The Eye of The Storm, and Marketing, Customer Service, and Business Change

As Frankenstorm/Hurricane Sandy bears down on New York City and I wonder whether I’ll be able to keep doing business for much of this week, I’m thinking about customer service, business change, and marketing.

Last year, ahead of Hurricane Irene, New York City shut down its bus and subway system for the first time I could remember. What passed through town didn’t really feel like much, leading to stereotypical NYC snark about overreaction. But I learned something then: It was necessary to suspend mass transit, not just because of the damage that open electrical circuits in the subway could suffer when under water, but because having people stranded is a real disaster.

Manhattan is awash in retail and restaurants, and many of the people who work at these businesses commute from the outer boroughs using mass transit. Those people were, in essence, forced to go home because of the threat of the storm. As a result, the businesses had no choice but close even though the chance of anything catastrophic happening at street level in most of Manhattan is slim.

Lest you think I’m writing about weather, fear not; this is a story about customer service, business change, and marketing.

Sometimes, unexpected, no-reasonable-expectation-of-foreseeing-them things happen, and you have no choice but adapt. Coincidentally, as New York City shuts down around me I’ve been searching for a way to tie up the Virgin America Customer Service debacle into a nice neat package.

The eye of that storm was an unprecedented amount of same-and-next day traffic on a piece published here at Answer Guy Central, and the whopping winds outside the eye of the Virgin America storm were the many comments both here and elsewhere.

Some of the most vocal comments on the way Virgin America and I interacted were at a blog called Cranky Flier. I responded to a few of those comments, but after a while realized that there was no point in me continuing to either attack or defend; the Cranky Flier community turns out to be made of people with such a range of opinions that mine stopped being important.

Nevertheless, I wanted a way to wrap things up. There were personal attacks and more reasoned ones, as well as defenders of my position, both from reactive and more measured positions. I couldn’t quite put my finger on a way to respond to such a disparate grouping of opinions.

And then Hurricane Sandy came along.

In the face of Frankenstorm, airlines are putting special customer service policies in place. I’ll repeat those words: special customer service policies. That’s “special”, as in “not the regular way we do things”, “policies”, as in “the way we do things”, and “customer service”, as in “our customers are looking to us for service, service is what we’ll provide”.

Here’s Delta’s Airline’s policy for change fees and fair differences during and just after Hurricane Sandy, and here’s United Airline’s policy. United’s policy is basically that they have your back; no change fees added, no fare differences charged. Delta goes only half as far.

I have no comment as to who’s policy is”right” (OK, you can guess what I really think, but my point here is about delivering customer service, and how nobody sees it quite the same way).

And that’s the issue.

Believe what you believe about what I said about Virgin America Customer Service, how I said it, or even that I did. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is that customer service might start with a policy, but ultimately isn’t really customer service unless you are willing to change the policy when necessary. Oh: and that even airlines, which rely so heavily on computer algorithms, are able to do that.

And that done correctly, customer service can be both great (or terrible) marketing—and business change.

With any luck, I won’t have to ask again: Richard Branson, are you listening?

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