Breakdowns are the greatest branding opportunities

by Calvin on February 15, 2014

In my work with Simplero, I’ve learned that problems and bugs are great opportunities for improving the relationship with my customers. I don’t set out to create bugs or problems, but when you’re actively working on the software on a daily basis, bugs are bound to occur. And when they do, and you handle it well, you end up with more grateful and loyal customers than if they never had been there in the first place.

I think that goes for any type of business: Breakdowns are a great branding opportunity. It allows your customers to interact with you directly and get that high touch experience.

When my customers tell me about problems, I try to fix them right away. It may be five minutes, five hours, or it may take longer than that, but I strive to make it quick. And when they see that Simplero just changed in direct response to them and their problem, they’re stoked! I love it every time.

Right now, I’m about to board a JetBlue flight to San Francisco for the Wisdom 2.0 conference. I was supposed to fly VirginAmerica this morning, but I woke up to an email yesterday morning saying they’d canceled my flight because of the snow storm making its way up the east coast, which was projected to hit New York at exactly the time of my flight.

That’s understandable. Extreme weather happens (more and more), and it’s not in their control. I get that. If you’re running an airline, cancellations are going to happen. Everybody hates them, everybody loses. You know that going in.

How you deal with that is what makes all the difference.

If you’re a company, like Virgin, that prides itself on an exceptional customer experience, not including this scenario in the customer experience design is a huge missed branding opportunity.

Instead, the way Virgin handled this situation has left me looking for a new favorite airline. 

Here’s how it went down, and here’s what they could’ve easily done instead:

I received an email saying my flight had been canceled. It also said I could change my flight free of charge, and provided a link.

Problem: The link didn’t work. It asked me for last name and confirmation code, then produced an error. Okay, that happens. But the link could’ve easilyincluded a direct link without me having to type in that information.

I managed to get to the page that lets me change my flight, and I started searching for alternatives. In my mind, when they cancel my flight, they should put me in any empty seat that would bring me to my destination in time. That’s not how they operate, though. If that new seat is more expensive, they want me to pay the difference. I think that sucks, but okay, those are the rules. The ticket was cheap. It would have been really nice to spell that out, both in the email and on the website to change my ticket.

Also, the website didn’t have any notion that my flight was canceled. It treated me like any regular customer wanting to change his or her flight for whatever reason. So when I found another flight later the same day, they wanted to charge me the $600 difference (one way) PLUS $100 fee to change. Had the website been smart enough to see that they’d canceled my flight, and that of course I shouldn’t pay the $100 fee, I would’ve gone ahead and made the booking myself.

Instead, I decided to call their hotline. The wait time was two hours (why is it that you always get through just as you’ve gone for a bathroom break?). They estimated it at “between one hour fortyfive minutes and two hours fiftytwo minutes”. One big plus: The hold music is not unpleasant, and they don’t interrupt you all the time with advertisements for their products or encouragements to go to their website or all the other nonsense that most phone hold systems will bother you with. I’m trying to work while I’m waiting, right? They seem to get that. Thank you!

By the time I got through, though, that $600 ticket was gone, and the cheapest option was now $1400 extra, or wait until the next day for $400. I had a hunch this might happen, and I cursed myself for not getting the $600 one right away, just in case. Oh, well. Too late now. You live, you learn.

I went for the $400 that would have me miss the first day of the conference. But now that was gone. Okay, fuck it, let’s take the $1400 one. Nope, that’s gone too. Okay what then? Saturday. Fuck, that means I might as well stay home and miss the whole conference.

I quickly looked on Kayak and saw that there were one-way tickets available with other airlines. I got Virgin to refund the cancelled ticket and went to buy a one-way ticket with JetBlue for $600 instead.

Had the email contained just a little bit more information, and had the website been just a little bit smarter, it would have saved me two hours on the phone, it would’ve gotten me to stay with Virgin, and it would’ve saved their operator 15 minutes on the phone with me.

But more importantly, had they thought this through, and designed systems with some very clear instructions and processes for how to deal with this type of exception, I would have come away feeling better about the company, impressed with how they handled it, yapping to all my friends about how cool they were about it, sharing it on Twitter, and it would’ve been a net win for all.

That’s the kind of customers experiences I’m excited about creating for my customers, and for my customers’ customers, and it’s the kind of customer experiences I’m excited about experiencing myself.

Update 2/26: Received a coupon for $50 for a future flight with Virgin America, valid for one year, as consolation. Nice move. (Even better if they just applied it to my account so I won’t have to remember to use it.)

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