Air Apology: Lessons in Customer Advocacy
The airline industry is just starting to comprehend something many
psychologists and economists have known for decades about human social
behaviorpeople hate to lose more than they like to win. In other
words, failures loom larger than successes.
Daniel Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for
uncovering the implications of this theory for many of the decisions and
choices we make in our daily lives. His straightforward yet brilliant
observation is directly relevant to the challenges the airline industry
is facing today. It also explains why crafting the perfect apology is
becoming so important.
The positive effects on customer satisfaction of experiencing several
event-free flights can never compete with the negative effects of one
cancellation or delayand that's the problem.
Failures, mistakes, flight delays, cancellations, poor service, lost or damaged baggage,
etc. are unexpected and inevitably lead to lower customer satisfaction
levels. On the other had, successes (perfect, event-free flights) are
always expected and irrelevantwhen flights go well nothing really
happens, which is why passengers and the media ignore them. We never see
pictures of houses tornadoes miss.
With all of this in mind, a proactive approach to customer advocacy in
the airline industry is becoming increasingly crucial to maintaining
high satisfaction levels, because s--- happens. If Kahneman deserves his
Nobel Prize then it follows that there are enormous value added benefits
to be gained from addressing failures. Conversely, investments to
improve the quality of a typical flight produce diminishing returns over
time and are often a waste of money.
The marketing power of apologies in the airline industry was recently
covered in an excellent article by Jeff Bailey, published by the New
York Times on March 18, 2007. A good part of the article focused on
Fred Taylor Jr., senior manager of proactive customer communications for
Fred's 12 hour day is typically spent looking for failures and then
crafting the perfect apology to address them. According to the article,
Fred writes on average about 180 letters each year to approximately
We have written extensively on the core ingredients of
perfect business apologiesfor example, acknowledgement of the
hurt/damage; acceptance of responsibility; an explanation; a statement
of regret/humility/remorse; some form of restitution or compensation,
etc. Two of the ingredients, credibility and humor, were highlighted
in the New York Times piece on Southwest Airlines.
With respect to credibility, it's very important for customer service
representatives to have detailed information about the specific failure
in order to convey in the letter an honest measure of understanding and
sympathy for the passengers who experienced the problem.
Humor (when appropriate) is another ingredient that can help, although
it goes without saying that joking about an event that disturbed many
people could backfire. However, there are occasions in which humor can
help (especially when followed by some form of compensation). In one of
the letters of apology sent out to Southwest passengers after a flight
was forced to return, Fred Taylor wrote: "During the return, a customer
became ill and apparently decorated three rows of seatsand perhaps
a few customers. No word on how Linda Blair is doing.
The marketing benefits are obviousa well crafted apology letter will
not only help to retain customers who may otherwise be looking for
another airline, but it also leaves a positive impression with those who
were told about both the bad experience and the proactive letter of
apology, and those who read about Southwest's approach in the media.
Consider the free advertising Southwest Airlines gets from the New
Turning a bad experience into what amounts to an advertisement for the
airline was best demonstrated by JetBlue. The apology
letter to JetBlue customers written by founder and CEO David Neeleman, the
video that was posted on You Tube to express his regret, and the
announcement of JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Right amounts to the
perfect business apologyin fact, it is likely to become a generally
accepted standard for how business errors should be handled.
Like Southwest and JetBlue, Air Canada, Continental and US Airways are sending
off more letters of apology than ever before, precisely because they
But this trend also conveys a very serious problem facing most airlines
todaycustomer standards for measuring performance are shifting
upwards to accommodate rising expectationspeople expect better
service and automatic compensation when their expectations are not met.
So any discrepancy between the service customers expect and the level of
service the airline appears to be delivering will increase customer
dissatisfaction. As expectations rise, smaller failures become
increasingly more unacceptable and costlyanother effect of Kahneman's
If expectations and standards continue to rise, and if smaller failures
continue to loom larger than major successes, then crafting the perfect
apology for a variety of situations involving an increasing number of
disgruntled passengers will become more important.
The most difficult challenge for airlines today, even those who accept
the importance of issuing apologies, is that they have to operate in a
post-9/11 world in which Washington's addiction to security will
inevitably lead to more restrictions, scheduling problems, delays and
cancellations, particularly if we experience another major security
failure or terrorist attack.
Consequently, the need for a proactive approach to customer advocacy
that institutionalizes the art and science of apologies is becoming more
crucial for companies trying to survive in a very competitive airline
industrycan Air Apology be far behind.
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