Recovering from Crisis Calls for Personal Commitment

High-quality customer service is never more challenging than when you are dealing with crisis control. While the World Trade Center tragedy was happening on September 11, 2001, Singapore Airlines had two flights arriving in New York, one from Amsterdam into Newark and another from Frankfurt into Kennedy. “I was actually on a plane from Singapore to Los Angeles that made a transit stop in Taipei, which is typically a routine one-hour transit stop,” James Boyd, Vice President of Public Relations at Signapore Airlines, recalled. “The captain came on the PA system and said that the air space above us had been closed because a pilot had crashed into the World Trade Center. Naturally I thought it was a private plane, and I wondered how they’d repair the trade center. Obviously something very different was happening.”

James got off the aircraft at Taipei and activated the crisis plan. The two flights from Amsterdam and Frankfurt were both diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where planes filled the runways. “We had more than 300 passengers on each flight, and there was nowhere for them to go. There were no hotel rooms to be had. There was nothing to rent. They had to come off the aircraft. They had to be fed. They had to sleep. They needed to shower, and they needed communication to get on with their lives.”

No one knew when air space was going to reopen. The Singapore Airlines sales staffs in Toronto and Montreal contacted a local high school and found a way to get blankets, cots, pillows, and everything they possibly could to make their customers comfortable. They then created a makeshift dormitory. “For two days, we had all of our passengers living in classrooms, being provided with meals by our local staff members, who had driven, in some cases, hundreds of miles to get to them,” James said. “There’s no manual for what happened. Our staff members dropped everything and basically devoted themselves to looking after these passengers. It was one of the most remarkable things.”

It wasn’t just the Singapore Airlines staff members that came out to help. Their entire families came, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership in terms of making sure that we do everything we possibly can to look after our passengers.”

When things go wrong, service recovery that calms and comforts customers is critical. The first year James moved into the New York office, there was a series of ice storms during the winter. On Valentine’s Day, some flights were delayed by more than 36 hours. “At some point, you have to pull passengers out of the planes, find hotel accommodations, and set up transportation. Our office in New York, which has only about 15 people in it, was dispatched to both airports, Newark and Kennedy, and we stayed with the passengers, organized buses, set up meals at the hotels, and gave everyone an amenity pack with a toothbrush and shaving kit.”

The Singapore staff kept the travelers informed about the weather, their plane’s place in the queue, and projected departure times. “Passengers want to know what you know. They need to know what’s going on,” James said. Frequent communication proved vital in keeping the customers calm in these unexpected circumstances. The staff then organized the transport back to the airport, getting everyone back on a plane to his destination. Singapore Airlines’s staff members stayed customer-focused throughout service recovery, mindful that their customers’ lives had been hugely disrupted.

“We need to keep the aircraft on schedule. Delays cost us money and screw up the schedule and everyone’s plans. If we give passengers as much info as we have on an ongoing basis, being really transparent and communicating it as we get it, our passengers usually give us a break,” James explained.

With a consistent commitment to innovation, quality, and outstanding customer care, Singapore Airlines goes the extra mile to ensure that the passenger experience, even during a crisis, is unparalleled.

Excerpted from Who’s Your Gladys?: How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan by Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest. Copyright © 2009 Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Who’s Your Gladys?:

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