Never Waste A Good Crisis – Part 2

A short while ago, I wrote about a shock event that threatened to derail the entire UK Pensions industry. Early in 2014, the (then) Chancellor of the Exchequer – George Osborne – calmly announced that “No-one need ever buy an annuity again”. Dismissing fears that newly retired people might impetuously ‘blow’ their pensions, he stunned the House of Commons by declaring that “people would now be free to spend money in their own way”.

Dubbed the ‘Lamborghini Budget’ by the tabloid press, many respected financial commentators feared that retirement pots would be plundered. Indeed, many eminent economists predicted that the

financial haemorrhage would plunge the pensions business into terminal freefall.

For pension managers, it was the perfect storm. But for one company, it proved to be a godsend.

LV managed to turn an imminent crisis to immediate advantage. By adopting Agile approaches across the board, they outstripped and out-performed rivals – getting to market a year ahead of competitors and turning a collection of stand-alone products into a seamless suite of IFA offerings.

Rip-off operators, unrepentant delays and
utterly insensitive customer ‘care’

Let’s now switch focus and turn the spotlight on another industry in crisis: Airlines. Not so long ago, this was a sector full of aspirational brands – many of which became the proud flag bearers for national identities. Today, however, the industry is tarnished by headlines of rip-off operators, unrepentant flight cancellations and utterly insensitive customer ‘care’. This is a true case in point…

My partner and I have just returned from a wonderful touring holiday in the northern counties of Northern Ireland (genuinely, one of the most stunning and still unspoilt corners of the UK). At the end of a truly memorable few days, we arrived back in Belfast. I was booked on the car ferry back to Liverpool, but my better-half had a ticket to fly to London Gatwick that evening. On the following day she was due to meet her parents at Heathrow. What could possibly go wrong?

She checked in at the prescribed time and was told by the EasyJet representative that her 21.00 flight would be unavoidably delayed for 2.5 hours. “There’s been an incident at Gatwick” was the vaguely dismissive explanation.

On checking the departure board, though, she noticed that the previous EasyJet flight to Gatwick had been summarily cancelled – could the same fate befall her flight?

“No, it’s just delayed, be patient,” came the rep’s reply. But, sensing that this assurance was rather less than convincing, the assistant did offer this honest advice: “Just for safety, you might check out alternative flights to London – but don’t book anything yet. If your flight is cancelled, you can then be first in the ticket queue. And you should be eligible for a full refund on your cancelled flight.”

Within minutes, she discovered that EasyJet had a late-night flight leaving for Luton.  Even if it meant sacrificing her refund, booking was the only certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. So, you can imagine the collective frustration when she (and some other savvy passengers) were informed that the check-in desk was now closed and the flight would be taking off with seats to spare!

The hours ticked away. Two and a half hours slipped to three… and then four… until finally, at 2am, the airline came clean. “We are sorry to announce that the Gatwick flight has been cancelled. We would ask all inconvenienced passengers to form an orderly queue at the information desk while we organise hotel accommodation.”

Inconvenience turned out to be a masterly understatement. Because what the announcement omitted to mention was that all EasyJet flights to Gatwick for the following day were now fully booked. Stranded passengers would have to ‘seek alternative options’ if they wanted to get home in the next 24 hours!

By this time, all confidence had evaporated. My partner wisely decided to book a definite flight and, at considerable cost, secured one of the few remaining BA seats to Heathrow the next morning. Despite the fact that her car was at Gatwick, it was the only solution in a worsening crisis. Looking across to the lengthening queue at the information desk, she also booked herself into a local hotel and then flagged one of the few remaining cabs. And believe me, she was one of the lucky ones – at least she got a couple of hours’ sleep before returning to the terminal at 6am.

But, in all truth, this was not a crisis of EasyJet’s making!

The simple truth is that EasyJet were not the architects of this problem – but they were compliant and (to be brutally honest) complicit partners in their own downfall. Let me explain…

Earlier in the day, a Virgin Airways plane had been forced to make an emergency landing at Gatwick. As a result, countless other flights were diverted, triggering scores of cancellations. At that point, EasyJet was a totally blameless party caught up in someone else’s crisis…

But not for long. Instead of coming clean and openly telling passengers about the emergency, they went into classic ‘fudge-mode’. They ignored the cardinal rule in any crisis: when in a hole, don’t dig a deeper one.

The simple truth is that most people respect candour. They want the true picture. They need clear, honest options. And they really appreciate the efforts that concerned companies make to resolve a crisis.

Unfortunately, service companies are often so conditioned to please that they sugar-coat problems. They cling to the hope that a crisis will disappear before customers have seen through the saccharine half-truths and benign mis-information. Frequently, they will get away with this subterfuge – but, when the problems don’t disappear, the virally-shared deceit is so deeply damaging it can wreck brands and reputations.

This is unforgivable and utterly unnecessary…

EasyJet (and, indeed, every other airline in the world) now has the means to turn a crisis to customer advantage. And the key is AI…

A simple, inexpensive AI-powered App could quickly calculate the likelihood of an issue being resolved in a short timeframe. If that probability is low, the airline can instantly move into honest and positive support mode. It can send a message to each passenger’s smartphone inviting them to download a free App that will fully explain the problem, provide real-time updates and guide people through all the possible options (including how to book a hotel and reserve a seat on alternative flights).

No subterfuge. No frustration. And no angry queuing customers. This App would effectively outsource the problem so that passengers can make their own well-informed decisions.

AI could be the master key to crisis management. It could help attract customers away from airlines that are stubbornly locked into ‘fudge-mode’ crisis management. And it might even resolve the problem of claiming refunds for cancelled tickets…

My partner has properly submitted her online claim for a refund but, so far, the request has disappeared into an administrative black-hole. And that only adds insult to injury.

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