by: Matt Rhodes

By now we all know about the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal 5. We’re into the weekend, and BA is still having to cancel flights. The outlook is not good for the weekend; flights are being cancelled and the press is full of discussion about how the recent days is humiliating for the UK (see here).

Yesterday Helen wrote about her expereinces of geting to Vancouver (see here) and in particular our views of how experiences like this can have a huge impact on a company’s Net Promoter Score. People are more likely to talk about bad experiences than good ones, but people are even more likely to talk about a situation where a bad experience is turned around or dealt with well. When things go wrong, how you act becomes critical to your business.

So what could BA have done better? At FreshNetworks we specialise in sustained customer engagement and growing advocacy. So here’s a bit of free consultancy for BA. In our experience, when things go wrong there are five steps that a company should take to make sure it engages with its customes in the most impactful way, and that it minimises any negative impact on advocacy.

Step 1: Hold the conversation

When things go wrong it is critical that the brand holds the conversation. They don’t want others to be setting the agenda, least of all those affected by whatever the problem is. To do this effectively, there needs to be a mechanism for them to do this and it can’t just be something they start when the problem occurs. They need an ongoing and constant means of informing and being the point of reference for customers.

In the UK Transport for London (TFL) start to get this right. The tube is plagued with delays and cancellations, more so as we are in the middle of a major upgrade programme. Not only do TFL have a realtime website detailing current and planned closures and problems (something BA do have but that seems to be less real time), but critically TFL engage the customers. If you register your daily journey and the time you take it, they’ll send you a text (for free!) to let you know of any problems. This is great if I need to know to leave that little bit earlier to get to work on time. With hundreds and thousands of BA customers affected last week, most of whom have mobile phones, BA could have used engagement like this to let them know what was happening and to keep them informed.

Step 2: Have a single point of contact

A big issue when problems strike is that the market is crowded with this information. In addition to holding the conversation, you also need to have a single point of contact. This could be online - a community, forum or group where people can comment on what’s happening and share their experiences as well as getting the information they need. Too many brands are concerned about harnessing negative comments and experiences. But these comments will always get out. Better to gather them on a site and in a format you can control and in a place where you can respond to them. As we saw over the last few days - the alternative is that the press will get hold of these comments and use them as the focus of their stories. This will have only one effect - spreading the negative comments further and adding more voices into the mix in a confusing situation.

Step 3: More information not less

A major criticism when things go wrong is that the brand hasn’t told you why. More information matters here - let customers know what the problem is so that they can understand and empathise. I’m reminded of a journey home when I lived in France. Two trains were delayed - a TGV from Marseille to Paris and a train from London home. On the TGV we sat at Marseille station and there were angry mutterings around me until the announcement came on “we are delayed at Marseille because a person has been fatally injured on the line ahead of us”. Suddenly the mutering stopped. The person in the seat next to me told the guard he was a doctor and asked if he could help. On the UK train we were not told anything either, the same muttering ensued. Finally we were told of “unforeseen incident”. The muttering only intensified.

People understand that problems happen, but when they’re angry and upset by a delay or incident it’s better to let them make up their own mind about whether it was justified. Give them all the information they need to make this decision. Bring them into your problem and make them understand you’re doing what you can.

Step 4: Close the feedback loop on criticism

When people are angry or critical, it’s important to close the feedback loop. And a photocopied letter such as the one Helen received from an anonymous department doesn’t help. Neither does the Chief Executive speaking on TV but not to those affected by the problem. You need to respond to each person’s complaint. Explain why this is happening and what you’re doing (or not doing) to solve the problem.

This isn’t easy to do. Responding to people individually just isn’t feasible so a two part solution is needed. An awful lot of discussion about a problem will quickly hit the web - twitter, blogs, forums and communities will be alive with conversation within minutes of anything happening. BA needed to be there, responding and commenting, give the reasons for the problems and responding to people as individuals. Even better, they could direct people to their own community, respond to people there and then be able to point similar queries to the same response. This is what Dell do with their Ideastorm, and it’s a huge success. Close the feedback loop online.

Of course this feedback loop needs to be closed offline - staff at the airport needed this level of information too so that they could respond in the same way. Display screens at T5 could display the most voted for or common comments from the online community to interface with offline complaints. The options are endless with your own community and data.

Step 5: Use existing advocates to your advantage

In a crisis your advocates are more important than ever. But you can’t grow these overnight. It takes ongoing and sustained activity to build and engage with your strongest advocates. Only once you have done this will they serve to your benefit in a crisis. What was surprising about the BA situation is that they should have strong advocates. They have a well networked group of employees and a strong loyalty scheme - both often indicators of a strong groundswell of advocates. Sadly it doesn’t appear either of these groups were helping BA this week. The former were actually critcising the company and adding to the negativity (see some commets on the pilot communtiy pprune), and whilst the BA loyalty scheme is strong, there is little community element to it. And this is essential for building sustained engagement and advocacy.

So BA got it wrong. Moreover they didn’t take advantage of the situation to turn things around. When disaster strikes you realise how engaged you actually are with your customers, how many of them are advocates. The essential step is to hold and control an ongoing and open conversation with dissaffected customers, something BA didn’t do this week.

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