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Guest and customer service

January 18, 2010

Here’s a link to Barry Moltz’s recent blog entry on customer service compared between North America and Asia: http://ow.ly/Y2dT.  My response is there too.

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Founded in 1960 BC Ferries has become one of the world’s largest ferry operators growing from two ships and terminals to 36 vessels and 47 ports of call.

In 2003 the provincial Liberal government spun BC Ferries into a separate independent commercial entity that operates under the Coastal Ferry Act with an executive team that reports to private sector board of directors.

The current CEO, David Hahn, joined the corporation as its CEO in 2003 and since then has assembled and led a team that has, in my opinion, made great strides forward in improving the customer experience with BC Ferries.

Now, with a company that employs 4,700 people, carries 8 million cars and 21 million people annually there is undoubtedly going to be imperfections.  Obviously it’s best to do a great job and minimize problems, but it’s more how a company reacts to and handles problems that differentiates it from other organizations.

Last Sunday afternoon I was returning to Vancouver through Departure Bay in Nanaimo and had a less than stellar experience.  So, while waiting in the ferry lineup I thought I’d email the company’s CEO (I know the email naming convention at the company) and tell him, in real time, about my experience.  I don’t know him and have never met him, so there’s no reason why my name appearing in his inbox would get his attention.

Pleasingly, he replied within twenty minutes (at 5:42pm on a Sunday, no less), apologized for my experience, offered an explanation and, more importantly, copied the relevant vice president and director level management in order to raise the issue with them and work toward solutions.

I haven’t heard back from either the VP or director on how they’re going to solve this problem, but I was, nonetheless, very pleased with their response.  This is clearly a CEO who cares about the company he is running and its paying customers.

If you’re interested in the email thread then let me know and I’ll forward it to you.

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.