A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Communication Lessons from a Volcano

Today, I'm amongst the lucky ashmob hostages returning back home. And five days later than planned, spent at airport hotels in San Francisco and Madrid, gave me time to think and jot down a few recommendations for service companies to improve their communication policies.

Note: I've already stressed it isn't Lufthansa's volcano, nor their politicians, and that I am in general a happy Lufthansa customer. I'm also happy that American Express Travel Bureau got me home as quickly as they did. Nonetheless, I claim the communication policies of both Lufthansa and AmEx can be substantially improved. That said, though, they're probably not any worse off than most other companies, as a majority seems to be quite lousy at efficient customer interaction.

My suggested lessons boil down to common sense: Respect the time of your customers. Set expectations properly. Underpromise, overdeliver. Communicate with personalised information. During a crisis, be more communicative than normally, not less. None of these suggestions are specific to the travel industry nor to volcanoes, but the Eyjafjalla eruption provided ample opportunity to illustrate how companies execute badly on these simple, common-sense guidelines.

So, here are my suggestions:

  • First: Communicate at all. From the standpoint of a stranded passenger abroad, Lufthansa was near-silent. One SMS about the cancellation of the flight was all proactive communication I got during five days as an Eyjafjalla hostage.
    My suggestion: Speak up, don't leave me in the dark. Send me SMS:es! Send me email! You send plenty enough of promotional email at "peace time" when I'm not so interested in it. Now I was craving for news, any news, and got none.

  • Second: Bad news is better than no news. No news means uncertainty. No news means I'm worried, and that you put the burden of finding out answers on me.
    My suggestion: If things look bad, tell me. Bad news don't disappear by themselves, you can't defuse them through silence. Instead, tell me in advance.

  • Third: Use asynchronous channels that scale for both you and me. Pushing out bureaucratic semi-information on your own web site may seem to offload you work, but it doesn't answer my questions and causes me to approach you using methods that don't scale for you. I want to know with what likelihood my flight leaves, and if you give me this information only in person, it requires me to wait. And remember, I'm stranded far away from home and have other things to do, such as stand in another queue, slowly crawl through airport "security", check in to my hotel, talk to worried family members at home, calm down my own customers or just too tired to listening to your overly cheerful recorded messages.
    My suggestion: Send me personalised information by email and by SMS. This scales, as I don't have to wait (and pay the phone bill for listening to your information-free recorded messages) while you reply to me. And my questions should be easy enough for you to anticipate: Do you think my flight will leave as planned? What costs will you cover? Your communication should also be simplified, not made more complex, by the fact that I can live with understandable uncertainty ("LH459 will probably be cancelled tomorrow. We will decide by 14:00 PST, but may give you further information earlier.")

  • Fourth: Make your recorded messages accurate. If you make your communication scale, fewer of us need to use the phone hotline in the first place. But if we do, I can tell you it's frustrating to hear once a minute in a joyful, happy tone that "You will be served by the next available person" for all of 45 minutes as I did on the Senator hotline, when my simple need was for a credible LH judgement of whether LH459 would leave Monday 19.4.2010. I had to give up and catch my alternate escape route. It now turns out I would have been able to take LH459 for a direct Business Class flight home, and instead took an alternate route over the Atlantic in Economy with another airline, for a total cost that including the extra hotel night in Madrid cost much more than the ticket I left unused.
    Suggestion: Indicate my position in the queue. Hearing "There are 15 persons still to be served before you" being replaced by "There are 14 persons ..." about five minutes into the call will make me give up in time, understanding it makes no sense to queue on the phone. That means less frustration for me, not more. And don't interrupt the music for an identical, nagging text too frequently -- I do have other things to do while waiting on phone, than getting my train of thought interrupted. Worse still, AmEx: Don't say "The next available person will serve you shortly, we ask for your patience" on the recorded message, when what you de facto mean is "This phone number is closed now, as it operates only outside German business hours. Please used +49-xxxx instead." In fact, I missed an urgent and important call by an AmEx customer representative, just after midnight Californian time, while in queue for catching that person over a phone number that wasn't operational at that point.

  • Fifth: Increase communication capacity during a crisis. Airlines should have plenty of idle pilots and stewardesses during volcano eruptions.
    Suggestion: Let the cabin crew communicate. Give them a crash course. Let them talk to customers at extra check in desks, over email, phone, SMS, Twitter, everywhere. You'll calm down passengers quickly, serve them better, and have your cabin crew learn a thing or two about your customers. It seems a Danish airline called  Cimber Sterling was smart enough to do so.

  • Sixth: Make it easy for the customer to contact you. Filling out web forms is difficult to impossible if you've only got a mobile device for input. Having to navigate through complicated low-usability web pages is a nightmare under stress.
    Suggestion: Allow scalable input such as SMS and email. Promote SMS input numbers and email addresses clearly and prominently. Fixing spam must be a solvable issue for you; putting the burden on the customer is simply inacceptable. Also, make it dead easy for me to identify which phone number to use. And, dear AmEx, it's very frustrating to try to call your German +49-xxx phone number from abroad and get an American phone error message saying the number is invalid.

  • Seventh: Don't be afraid of social media. Facebook and Twitter aren't mere channels for press releases. @Lufthansa_DE did start subscribing to me after a while into the Eyjafjalla crisis, but replied only with one private note despite me addressing @Lufthansa_DE with several comments, most of which were quite pro-LH.
    Suggestion: Use Facebook and Twitter for semi-informal communication. Reply to people who mention your @handle (or even just your company name) in tweets. Don't expect to please the always-complaining, unsatisfiable 5%. Do expect to calm down the rest of us; we constitute 95%. Expect us to talk good about you if you communicate well. We know it's not your volcano.

I do value the warm touch of individual human interaction face-to-face at a check-in counter or voice-based on a phone. But those are scarce and expensive resources for you, and involve long queues for me (as measured both in metres and in minutes), representing huge frustration. So please, do spend the time until Katla erupts by improving your communication processes!


  1. Very good lessons learned. Except the final part about how soon Katla erupts, may take 100 years :)))

  2. Oleksander Byelkin22 April 2010 at 07:52

    heh! I would be glad to see any message even in German language, but found my flight canceled when had arrived SFO airport (I gave my phone number when booked tickets, I have Luftganza card also regitered for the flight (phone info was given there also)). So communication is quite selective...:(

  3. United could also learn a lot from this! 5 days ago I was promised a call-back and/or email. Nothing from them so far. CWT have booked me BA flights instead.