Monday, 19 April 2010

United Breaks Guitars - don't service recover at your peril

I'm sure that most of you have come across the story about Dave Carroll, Canadian singer/songwriter who, together with his brother, forms the group Sons of Maxwell. In 2008, the group were flying with United Airlines from Halifax to Omaha via Chicago. While disembarking in Chicago, a woman behind them noted that the ground crew baggage handlers were "throwing guitars out there". The bass player looked out the window to see his bass being thrown out, which had been preceded by Carroll's Taylor guitar. The next morning, Dave opened his guitar case at his hotel to find that the guitar had been smashed.

There begins the story of a horrendous customer experience (please take the link to read the full horrors of his tale). To summarise here, when Dave went to complain, he was first passed from agent to agent, not one taking responsibility. It then moved from airline to airline, since United use the services of Air Canada in Chicago. After nine months of complete runaround by the airline with Dave having dutifully followed every process required of him without any admission of culpability or help in solving the matter by the airline, (including them losing the claim on multiple occasions), Dave gave up with the normal route.

He said: "At that moment it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it but I realized then that as a songwriter and traveling musician I wasn’t without options".

So he wrote a trilogy of songs about the experience and created videos of them (with all involved giving their time and effort freely), available for free download on You Tube with the goal of getting 1 million hits . It was an instant viral success. Here is the first video (check out Dave's website for all the others):

The video had 150,000 hits within the first week of being posted and to date has been seen by 8 million users and potential customers. It was an instant viral success, was shown on CNN, CBS and other stations, a PR coup for Dave Carroll, Taylor Guitars, who sent him replacements and offered help on You Tube for all those travelling with guitars, and a PR disaster for United. Eventually, the airline offered to pay for a new Taylor guitar (around $3,500), and said that the saga would be used internally as a learning experience to help improve customer experiences.

The reason I particularly like this story is not so much for the initial incident. In any large organisation serving thousands of customers daily, mistakes are made. And consumers know that. Yet brands are sometimes made (and broken) on their service recovery. Reading the full experience, United were given a full year's worth of dialogue to get it right, yet failed. As a result, 8 million more individuals found out and shared in the horror.

Moral: create a model and a culture where your employees feel like doing the right thing by customers is what is expected of them, where they feel genuine accountability for making things right, and you won't go far wrong in the long term.

Incidently, Dave now gives lectures on customer experiences. It seems his disaster gave him a great sideline business.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Prêt à Manger recipe keeps working

Prêt à Manger, the chain of healthy sandwich options, announced yesterday that it is looking to open a record number of outlets this year. Founded in London in 1986 by Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, two university friends working in the City who were constantly irked by the lack of good, healthy sandwiches on offer despite the obvious demand, the chain has continued to grow. It has remained private, after a non-controlling share was sold to McDonalds, who then sold it onto its current owners, Bridgepoint Capital, a private equity company.

This growth statement is quite something, given that Prêt's inception and obvious success brought a whole series of companies into the market looking to emulate and help fill the gap in the market. So what have been the key to its success? I'll have a stab:

Remaining private - has allowed the company to be undistracted by shareholders looking for quick, and constant returns. No doubt cashflow and exit strategies plays a pivotal role in board conversations. Yet, it has avoided having to trade off investment for customer need with a concern over share price.

Julian then cites three values on top of this that have remained core to the company throughout its life:

Its passion for food - Fresh and interesting are core to its purpose. Says Metcalfe "It would be easier to get tubs of guacamole instead of cutting fresh avocados in each kitchen in each shop but we stick to quality and taste".

Its staff - what a surprise. Another top notch services company citing its staff as its USP. And it's true. As a frequent consumer when in London, I have always received top notch service, despite it lasting maybe no more than a minute, and potentially quite transactional. They commit to ensuring there are opportunities, and always an energetic culture within the outlets.

Not corporate just proud - says Andrew Rolfe, Chairman of Prêt à Manger, "We make and have made mistakes but we remain proud of what we do and we try not to get distracted by a corporate approach".

One final thing I have noticed: virtually all of the staff serving are not from the UK. Apparently over 60% are foreign. I wonder whether Metcalfe and the executives felt that creating such a can-do and positive customer-centric culture has always needed a majority of non-Brits in which to make that possible.

It's great to see such a great demonstration of the basic tenet: listen to and look after your customers, and they'll look after you.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Mexican Customer Service and using employees right

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Mexico, predominantly in Mexico City. This urban sprawl of 8,000 sq. km and 21 million inhabitants is immense in every respect. An extremely low daily minimum wage of around £3 has translated into an ability to afford a high level of employees, which in turn has meant a high level of customer service.

I saw this translated into action in a couple of different instances, one great another not so:
The first was in a regular trip to a Pemex petrol station. Pemex is the state-owned monopoly supplier of petrol to the Mexican consumer. Obviously, being a monopoly comes with its own rules about what service you wish to give. Normally, it vies on the side of "less is better, because what choice do you have". Yet here, two gas station attendants, smartly dressed in overalls and shirt and tie underneath, filled the car, cleaned all the windows and very quickly checked the oil. The forecourt was immaculate, service was with a smile, and we were politely waved away at the end. Evidently, there was a tip involved, which all parties knew only too well. Yet, it served a purpose of taking an activity that I could have done myself and felt nothing for the brand in question to one where I would like to go out of my way against to visit if there were a competitive marketplace. Horses for courses, but I'd happily pay a little extra for a little extra service.

The second was at Telmex. A leading telecommunications company, Telmex also has a big retail outlet footprint. For a European it was incredible to see how many outlets there were within a small area, which must have led to cannibalisation between stores, but I imagine still important in terms of market share.
My experience was to look to buy a local pay as you go SIM card for a mobile for my stay there. The process took me to four different customer service attendants:

- one on the initial welcome desk to take my query and direct me to a desk
- one to talk to me and give me a card
- one in a separate booth (and queue) to take payment
- another to put the SIM card and ensure all was working.

I counted over 25 customer facing employees in the average sized branch. Here, a large amount of staff had translated into inefficient, non-customer centric processes, elongating my visit without a value add. Frustation began to set in towards the end of a 45 minute activity and didn't leave me with a good brand experience.

I appreciate that culturally I was in a country where what consumers value may be very different from a Londoner. Someone constantly pushed for time may seek efficiency at all costs whereas a Mexican may prefer to take time but ensure it's done right.

But in summary, it reminded me that having a labour cost that permits a large amount of customer interaction can be great for transforming a dull, commoditised process into a USP. Yet many hands don't always make light work. Organisations should look to ensure that customers are always advantaged through whatever processes it translates into.