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BA + M&S = Peanuts

Take two great brands, add poor training and a failure to empower the front-line and this is what you get

Or how what looks like a great idea in the board room can translate into a dire customer experience if you don’t empower your employees

I’ve made a few flights for work, recently. Flying gives lots of opportunities for those of us interested in customer experience to see how it works out in a complex and often stressful environment.

Not so long ago I flew to Italy with BA on a flight which was delayed for 2 hours because of a technical fault. Unfortunately for BA this delay happened when – due to bad weather – there have been a number of other flight cancellations. So, on the flight I found myself surrounded by a rather disgruntled-looking group of fellow passengers. The man sat to my left was a true business frequent flyer, who flew both short and long haul a number of times each month. In my experience airports and aeroplanes aren’t great places for spontaneous conversation. However as we waited for the safely announcement my fellow passenger shared with me his frustration with BA, its aged fleet, poor reliability and budget airline-style charging for food on short haul flights.

It wasn’t long before he asked a steward what food and drink we would be offered as the flight was now 2 hours late, which he said the Civil Aviation Authority required. The steward – presumably following his BA training – wasn’t willing to accept that the flight was over 2 hours late (it was!) or that BA was liable to provide us passengers with food and drink*. The disgruntled passenger disputed this and pointed out that there had been repeated announcement on board explaining BA’s relationship with Marks and Spencer’s, which meant that passengers could buy some M&S sandwiches or snacks for lunch.

He said that he thought the other passengers would be like to know that they should be offered free refreshments, too. This immediately triggered the steward, who – adopting something of the tone of a 19th century official reading the Riot Act to some unruly locals – announced that if the passenger was going to cause a disruption he would be asked to leave the flight. This was a totally inappropriate and disproportionate response, which naturally resulted in a still more frustrated passenger. The steward then explained in exasperation “It’s not our food, it’s Marks and Spencer’s!”.

There’s a fascinating discussion to be had about whether IAG has chronically under-invested in BA, resulting in an aged, unreliable fleet. And whether its problems have been compounded by joining a ‘race to the bottom’, by aping the budget airlines’ proposition – but without their low cost base to match. However, that’s a conversation for another day.

What most struck me is this. BA doesn’t directly control or deliver so many aspects of their customers’ overall experience, e.g. not ticket booking [if not done directly], travel to and parking at the airport, the airport itself, check in and security, etc. BA has made a strategic decision to partner with another great British brand to provide food and drink, but seemingly has decided that doing so means that even the control of a tokenistic prawn sandwich is now beyond BA’s influence.

On top of that, BA’s customer service training for its front-line cabin crew – who deliver the only person-to-person contact most customers will have with the BA brand – seems to encompass

  1. a massive lack of empowerment, allied to
  2. an aggressively applied policy of threats to quieten restive passengers.

BA’s website describes cabin crew as “ambassadors for the British Airways brand”. That’s a fine aspiration, but as long as its staff don’t have the authority to offer delayed passengers a cup of tea and a sarnie it’s rather hollow. BA aren’t alone in having a far better idea of the cost of a sandwich than the lifetime value of a customer – and the importance of maintaining relationship and loyalty at points of service failure. But when BA’s influence over its customers’ experience is often so slight, this is major failing.

And when the steward returned to my disgruntled fellow passenger 10 minutes later and consolatory offered him a miniature pack of peanuts (unfortunately I don’t know whether they were M&S peanuts) for free, I’m sure you can imagine his reaction…

*I did some research after the flight and sent BA an email querying if my fellow passenger was right and why no complementary food and drink was offered – which just resulted in a reply that was masterpiece in platitudinously avoiding answering the question. I couldn’t be bothered to follow up – just like a normal customer, who wasn’t going to write a blog post about their disappointing experience

When this article was posted on LinkedIn it provoked some spirited – and frustrated – responses too…

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