Secrets Revealed: CRM Explains Why Airline Customer Service Stinks.

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Secrets Revealed: CRM Explains Why Airline Customer Service Stinks.

By David Sims
David at firstcoffee d*t biz

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is The Clash's Sandinista!:

Before you do anything else -- well, after you finish reading First Coffee -- click on Dr. Bill and Genesys, one of the very few genuinely funny customer service spoof videos. Dr. Phil-style it explores the travails of Sharon and George's relationship issues because Sharon is always on the phone with her less-than-helpful customer service agent.

There are second and third Dr. Bill videos too, dealing with a call center agent who feels inadequate because he is always apologizing to customers, and "Bob," a business executive that refuses to own up to the fact that his company’s contact center has a problem with long wait-times. Trust me, they're worth checking out.

In today's news, airline customer service is getting worse, and the sun rose in the east this morning. Why? Easy: The industry has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to offer better customer service because whaddya gonna do, take Greyhound from New York to San Francisco? Right. Now get back in line and take off your belt and shoes.

No, you're going to sit in your cramped seat and endure delays and surly service and shut up about it all or get deplaned as a "security risk." You know that, I know that, airlines know that, chimps know that so let's stop pretending customer service matters to airlines, it doesn't because it doesn't have to: Nobody flies airlines for the great customer service.

I've only ever heard of one business traveler who has made an airline decision based on customer service instead of price or schedule or frequent flyer miles, no doubt others have, but they're so few they matter to airlines about as much as smart economists' votes matter to politicians. Check this by observing the level of care paid to customer service by airlines and to solid economic sense by politicians.

In the list of Things Airlines Really Give A Rip About, that real list execs keep taped to the underside of their desks, not the one they trundle out whenever pokenose CRM columnists come calling, things like "price of fuel," "the pilots' union" and "profiling without looking like we're profiling" make the cut, customer service simply gets cut.

If CRM theory holds true, we should be able to determine just why, even in a basically monopolistic situation, customer service has to bite: Because employees are unhappy.

Or we could do this Jeopardy! style: "I'll take 'The Bleedin' Obvious' for $1,000, Alex." The answer is, "Low customer satisfaction." Hit that buzzer -- "What is, 'What does low employee satisfaction ineluctably lead to,' Alex." You're right!

Okay, that's cheating, because employee satisfaction is about the most stable indicator of customer satisfaction as you're going to find. You can save yourself a lot of work if you're researching the correlation between employee and customer satisfaction for a company, simply find the one, print that chart. Print it out again, cross out "employee" or "customer" on top and write in the other one, and you'll be accurate.

Bottom line: If you want your customers to be satisfied, you need to ensure that your employees are. Want proof? Set the Wayback Machine to 1959 in Russia or Bulgaria and check out the customer service provided by people whose employers treated them with contempt and who were paid dirt. Then look at today's airline employees.

The Wall Street Journal, which would be the greatest newspaper in the land if it had comics and a decent sports page, shows how airlines are trying to pitch employee cost-cutting as "customer service." Continental Airlines says "it will begin installing new kiosks at its Newark, N.J., hub later this month that will let customers rebook themselves after they miss connections or have flights canceled by storms," the Journal reports, spinning it thusly: "For travelers, that would be a huge improvement over waiting in an airport line or a telephone queue."

Maybe, but it also requires fewer staff members. Even those airlines dimly aware of the connection between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction don't seem to grasp the big picture: "Having better morale among employees really helps the operation," Jim Whitehurst, Delta's CEO, correctly notes to Journal columnist Scott McCartney.

So how is Delta improving staff morale? Giving the stews new uniforms. Gee. Thanks. "Customer complaints about in-flight service dropped by half," McCartney notes, without any real cause-effect analysis differentiating Delta's sartorial largesse from its "giving bonuses to employees, instituting profit-sharing and paying 4 percent raises for most workers as it comes out of bankruptcy," practices in reality much more likely to actually increase staff morale, thereby staff performance, thereby customer satisfaction.

Overall, though, it's a grim time for airline employees. Another Journal piece this month looks at how tough it's getting for airlines to find not just good employees, but any employees at all: "Airlines used to offer prestigious jobs with good wages and coveted flight benefits. Now, in the aftermath of aggressive cutbacks, a growing number of airline jobs are more akin to those at a fast-food restaurant. The pay is low, the work is tough."

Your top airlines axed "more than 170,000 workers, or 38 percent of the total, between August 2001 and October 2006… even as the number of passengers flying has returned to pre-9/11 levels. Pay has fallen, sometimes substantially," the Journal says.

Let's see if we can fill in the blank: The number of passengers flying is increasing. Airlines have fewer employees to handle this rise, and what ones they have probably haven't been on the job for too long and aren't being paid a whole lot. Bearing in mind that even airline employees don't enjoy being paid low wages to do someone else's work and get witched at, the quality of customer service will be _________.

It's worse than that, too. Employees feel used, abused and hung out to dry by the airlines, never a great incentive to provide quality customer service. After 9/11 pilots and stewardesses' unions accepted a lot of concessions, like lower pay and benefits, to help the airlines survive. Now that things are better, airline executives are helping themselves to fat performance bonuses, not raising employees' pay or benefits.

"There was shared sacrifice, and we were hoping for shared reward," one pilot, who asked not to be named, said on the Airways4U blog. "It's just not fair. It offends basic human sensibilities." Indeed. Knocking yourself out for such an employer does too: "People may be less willing to twist themselves into a pretzel and forgo a family event to help the airline cover a trip," the pilot threatened darkly.

Airways4U notes that "airline employee morale is at what experts say is a record low." It cites Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pennsylvania saying "there's so much dissatisfaction, and so many employees are burned out. They're working longer hours for less pay in a system that is jammed to the hilt."

Pamela Lopez-Lewis, a Northwest flight attendant for 28 years, recently had her pay cut $15,000. She told the Journal "everybody is reaching their breaking point. Morale is so low. You've been insulted by the pay you're getting. You're not feeling happy. I absolutely think it affects service. Apathy prevails." Customer service suffers.

To help United Airlines out of bankruptcy, the airline's workers lost their pensions, took pay cuts as high as 50 to 60 percent, and agreed to work longer hours. CEO Glenn Tilton let them know he appreciated their sacrifices by pocketing a $40 million bonus in 2006.

"You've got people who've worked hard, given up their pensions, given up their pay, and in some cases given up their future, and you have these executives feasting on the companies. Would you go the extra mile," aviation consultant Michael Boyd said on Airlines4U. Given that attitude you don't need one statistic from an airline customer satisfaction surveys to know that it's in the toilet.

US Airways seems to get it, as McCartney says they're looking to "hire 1,400 additional airport workers by summer." This'll reduce the likelihood of cancelled flights; airlines have regulations for staffing on each flight, so if a flight attendant calls in sick and there's no one to replace her, the flight's cancelled. This happens -- First Coffee has an ex-stewardess friend here in Istanbul who was once so physically ill she had to be dressed in her uniform and literally carried onto a flight so it could take off.

Gussying up hub airports and lobbies, improving in-flight entertainment and food are all well and good, but if they're taking airlines' money and attention away from pleasing employees they're worse than pointless, because he airlines who are taking care of their people are the ones who are taking care of their customers.

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