Thursday, April 10, 2008

What We Can Learn From Failed Airlines

Three airlines just went out of business last week. Over thirty colleges, universities and career colleges will do the same this year. High gas prices were certainly one culprit but not the only, nor the major one. Client retention, or lack of it, was the final issue. They did not have enough repeat business nor advocates to assure enough booking and revenue for the days ahead. Why? Weak and poor customer service. Same reason why colleges and schools lose enrollment.

We can eliminate cost as a factor for choosing not to return to flying at least one of them. Skybus which was an airline that sold tickets for as low as $10 – yes $10 – yet it was having trouble getting people to repeat flying. You could fly from its base in Columbus, OH to California, Florida, Massachusetts, NY or many other states for less than it would cost you for a few gallons of gasoline yet people were starting to choose more expensive airlines. The last two times I flew Skybus’ full size Airbus planes, the flights each had fewer than 40 people. That includes crew.

When I perform a simple customer service mini-audit on Skybus, some sad issues come forward that can also inform colleges and businesses losing students and clients.

The first contact with Skybus was its web. In fact, for Skybus that was its primary means of contact. In a move to reduce operating costs, it chose not to have any actual people answering phones or addressing questions of potential or present customers. It relied much too heavily on technology when the reality is that technology is not as well received as a customer service provider as Skybus, People want to talk with people. People want to be helped by people. And even when using technology like a website, cell phone or email, people want to know thnat a person is somewhere on the other end and WILL get back to them.

Skybus unfortunately believed all the hype of the people who create and build technology and tried to use it as the main means of client business contact just as too many schools do. Though technology is ubiquitous, it is not as used or even as well known as the people who sell the same technology want you to believe. Most people do not use or even know what much of it is! For example, when you are IM-ing….Oh, that’s Instant Messaging. Point made? But that does not mean you should not be aware of the latest in student contact technology. Just use it correctly in ways that emphasize people talking with people.

People know people. They trust people. They want to talk with and be served by people – not technology though most colleges have replaced people with technology. Maddening phone tree anyone? For yes, press 3. Skybus removed the people. A very bad customer service error. People consider electronic phone answering with its instructions to listen closely…as if you were a child with telephonic ADHD

Skybus and you would have improved client acquisition and retention numbers immensely if it had just hired some people to answer the phone and talk with people; answered questions; resolved problems; been human.

Colleges have similar problems when they replace people answering phones with phone trees or automatons who might as well be. Keep in mind that we hate phone trees. Moreover, we really believe we have some value and when we get an electronic voice telling us what to do, we feel diminished and do not like that. Furthermore, it tells us so much about you. The first thing it says it though you say the call is important, we know it isn’t. Therefore, we know you don’t think we are important. And if we are not important enough to talk with now, what good can there be in the future.

Moreover, the technology that we do use it people to people technology. Cell phones and email are great examples. When we call SOMEONE on a cell phone, we expect to engage is a person and person discussion. When we send an email, we expect a response. Skybus provided neither. They did have some email response but it was so slow and irregular using boiler point replies that it was not acceptable or helpful. Phones must be answered and emails responded to. This is a basic rule of customer service which if broken will certainly hurt you.

And though this does not pertain to Skybus which did not have phone answering, when someone answers that phone, that person must at least sound polite, happy and welcoming. A simple “Yuh” or “Yes?” or “Welcometofillintheblank.CanIdirectyuh call?” is as bad as Press 34 for… People do not answer the phone well and that does not reflect well on you.

Moreover, the Skybus web site was not a good one. It was difficult to navigate. It did not supply the information the visitors wanted and/or needed. The visitors not the company. Websites are for people to visit and learn about you. They are not for you. They should be designed for people who do not know what you do and not assumptions should be made. For example too many, way too many college web sites were designed by and for the campus community. They were set up to make campus constituencies happy not potential students or other visitors. In some cases, this is obvious as every department or office designed its own page making sure there is no consistency in design, information, font, links or anything that could make a positive statement about the college. Most college websites are like Skybus’ was – terrible. And the result, your university or college loses potential students, even donors, when they can’t navigate your web site Click here for more on webs

Skybus also did not train its first contact people very well and dressed them even worse. The people at the Skybus counters in the airport ticket areas were few and not very helpful. Their primary job it seemed was to tell arriving passengers to use the self-check in machines and collect money for checked baggage. Sort of like when we tell students to go on line and do whatever they sought help to get done. That is not to say that some of them were not helpful but not all like receptionists and other first contact people at your school.

The next people the clients encountered were the young people at the gates. They were not rude really. Their level of indifference and lack of concern did not have enough energy to be rude. Too much effort. They just ignored the passengers until it was time to board. Then they gathered up enough energy to call out the boarding groups in a bored monotone.

The company dressed all their employees in cheap black tee shirts with slogans on them such as Only Birds Fly Cheaper or Ten Dollar Tickets to….. Somehow indifferent young people dressed in inexpensive black tees did not inspire a sense of professionalism. Couple that with indifference to customers and Skybus had achieved a level of customer service that helped lead to its financial doom. Always keep in mind that every employee of the college whether they be a president or one of the more important front line service people is a living objective correlative for the institution. Skybus did not do that and cheapened the company and its people with its cheap appearance.

People may want to pay less but they do not want to feel as if they purchased something cheap. Or worse, they were cheap in their buying decision. Skybus’ lack of professionalism in action and appearance made its passengers feel as if they were getting their ten dollars worth but not any more. The company made one feel as if you paid little so don’t expect much. This is a basic and destructive customer service flaw. When we purchase a bargain, we want to feel as if we got a good value for very little money. Just because we saved money by going to say a community college rather than a private baccalaureate school, students do not want to fell either cheap or cheated. They want to feel valued, important and intelligent for choosing to go there. This is the Target approach. Well laid out and lit environment with an upscale look and lower prices. Discount shopping in an upscale environment. That’s also how our schools should look. People do not want to feel cheapened by the appearances of staff or facilities.

This also leads to a problem for many schools. Faculty and staff dress in a manner that says we do not take this enterprise seriously nor did I even bother to try and look professional for you. You are just not important enough for me to take the time to look professional or even semi-professional. Granted it is quite difficult to make anyone on campus especially faculty dress in a manner that reflects pride in what they do and the people they interact with. There is even case law that allows people to dress as they wish but that does not stop an institution from trying based on the reflection of pride in the college, the mission and the work we represent. There is some case law that does allow a college or business to provide guidance on appropriate dress for some positions such as receptionists and basic standards. Role modeling can also be effective. And when a school employs students in offices or other visible areas, they can be instructed to dress for work not play. Moreover, one way to help solve the situation is to supply students and others college logo shirts, blouses, etc (BUT NOT TEE SHIRTS) to wear. That is not only a strong suggestion; it can be a clear statement.

In any case, Skybus did not do any of the above and placed its emphasis on the lowliest part of its name BUS rather than Sky. Not a good service or client retention approach.

Finally, Skybus had some service delivery problems. Too often the airline offered a flight, the client agreed to take that flight and paid for it but later had cancelled it. Too many flights were canceled. How many is too many? For the passengers, one is too many. When they planned a portion of their lives around a scheduled flight only to find out it is canceled, that is a sure first step to never coming back. The same is true for colleges when they offer a course or section, students choose it, pay for it, plan their schedules, their lives around that decision only to have it canceled by the school. A VERY bad decision. And one which is seldom supported by the usual excuse of fiscal concerns as was discussed in the article How many Students Does it Take to Put in a Class?

So what can we learn from Skybus’ bankruptcy?

  1. Fiscal problems are most usually the result of poor customer service problems
  2. Technology is not the savior and can even hurt when not used wisely.
  3. Have your web checked with a WebEval Just mention this blog and it will be free.
  4. Have trained people answer your phones and have them do it correctly
  5. Return calls and emails
  6. Have people ready and happy to help
  7. Make the place look more expensive than it is
  8. Work at making employees look professional, engaged and proud to be there
  9. Do not cancel classes
  10. Train everyone on academic customer service and keep training. It is not a one time brochure!
AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits; workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 413.219.6939

Skybust tee shirt designed and sold on

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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