, and the number that have to be processed manually.
  • Email or text electronic vouchers or confirmations for the hotel, with an option to accept (and go straight to the hotel) or decline and wait for individual service. That’s harder to do for taxi vouchers, but I would have gladly paid my own taxi fare to avoid the 2+ hour wait in line.
  • Triage the line so that people who can still get out on a flight that day are handled first. Since it was 7pm by the time that I got into line, there were probably very few people in that situation, but they were a bit desperate. Their rebooking would take much less time with no hotel or taxi vouchers, and they would be on their way much more quickly if just pushed to the front of the line, without risking them being delayed overnight. Or, if my first point was implemented, they wouldn’t even be in the line since they’d be automatically rebooked for their next flight.
  • Implement a better hotel and taxi voucher system that doesn’t require the agent to write all the information by hand. Once she had booked me at the Radisson online, if the system had printed both the hotel voucher and the taxi vouchers directly, that would have saved 10-15 minutes – it was the single biggest amount of time that I spent with her.

Travel has become so competitive these days that airlines need to make the experience better for their customers. That’s not just the “happy path” experience, when everything goes right, but the exception paths as well. Broken processes will eventually lead to customer attrition, no matter how good your customer service.

2 thoughts on “Bad Processes? Great Service Makes Up For A Lot”

  1. I SO agree with the theme of your article. I wrote a blog post just over a year ago describing how a project disaster could still result in a happy customer. Amazingly, it was based on an analogy I drew from an air travel experience gone wrong!

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist

  2. I think that travel has so many opportunities for things to go wrong, the only way that the airlines can compete is to provide really good service. Unfortunately, some of them haven’t learned that yet!

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