Wednesday, February 21, 2007

JetBlue's Problems from a Customer Experience Management Perspective

It feels kicking them while they’re down, but the JetBlue story continues to fascinate me. Like other well-regarded brands facing a crisis, they’ve responded forcefully. This in itself is good, since it means they are controlling the story rather than leaving the media to dig around for more horror tales. And JetBlue’s specific response—to promulgate a “Customer Bill of Rights”—is very much in line with their core brand position as customer champions. If they pull this off, their problems last week may actually end up reinforcing rather than diffusing that image.

So it seems that JetBlue is handling the public relations part of this quite admirably. But looking at their actions from a customer experience management perspective leads me to some questions.

The substance of JetBlue’s Bill of Rights, and certainly the part that’s receiving most of the press coverage, is to offer vouchers for future travel when passengers face delays. There is some legalistic hedging that limits the compensation to a “Controllable Irregularity”, which I think means problems that are JetBlue’s fault. That already seems like evading responsibility. But my broader question is whether credits against future purchases are really the best response when a customer has been treated poorly.

Yes I know this is a very common practice. The underlying logic is it gives the customer a reason to come back for another sample of the product. Nor does it hurt that the actual cost is much lower than face value of the vouchers. Still, from a customer experience viewpoint, the last thing you want at the end of a horrific plane ride is the opportunity to go on another one. It’s even worse if, instead of being handed the coupon upon arrival, you are simply given a verbal promise and then have to wait to receive it in the mail. This adds another level of stress to the experience: will I get it? will the amount be correct? What will the fine print say?. JetBlue’s sliding scale, where the size of the voucher is based on the length of the delay, seems to ensure the latter will be the case.

Personally, I’d rather they hand me a coupon for a stiff drink, which is what I really need after that trip. Or, since there are often children involved, treat the family to meal at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. Of course, this runs the risk of insulting people with the paucity of the compensation: I can already see the t-shirt “my flight was stuck on the runway for nine hours and all I got was some lousy French fries”. (Come to think of it, how about showing a sense of humor and handing out a custom-printed t-shirt? “I survived nine hours on the tarmac on JetBlue flight 1099, February 14, 2007.” On second thought, maybe not.)

JetBlue would do better to focus on improving the experience itself. In this case, it means both avoiding delays and, when they do happen, making them as bearable as possible. This comes back to my comment of the other day that ultimately these are operational, not marketing, issues. JetBlue has acknowledged that its problems were greatly exacerbated by cascading operational failures, particularly in mobilizing customer service staff and flight crews. It has also promised to address those problems. No doubt will do so.

But JetBlue should also publicize its efforts—showing the great lengths it goes to serve its customers. This will do more than compensatory vouchers to reinforce JetBlue’s core positioning as a customer service champion. In fact, a good advertising campaign along these lines can create a perception of a significant difference from other airlines that goes deeper than leather seats and in-flight TV. It will also show JetBlue’s employees that the problems are being fixed and encourage them to do whatever they can personally to make passengers’ lives better when problems occur.

I can’t claim this is an original idea. It’s precisely what Federal Express and United Parcel Service have done for years. (Need I mention that airlines and package delivery are both part of the transportation industry? Who hasn’t wished their air travel could be as reliable as overnight shipping?)

In short, JetBlue can focus on improving its product or on repairing its mistakes. The better option is clear. Will they take it?

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