I have always been a huge believer that no matter how good your product is, customer service makes the difference between customers being loyal, or taking an almost disproportionate ban on using your company again.

We all understand things go wrong (running an IT support business, I’m pretty used to problems), but quite often if you deal with the issue well, the outcome can almost be better than had the issue not happened in the first place.

A perfect example of this was when a good number of years ago, lastminute.com, didn’t list a “resort” fee on a hotel we stayed at. So when we arrived the hotel charged us an extra £30 we weren’t expecting. Not a massive problem, but left a bad taste. So I phoned lastminute.com and told them – they almost immediately apologised and refunded us £30 and a bit extra to cover the exchange rate. In that one small and efficient move they made a loyal customer for years.

Conversely, and unfortunately the incident that triggered me to write this, is our recent experience with British Airways. We have just finished an amazing holiday in South Africa (which I would highly recommend). We had our return flights booked from Johannesburg back to the UK, however as we finished our holiday in Cape Town we booked a flight from there back to J’berg. Our flight back home was in the afternoon, and there was an abundance of flights between the two airports. However we decided to go for the 9AM British Airways flight as a name we trusted instead of the airlines we hadn’t heard of. That was our critical mistake as it turns out.

We returned our hire car to Budget (another great experience) with plenty of time. We went to check in, in a queue that seemed very slow in comparison to others, and during the queue we got notification there was a 1hr 40 delay. As we had 3 hours to connect we were a bit concerned and wondered if we should get an earlier flight. However we stressed our concern to the BA ground staff who reassured us we would definitely make it (although losing the odd hour in the calculation every now and then – in hindsight our first warning).

We checked in and went through security and went to the gate. About 40 minutes before our new departure time another 20 minute delay was added. By that point any possibility of booking another flight had disappeared. Our only chance was to hope for a slight delay on our other flight and a super smooth transfer, so we stuck it out. 11AM came and we hadn’t started boarding. Rumours started travelling that they were waiting for a part, which wouldn’t be anytime soon, but no communication from BA. Finally we managed to confirm this with someone, and then the status changed to a 6 hour delay.

We still didn’t get any information from BA, so headed out of the airside area to try and sort it out. This was where the fun really started. The ground staff’s favourite trick seemed to be saying a supervisor was at a certain location, which we would head to, to be told it wasn’t them and it was someone else. Essentially wasting valuable time to sort the mess out. The attitude that “the customer is always wrong”, has definitely been instilled in the BA staff. After walking from one end of the airport at least 10 times (without exaggeration), we hadn’t got anywhere close to getting a flight home. It was eventually established by overhearing another passenger that our flight had been cancelled – which was news to the BA desk we were stood at.
Now we had to get tickets for an already overbooked flight (another recipe for disappointing customers). To be fair this didn’t seem too much of a problem for us. However having no confidence in BA, or knowing if booking another flight back to the UK from Cape Town was going to be best, we decided to get our bags back for the 7 hours until the flight. Again one person said it was happening and would be here in 15 minutes or so, then when we came to collect them were told by someone else, it’s simply not possible, and stating quite rudely that we were wrong. However we eventually found Johansen, who appeared to be one of the few polite and capable people that BA could find – who returned ours and a number of other (now ex) BA passengers bags.

We eventually got on the 7PM flight to Johannesburg, which was OK as a flight, but however good the flight was would never make up for the overall service. I would imagine the money BA put into the inflight experience far outweighs the ground cost, which was money they totally wasted.

To add insult to injury when we complained to BA directly they couldn’t have been quicker (well there replies could have been), to pass the buck, claiming it’s a separate franchise. Totally missing the point that it’s a British Airways branded plane, booked on BA.com. They missed a number of opportunities to turn it around, and possibly even make a sale on the new flight back we now needed – but instead they chose to make sure we never book or recommend BA again.

Hopefully, eventually, companies will learn to make sure customer (the people deciding to spend money with them) service is given the priority thats needed – after all problems will always occur and need to be dealt with.