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April 08, 2008

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Noel Capon
R. C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing
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Dateline: London

I think to really understand the ramifications of what happened, you just had to be there. At London’s Heathrow Airport that is.

On Thursday March 27, I took British Airways’ (BA) day flight from JFK to Heathrow. On Saturday I was due to talk about customer value to a group of high-level strategic account directors at a global software company. I planned to tell them that success in value delivery would guarantee customer satisfaction and enable them to retain and grow their customers, increase profits, and lead to greater shareholder value. I relaxed in my Club World backward-facing seat and concentrated on the task ahead.

On Thursday evening I landed at Terminal 4; little did I know what was unfolding at Terminal 5.

Terminal 5 was BA’s long-planned new $8.6 billion state-of-the-art facility at Heathrow. CEO Willie Walsh was on hand at 4 a.m. when the first flight arrived early from Hong Kong.

After that, everything went downhill. In a word, BA’s baggage-handling operation failed. Apparently, the system had functioned well in a 2,000-passenger test, but could not handle the 40,000 who that day crowded into the terminal.

By the following mid-week, BA had cancelled over 300 flights, 40,000 pieces of baggage had been separated from their owners (many sent overland to Italy for resorting), and thousands of passengers did not reach their destinations. To make matters worse, Britain’s aviation regulator reacted swiftly to stranded passengers’ complaints that BA failed to provide hotel rooms, in possible breach of European Union requirements.

In a stroke of genius, the Terminal 5 debacle occurred just three days before an open-skies agreement between the U.S. and Britain came into force. In addition to increased competition from European airlines flying from the U.S. to continental destinations, BA would now have new U.S.-based competitors at Heathrow. Continental, Delta and Northwest Airlines each offered flights on day one. Some analysts’ estimates of BA’s losses from canceled flights, additional costs, and reduced future bookings approached $100 million; Goldman Sachs downgraded BA shares to sell.

So what lessons can we learn from BA’s experience?

First, service businesses are tough to manage. Operations occur with the customer in close proximity and problems are quickly highly visible — very different from a factory making products.

Second, sophisticated systems are great when they work, but when they fail, disaster is close behind.

Third, when you put in sophisticated systems, test, test and then test again; it may take time and it may cost money, but consider the alternative!

Fourth, customer satisfaction depends on the difference between expectations and performance. BA had so hyped its new terminal that any failure hurt even more.

As for me, when I arrived back at terminal 4 on Saturday afternoon, British Airways could not get me on their JFK flight. The agent sent me to Virgin Atlantic where I gratefully accepted one of the few remaining Premium Economy seats to Newark. The counter clerk cheerfully phoned New York so I could change my car service pick up and I headed for the gate. As I was boarding, the gate clerk told me there was a change — an upgrade to Upper Class. Thank you Sir Richard!

Footnote: The following Wednesday, British supermodel Naomi Campbell was reportedly taken off a Los Angeles-bound BA flight and arrested. Apparently Campbell became agitated when told one of her two bags had been misplaced.

You can find Noel Capon’s new marketing planning workbook, The Virgin Marketer, and his textbook, Managing Marketing in the 21st Century, at www.mm21c.com.