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Customers are partners, not adversaries: WestJet and Air Canada

January 28, 2009

This post is on customer service because of an email I recently received from WestJet.  I’ve appended it  below.

<Begin WestJet message>

As a valued Guest, we would like to remind you that you currently have a credit which will expire on the date listed in the above subject line. 

You can use your credit to book a flight for yourself to visit friends and family, or you can surprise a friend or relative by transferring your credit to them. Please contact our Sales Super Centre in Calgary at 1-888-870-6258 prior to the expiry date if you’d like to use or transfer your credit. 

With over 45 North American and Caribbean destinations to choose from, planning your next trip has never been easier. Visit westjet.com for more details. Your credit can only be used to book flights and is not eligible to book packages with WestJet Vacations. 

If you have already used your credit, we thank you for choosing WestJet, and look forward to seeing you again soon!  

Bob Cummings, Executive Vice President

Guest Experience & Marketing 

<End WestJet message>

This is the second time WestJet has contacted me to remind me of credits I had forgotten.  Last time the company actually phoned me.  WestJet could have just let the credits expire and it would have been fully justified in doing so.  However, by being proactive, the company sends me the message that it cares about me as a guest and is looking out for my best interest.

WestJet “gets it”.  The company understands that customers matter.  It understands that the only rules that are important are those that help your customers come back over and over again.  It understands the big picture.  In this case, it “spent” $100 on my credit, but by doing so ensured that I will continue to be loyal to the company (and I fly back and forth between Prince George and Vancouver almost every week).

Conversely, Air Canada, WestJet’s main competitor in Canada, took the following approach when “retiring” some Aeroplan points from my father.

My father did a lot of domestic and international business travel when he was professionally active.  He often paid full fare for first or business class seats.  He had been loyal to Air Canada since the 1960’s – even when being pressured by colleagues to fly Canadian Airlines, WardAir (in the day) and WestJet.  Over time he accumulated a lot of Aeroplan points, so when he received a statement notifying him that a large portion of his points had been “retired” he was, naturally, surprised.  When inquiring with Aeroplan, they simply notified him that rules had been sent out to him and that, had he read them, he would have known that unused points are eventually retired. 

It was his fault for not reading the rules.  Aeroplan was right, no doubt.  But I too was at fault in respect of my credits with WestJet.  Both credits were sitting there on my account and I just had not used them.  But instead of letting my credits expire, in accordance with its rules, WestJet was proactive.  Air Canada’s Aeroplan was not.

WestJet’s approach has had the benefit of creating a collegial relationship with me.  Air Canada’s approach creates an adversarial relationship.  What I now find is that I give WestJet a lot of slack when it is running late, has equipment problems, makes errors etc. etc.  That is because I know the airline cares about me and looks out for me.  I do not afford Air Canada that latitude.

I do not blame Air Canada’s front line employees, but I do blame Air Canada’s management.  Management creates the culture and empowers its staff.  It does this by espousing a system of beliefs and by setting boundaries. 

It may sound a bit glib, but providing exceptional customer and guest experiences is not that hard provided that an organization has a clear system of beliefs (“without our guests we would not exist, therefore, we believe in making every experience with our company a positive one”) and easily understood boundaries (“we are never permitted to blame customers”). 

The system of beliefs should permeate the entire organization.  It is a feeling, it is a culture and, developed and deployed properly, becomes a non-negotiable for every member of a company’s team – from the CEO to the janitor. 

Setting boundaries and then letting your team operate anywhere within those boundaries permits creativity, entrepreneurship, empowerment and fleet footedness.  Let them loose to do what they think is right.  The CEO of the hospitality company I consulted to put it best when he said, “if it feels right then it probably is – so do it”.  He was able to provide this freedom in part because we had clearly defined boundaries and a terrific system of beliefs.

Here is to WestJet’s continued success and growth.  Let’s hope more companies are able to follow the example it sets.

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3 Responses to “Customers are partners, not adversaries: WestJet and Air Canada”

  1. Dannie Carsen Says:

    WestJet will continue to eclipse Air Canada for superior customer service and because Canadians love to root for the little guy. Something in me roils against being sucked into the 19 entry points at the Vancouver Airport that are allocated to Air Canada. Instead, I often go to the very far end to get the superior service offered by Air North to Whitehorse and to the familiar colours of WestJet to get where I’m going without the hassles I typically experience at Air Canada. Remember, when the going gets tough, Air Canada leaves you in the lurch while WestJet pours on the jet fuel to get you outa there.


    • Thanks for commenting, Dannie. I agree with you and think that Air Canada will continue to have major issues until they’re able to change their culture. Unfortunately, the legacy of being a crown corporation and the legacy of a botched merger with Canadian Airlines has fostered a tremendously tense environment for that company’s employees. There are some good people at Air Canada and it’s not their fault that they work for a retail/customer facing business that seems to be run more like an investment.

      Almost all my relatively frequent traveling (at least a couple of times a month) is done domestically and at my own expense, so I wouldn’t fly business class even if I was going Air Canada. However, my understanding from friends that do fly ACE is that they are treated very, very well. ACE makes its money on business class pax and on international travel.

      Being new and unencumbered, WestJet had the opportunity to “do it right” out of the gates. They’ve done an excellent job a creating a great culture that is customer centric. Fortunately the market system works and we’ll continue to fly with those businesses that treat us well!


  2. Hi Donnie, I’ve noticed that WJA has become a bit more like ACE over the last several months. The approach of call centre staff and some of the on board staff. Wait times on the call centre have creeped up too.

    Sean Durfy announced his resignation as President yesterday. Have no idea whether the two are related, but it will be interesting to see if the customer experience returns to what it used to be.


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