Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Who Needs This Kind of Publicity?

It is perhaps old news that the airlines really don’t know what they are doing when it comes to customer relations, good will, or generating a positive image.  At least a few of them are trying, even though every time someone takes a flight the event disabuses them of any idea at all that the airlines – any airlines, foreign or domestic, large or small – really cares about any of its passengers.  (There are so few exceptions it’s barely worth mentioning.  In case you have any doubts, a friend of mine, flying first class on a transatlantic flight on a major airline (cost was more than $10,000 for the ticket), was unable to get ice for a twisted ankle.  Kept politely asking, never got it.  Go figure.)

So, now we have an airline – Spirit Airlines – refusing to refund an unfortunate fellow who is dying, and his doctor said he should not fly.  The man wants his money back - $197 – and the airline says ‘no.’

This would be laughable if it weren’t so inordinately stupid.  At virtually every level this is failure not only in public relations but also in leadership.  At every echelon in that company, if it had decent leadership, the manager (or senior manager, or regional manager, or VP for operations, or the EVP, or the President, or the CEO or the Chairman – you get the picture) should have said something.  This has been bumping around the news for several days; they all should be completely aware of the situation.  But none of them have acted yet.  And so Spirit Airlines looks like it is led by a bunch of fools.  And it is.  (I would guess that the bad publicity has already cost them several plain tickets – more then the cost of the refund.)  And it looks like it is receiving legal advice from the Marx Brothers.  Though I suspect the Marx Brothers wouldn’t have taken things this far.

Perhaps the CEO is about to step in and fix this – I hope so.  But there is a long list of lessons learned.  And they can all be summed up with this: would you feel good telling your Mom and Dad that you had done this, that you had turned down refunding someone who was dying?  The public perception that you cared could at a minimum be used for positive advertising.  More to the point, and this is particularly pertinent to those senior executives who insist on adhering to policy, the signal this sends to your workers is destructive in the extreme.

Every employee of Spirit Airlines now knows that – no matter what any of the members of the executive suite say at annual ethics training or any of the HR scheduled events to show the ‘humanity’ of Spirit Airlines, that no one is going to take care of the people of Spirit Airlines unless it is absolutely mandated in some contract and can’t be avoided.  The front office has sent the signal that it really doesn’t care about people.

Try getting people – the employees - to work hard for Spirit now.

Everyone else should learn this lesson: people notice how you treat everyone around you: not just customers, but the boss, the secretary, the intern working in the mail room, the guy tending the sandwich truck outside the front door.  And if you tell the customer to ‘go to the devil,’ it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where everyone else stands.

On the other hand, Spirit could have simply refunded the ticket.  Or, better yet, it could have spent a few minutes and figured out how to get the man to New Jersey.  I know Spirit claims it is a no frills airlines and that it must act this way so that it can pass savings on to its customers.  Does anyone really buy that this one ticket is somehow going to matter?  Well, Spirit does.  And with it Spirit says ‘the customer really isn’t that important, only the customer’s money.’  Everyone who flies Spirit needs to consider that Spirit is really saying that because ‘you can’t make the flight, no matter what the reason, we feel no need to provide any service.  You paid, but too bad.’

Take a lesson from Spirit – learn from their foolishness, and think about what it means to treat customers (and your people) with real respect.  It is worth considering that one of the most profitable airlines in the world is South West.  And there is no airline that treats its customers or its people with as much respect.


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