Last Saturday we flew a Lufthansa airbus from Munich to San Francisco.
When we arrived to our seats I looked in my backpack and realized my iPhone was missing.
A tall female flight attendant with a short pixie haircut offered to help. She marched with me back to the gate to search for it. Much to my dismay no phone in sight. I went back to my seat and quietly sulked.
Our seats were in the emergency exit row. As is customary when sitting in the emergency exit row another flight attendant in a navy blue pantsuit came over to debrief us on what to do in an emergency. This was no 30-second-nod-if-you-understand your seat is in the emergency exit row. This was a by-the-book ten minute operations debriefing on what you actually do if the plane lands next to a tree.
Those seven minutes felt like 30 minutes. As I made eye contact with this intensely spoken German woman I found myself having to fan myself with the safety pamphlet. As a human being I felt bad for her because I knew I looked visibly upset and she still had to continue with this speech. As a customer I was mad at the flight crew who I felt weren’t doing enough to help me locate my iPhone.
Perhaps something was exchanged between me and the flight attendant in that moment because out of all the flight attendants she was the one who lobbied for me.
Even on a plane there is a hierarchy. On an airbus carrying over 500 people there is a boss that oversees the staff and can veto a customer request. Desperate to find my iphone I implored the stewardist to make an announcement on the loud speaker that there was a missing iPhone and could someone turn it in if they found it.
The flight crew boss was a tough lady. She looked me in the eye and told me she had made the executive decision that she not going to make the lost iPhone announcement. I vocalized my disappointment. She stood her ground.
I gave up and thought about how I could get to the Apple store the next day. I mourned the Forbes article I had written on my iPhone and the 30 photos I recently took of my dog. Then a few minutes later I heard a lost iPhone announcement. They had a change of heart!
The reason they were not interested in helping me was the announcement would cause a disruption in the customer experience of the other passengers. At this moment I remembered that Lufthansa was a German company. Germans are known for being very process oriented and on-time. I thought about how Lufthansa is a company that doesn’t want variation in process.
In fact most companies dislike variation. Particular on an airplane when any slight variation in process can have a negative impact, and you’re 37,000 feet in the sky. Most customer service departments don’t make room for variation.
However in the age of social media now customers who feel their unique needs are not met will air your company’s dirty laundry all over the web.
“Twitter has become the global small claims court for bad customer service.” -Mark Zawacki.
Those desperate moments of customer variation are opportunities. They are two roads diverged in the woods. One road includes a company following a process–avoiding variation at all costs. Customers with special requests are shown the door. The other road leads to customer delight. It is in these desperate moments that customer service departments can provide shockingly delicious customer experiences, however most companies don’t create room for them.
The Lufthansa story ends with me finding my iPhone in an obvious place. Like most things in life, it was human error that was the problem. It was actually a very good flight and Lufthansa is my favorite airline to fly. They provide the best customer service, food and entertainment systems.
It is common in customer service that if you ask for something that isn’t listed on the menu you will be told no. However some of the best companies make room for variation in their customer service offering.
For example on this same plane ride I watched the film “Wild.” In this film the main character Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) hikes more than one thousand miles through the Pacific Crest Trail–a path that takes her from Mexico to Oregon on foot. The film opens with a harrowing scene of Cheryl’s toe which is badly injured from her tight boots. Eventually she gets to a payphone to call REI.
Much to her delight REI sends her a brand new pair of boots while she’s on the hike. If you read the real memoir you know this actually happened. REI has room for variation in their business operations. Their return policy reads “100% satisfaction guaranteed.” This is a bold statement for a company to say. It means sending brand new things to customers.
Like most good things in business it’s high risk high reward.
Through variation–either on social media, in the contact center and other customer interaction channels–that the business can learn more about customer expectation. What are the customer expectations that are not being met? How can that information be provided to the product owners? What are the unique ways customers are transforming the products? Now with social media, PR and customer service must work together to ensure customer expectations are met. However if a company is unwilling to bend its processes to account for customer variation, that company could be in for some unpleasant awakenings.
What are your thoughts on variation? Have you had a stand-out experience you’d like to share?
This article was written by Blake Morgan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.