Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

The Customer Service Plan

A company should always be prepared for its customers' needs.

I'm sitting at Gate 19 in Montreal's Dorval Airport, writing my column after reading a magazine article written by the president of a major airline. In his article, the president outlines the company's new customer service plan. "Last December the airline implemented a new customer service plan," writes the president. From my standpoint, that's a great start because, having flown almost 3 million miles with that carrier, I know firsthand that it needs to improve customer service.

 "Our people want to get you to your destination comfortably, on time, with your baggage and hassle-free," he continues. (Based upon the experiences of my last few trips, I'd say the airline's management doesn't concur.) "It is inevitable that someone will be affected by adverse situations that we cannot control--like bad weather and air traffic delays," he says. "We will strive to provide the best available information concerning the duration of the delays."

 Now I'm wondering if he ever flies with his airline. If he did, he would know that the customer service plan isn't working. Let's take, for example, two of my most recent three flights on his airline.

 On the first, the flight left Gate 18 in Montreal late due to bad weather in Chicago. On the way to Chicago, we were diverted to Madison, Wisconsin, because the weather was still bad, and we were running low on fuel. Although other airlines began to fly to Chicago from Madison soon after we landed, we sat in a hot and stuffy plane on the tarmac for two hours waiting to be rerouted. Eventually we learned that our flight crew had exceeded their allowable flight time and no other crew was available, so we were finally unloaded.

 We were next told that we would be taken to Chicago by bus. After waiting around for almost an hour, we were told there were no buses available. Many people rented cars but were told they could not get their luggage because the airplane wasn't going to be unloaded. I wasn't even allowed to get my arthritis medicine off the plane to relieve my aching knees.

 The rest of us stood in a ridiculously long line while two clerks made new flight arrangements and directed us to a hotel. It was a long wait. All of the Saturday morning flights from Madison to Chicago were full. The first flight I could get was in the late afternoon on the next day.

 Although no one at the airline counter knew when the airplane we arrived in was going to fly to Chicago, the rumor that it would be returning to Chicago at 7 a.m. spread through the hotel. We arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. to face another long line of the same people with whom we stood in line the previous night.

 After waiting for approximately 15 minutes, we saw that some of the people had their bags. They informed us that our bags were unloaded and we would have to get them before we could get ticketed. Of course, the bags were located at the other end of the airport. So off we went to search for our bags and returned with them to the end of the line. The plane took off at 7:30 a.m., and we just made it through the line in time to run to catch the plane before it took off.

 I can understand bad weather routing us to an alternate airfield. But once we got there, it was obvious that no one was trained to take care of the passengers. It wasn't the employees' fault; they were trying to do their best. The problem was that procedures for handling this type of situation hadn't been defined.

 Two weeks later, my next trip out of Montreal was canceled. I was told that it was canceled because the airplane had problems getting out of Chicago. The airline transferred all eight of the passengers to a later Air Canada flight that connected to a United Airlines flight, taking me to my final destination about two hours after my expected arrival time.

 As I made my way to Gate 19, I passed Gate 18, where the plane I had been scheduled to leave on sat as it did every week. Eventually, they towed the plane away to park it in a remote part of the landing field.

 I believe, and the other passengers agreed, that the truth of the matter was that there were too few passengers to make it economically feasible to fly, so the airline combined the flights. I can understand the economics and realize that my time doesn't cost the airline anything, but I can't understand why they wouldn't tell me the truth.

 The president of the airline does offer some advice in his article. "The customer relations department handles unresolved customer issues for us," he writes. "If you write to the customer relations department, a representative will respond within 60 days." Can you believe it? If customers are really unhappy with you, you'll get back to them in 60 days? This airline needs a new customer service plan.

 Quality Rule No. 1: Service starts with well-defined processes and employees who are trained to use them.

About the author

 H. James Harrington is COO of Systemcorp, a Web-centric global enterprise project management software provider, and has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional.

 He is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality. He can be reached by telephone at (408) 358-2476, by fax at (408) 358-5106, or by e-mail at jharrington@qualitydigest.com . Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com .

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