Practice What You Preach!

I purchased my round trip ticket for a Continental business flight online. I even got a confirmation email the day before departure that let me check in right online. That was wonderful! With my confirmation print-out, I managed to forego the large lineup at the airport. I thought I was off to a great start.

But then the brown stuff hit the fan! What was supposed to be a 1 hour and 35 minute flight from NYC to Ottawa, turned into 12 hours of too much coffee, a couple of beers and an unhappy customer! My tally of blacklisted airlines just grows longer.

Any more, online conversion rarely happens in a vacuum. And that precious loyalty you want to build is going out with this week's garbage if you overlook the fact that what happens offline influences whether customers ever return to do business with you again online. Some of what happens offline - like your customer service - is in your control. Botch that, and you set in motion an out-of-your-control avalanche of word-of-mouth that requires serious attention on your part.

I generally don't have the best of luck when it comes to flying. I'm used to lost luggage, delayed flights and miscommunications. I understand mishaps occur. So I've learned when things go belly up, airlines have the opportunity to nurture my loyalty by turning a bad situation into a positive experience - in these details, businesses reveal their true colors.

Of course, they can also burn their bridges.

Burning bridges

I was returning home. Boarding time was 2:50pm for a 3:25pm departure on Friday afternoon from Newark airport. Because I was flying internationally, my driver dropped me off two hours early. When I checked my luggage, Continental Airlines told me my bag was overweight ... I'd have to pay $25 extra. The exact same bag with the exact same stuff in it that I brought over with the exact same airline, and now they're telling me it's overweight? Rather than make a fuss, I grudgingly paid the $25 and continued through security.

Five minutes before boarding, I noticed on the departures/arrivals board that the flight had been delayed. We wouldn't be leaving until 4:05pm. Ok, no problem. I decided to listen to a few podcasts and do some reading.

Five minutes before the revised boarding time, I revisited the board and discovered the flight had been cancelled. An announcement might have been nice. But I was actually pretty calm at this point ... it wasn't the airline's fault we were getting hammered with storms! I went to the departure gate, hoping to talk to an employee about what I should do next, and saw the destination sign has already been changed to the different city. There was no indication of my cancelled flight or what I was supposed to do!

I talked to the employee at the gate. He checked his computer and said I had been confirmed on a flight two days later! He was kidding, right? So, with a chuckle, I asked if he was planning to cover my living expenses for the next two days. Instead, he put me on standby with the 15 other passengers who were in the same situation and told me to go to the Continental Airlines customer service line.

I joined a line of 30 other discouraged passengers. A little golf cart buggy type vehicle pulled up, and the driver suggested the last 10 people in line should hop on and get transported to another customer service desk on the other side of the terminal. I decided to invest in the adventure - I'd always wanted to ride on one of those things anyway!

15 minutes later we arrived at the other desk where the line was not a person shorter! When I finally got to speak with a customer service representative, I explained my situation and told her to book me to either Ottawa or Montreal. She put me on a 9:05pm flight to Montreal and gave me a generous $8 voucher for food anywhere in the airport.

At airport prices, that might buy me one cup of coffee! Gee, thanks!

As I strolled over to the nearby pub, I passed the Continental Airlines Presidents Club. Considering what I was going through, I figured there should be no problem getting into the lounge to get some work done. The least Continental could do was let me spend the day in there with wireless and couches! Nope. No concession to circumstance. If I wanted to bide my time on a Club couch, I had to pay $45!

The story could have ended there, and we could have agreed that I was one seriously dissatisfied, discouraged customer. But my next flight was delayed until 10pm, with the same level of dithering that characterized my day and only added to my frustration!

Continental Airlines blew it. Our relationship is over!

Weather happens

We all know weather happens. And we don't want planes flying when weather is dangerous. It's an understandable cause for delays and cancellations. Not for a minute would I blame any airline for the weather. But I consider every airline responsible for how they choose to respond to a weather situation.

Most airlines at least pay lip service to the fact that, as a customer, I've got choices. I can fly with a variety of airlines at competitive prices. As a customer in today's market, I am in control of my experience. I decide how much I'm going to spend, and with whom. As do all the others out there just like me.

Your company's brand is built out of my experience. And it's built out of the experience of others just like me that is made possible through the world of consumer-generated media.

When I went to purchase my tickets, I noticed a little marketing ploy on Continental's home page: "We're in tune with you." It was an iTune download incentive. Fluff and nonsense ... at no point in my protracted delay did I feel Continental was ever in tune with me! And here I am writing about it, to a substantial list of individuals who will add my experience to theirs.

How are you presenting your experience to your customers? From the initial touch point, through all your customer service phases, to the post-purchase evaluation, you must speak to customers' motivations in their language. And it doesn't stop there! Within and across channels, you must make sure you practice what you preach.

Our latest publication, Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?, will help paint the picture of an integrated marketing communications strategy that will improve your ROI.

Volume 131: 6/1/06


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