by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

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While there was never such a thing as a free lunch, it seems that some customer-service innovations in business these days come not just as a benefit, but with a sometimes hidden cost.

Call it the Physics of Services: for every action, there's a equal and opposite reaction. Balance must be preserved in the Universe. And profits.

Consider Air Canada, which has announced that flyers can buy access to extended travel help (via a special "speedy" phone number). For a fee of $25+ each way, the airline will assist on problems that "aren't the airline's fault," like those caused by weather or air traffic. Air Canada calls it an "industry-first."

I bet you can forget about getting any help if you don't ante up. Somewhere, buried in the airline's procedural manuals and staffing schedules, there's going to be less customer service available to everyone else:

  • More dense IVR menus intended to out-wait callers
  • Additional issues that will no longer fall into the purview of Air Canada's responsibility
  • Employees who have less power to do more for irate passengers other than share a tsk-tsk and say "hold on while I transfer you to my manager."

It's an interesting phenomenon, really: by monetizing a service (or, from the customer perspective, an attribute of experience), the service (or benefit) changes for everyone who chooses not to pay for it.  Generally, it loses value or, more accurately, the cost of its provision is reduced. So there's a double-whammy of goodness for the business, at least on paper:

  • Lower costs from ignoring the great mass of unwashed
  • Extra income from charging the few who elect to pay

It makes perfect sense, from the perspective of a balance sheet. Tech companies have been doing it for years, charging for access to customer service so people can avoid wallowing in user forums. 

I just don’t know anybody who particularly likes it. 

Ultimately, "On My Way" isn't a customer service program, it's a sales promotion tool that will force-rank customers into two broad classes of fliers, and then define the services sold to each. Add this on top of frequent flier status levels, and it's just another segmentation business model. It is less about customer satisfaction than it is about customer migration, and maximizing the value of every transaction.

So I'm not sure what it does to the brand, unless it hurts it, indirectly.

Imagine if the strategy were the opposite, and the service was somehow made available as a basic function of traveling with Air Canada?

It could claim to be "the airline that won't disappoint," or something like that; its promise of customer support wouldn't make the distinction between sources of problems...it would simply resolve them.

Doing so would take more than the marketers to realize such a brand distinction, though. There'd have to be an operational plan (and financial model) that warranted the effort. But consider Balance in the Universe for a moment...

A guarantee of problem resolution could mean happy customers, who receive satisfaction not because they paid extra for it, but they got it through their experience with Air Canada. Could improving the offering for all its customers actually make money for the airline?

It would be an interesting reaction to consider.n

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/04/actionreaction.html

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