Archive for March 2008

The T5 Fiasco: some free advice on customer engagement for BA

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By now we all know about the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal 5. We’re into the weekend, and BA is still having to cancel flights. The outlook is not good for the weekend; flights are being cancelled and the press is full of discussion about how the recent days is humiliating for the UK (see here). Yesterday Helen wrote about her expereinces of geting to Vancouver (see here) and in particular our views of how experiences like this can have a huge impact on a company’s Net Promoter Score. People are more likely to talk about bad experiences than good ones, but people are even more likely to talk about a situation where a bad experience is turned around or dealt with well. When things go wrong, how you act becomes critical to your business.

So what could BA have done better? At FreshNetworks we specialise in sustained customer engagement and growing advocacy. So here’s a bit of free consultancy for BA. In our experience, when things go wrong there are five steps that a company should take to make sure it engages with its customes in the most impactful way, and that it minimises any negative impact on advocacy.

Step 1: Hold the conversation

When things go wrong it is critical that the brand holds the conversation. They don’t want others to be setting the agenda, least of all those affected by whatever the problem is. To do this effectively, there needs to be a mechanism for them to do this and it can’t just be something they start when the problem occurs. They need an ongoing and constant means of informing and being the point of reference for customers.

In the UK Transport for London (TFL) start to get this right. The tube is plagued with delays and cancellations, more so as we are in the middle of a major upgrade programme. Not only do TFL have a realtime website detailing current and planned closures and problems (something BA do have but that seems to be less real time), but critically TFL engage the customers. If you register your daily journey and the time you take it, they’ll send you a text (for free!) to let you know of any problems. This is great if I need to know to leave that little bit earlier to get to work on time. With hundreds and thousands of BA customers affected last week, most of whom have mobile phones, BA could have used engagement like this to let them know what was happening and to keep them informed.

Step 2: Have a single point of contact

A big issue when problems strike is that the market is crowded with this information. In addition to holding the conversation, you also need to have a single point of contact. This could be online - a community, forum or group where people can comment on what’s happening and share their experiences as well as getting the information they need. Too many brands are concerned about harnessing negative comments and experiences. But these comments will always get out. Better to gather them on a site and in a format you can control and in a place where you can respond to them. As we saw over the last few days - the alternative is that the press will get hold of these comments and use them as the focus of their stories. This will have only one effect - spreading the negative comments further and adding more voices into the mix in a confusing situation.

Step 3: More information not less

A major criticism when things go wrong is that the brand hasn’t told you why. More information matters here - let customers know what the problem is so that they can understand and empathise. I’m reminded of a journey home when I lived in France. Two trains were delayed - a TGV from Marseille to Paris and a train from London home. On the TGV we sat at Marseille station and there were angry mutterings around me until the announcement came on “we are delayed at Marseille because a person has been fatally injured on the line ahead of us”. Suddenly the mutering stopped. The person in the seat next to me told the guard he was a doctor and asked if he could help. On the UK train we were not told anything either, the same muttering ensued. Finally we were told of “unforeseen incident”. The muttering only intensified.

People understand that problems happen, but when they’re angry and upset by a delay or incident it’s better to let them make up their own mind about whether it was justified. Give them all the information they need to make this decision. Bring them into your problem and make them understand you’re doing what you can.

Step 4: Close the feedback loop on criticism

When people are angry or critical, it’s important to close the feedback loop. And a photocopied letter such as the one Helen received from an anonymous department doesn’t help. Neither does the Chief Executive speaking on TV but not to those affected by the problem. You need to respond to each person’s complaint. Explain why this is happening and what you’re doing (or not doing) to solve the problem.

This isn’t easy to do. Responding to people individually just isn’t feasible so a two part solution is needed. An awful lot of discussion about a problem will quickly hit the web - twitter, blogs, forums and communities will be alive with conversation within minutes of anything happening. BA needed to be there, responding and commenting, give the reasons for the problems and responding to people as individuals. Even better, they could direct people to their own community, respond to people there and then be able to point similar queries to the same response. This is what Dell do with their Ideastorm, and it’s a huge success. Close the feedback loop online.

Of course this feedback loop needs to be closed offline - staff at the airport needed this level of information too so that they could respond in the same way. Display screens at T5 could display the most voted for or common comments from the online community to interface with offline complaints. The options are endless with your own community and data.

Step 5: Use existing advocates to your advantage

In a crisis your advocates are more important than ever. But you can’t grow these overnight. It takes ongoing and sustained activity to build and engage with your strongest advocates. Only once you have done this will they serve to your benefit in a crisis. What was surprising about the BA situation is that they should have strong advocates. They have a well networked group of employees and a strong loyalty scheme - both often indicators of a strong groundswell of advocates. Sadly it doesn’t appear either of these groups were helping BA this week. The former were actually critcising the company and adding to the negativity (see some commets on the pilot communtiy pprune), and whilst the BA loyalty scheme is strong, there is little community element to it. And this is essential for building sustained engagement and advocacy.

So BA got it wrong. Moreover they didn’t take advantage of the situation to turn things around. When disaster strikes you realise how engaged you actually are with your customers, how many of them are advocates. The essential step is to hold and control an ongoing and open conversation with dissaffected customers, something BA didn’t do this week.

How will T5 fiasco affect BA Net Promoter Score?

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I’m just off to buy some new knickers. I know this is supposed to be a professional blog but it’s pertinent to the situation I find myself in.

Last night I arrived in Vancouver having been on the first flight to this wonderful city out of the new Terminal 5 (T5). You’ve already read the news so I won’t bore you with the details. BA check-in staff were talking openly to us about walking out, baggage handlers were only to be pitied they looked so downtrodden, security men stopped us taking photos of the gleaming, impressive building and no-one involved in getting us onto that plane had the faintest idea about why the system wasn’t working. They’d had no training.

We sat on the tarmac for 2 hours and our wonderful Captain fought valiantly not to take off before our luggage was loaded. It never arrived so we left, the plane humming with stories of other BA flight disasters. The weary staff did their best to hide their shame and embarrassment to make us all comfortable. The T5 branded chocolates may have seemed like a great branding idea at the time but they went down like a lead balloon. Our stewardess just wanted to “flush these damn things down the bog”. Oh dear.

At this point BA’s Net Promoter Score was heading south faster than its stockprice. A member of my party, who flies internationally on a regular basis, says she will “never, ever, ever fly BA again”. As Willie Walsh says - it was not BA’s finest hour. But at this point I thought at least they had a number of touch points to start reversing the negativity. The first was the potential for the land crew waiting for us to help people with their onward journeys. I pictured an army of a dozen uniformed BA staff helping parents with 3 month old children to sort out buggy replacements, to take details of where our luggage should go, whilst warmly reassuring us (through conversations) that all would be well. We were met at the gate by one person who asked us to read a photocopied letter signed by “UK Customer Relations” (no sign of Willie). The letter announced that it hoped to return our luggage within 3 days and that we were entitled to “£35 to cover essential items such as socks, stockings, toiletries, shirts and blouses.” Was this written in 1959 when people still wore stockings and could buy 3 days worth of clothing and toiletries (let alone ski gear) for £35?? This was the straw that broke the camels back after a 13hr+ journey. One of my companions, usually a measured and calm influence in my life, gripped that sheet of paper until her knuckles went white and muttered about taking BA to the cleaners.

According to research by Keller Fay, each of us is likely to generate on average 62 conversations about this incident. Extend this to the 416 other passengers on board that’s 25,792 potentially negative conversations just relating to our flight. Now extend that to the 70 flights that were cancelled at T5 on Thursday and Friday and you get the picture!

Douglas McNeill, a transport analyst at Blue Oar Securities said he believed the financial impact of T5′s ‘teething problems’ on BA would be negligible. He’s missing the point. It’s not just the compensation claims that will cost BA, he’s not considered the huge impact of negative word of mouth that will be amplified across the Internet at breakneck speed.BA needs to start having conversations with passengers now - not fob us off with photocopied letters that ask us not to call them and clog up their phone systems. Imagine how much more personal it would have felt to have also been given access to a blog keeping us up to date with what was happening?

So here I am, in my hotel room, no clothes, no ski gear, no toiletries, off to see if Peacocks exists in Vancouver. Keep you posted as to when the luggage arrives!

Robert Stephens from Geek Squad

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I found this great video on Community Guy’s blog (see here) from Robert Stephens about setting up his firm Geek Squad. They’ve recently come to the UK too (see here) so try them out if you want to and let me know if they’re as good as they sound!

Watch it. It’s amusing and you’ll definitely learn something.


The Woodland Trust: online innovation from not-for-profits

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I’m constantly impressed by the levels of innovation and adoption of new techniques that go on in the not-for-profit sector. A couple of weeks ago I met Jon Parsons from the Woodland Trust and was talking about what work his organisation does online at the moment. I often find that the best of the not-for-profit sector can be as good as if not better than the best of what larger brands are doing.

Some claim this is because the not-for-profit sector doesn’t have the same commercial risks that might be associated with over-innovating. I don’t buy this. Charities like the Woodland Trust rely on donations and need to generate donors in the same way that corporates generate customers. Others claim conversely that the not-for-profit sector seek out constant innovation as they seek out constant new sources of donors. Again, I just don’t think this is true.

I think that not-for-profits are innovative online because their brand naturally lends itself to something that people want to engage with. Rather than a product or service that people are buying, when they engage with not-for-profits they are buying into a cause, belief or campaign. They want to feel a part of something rather than buy a part of something.

Building an engagement strategy online is easier if you have something people already engage with. The Woodland Trust is a great example of this. They run an interactive Citizen Science programme called Nature’s Calendar which gets people to log when the first flowers of spring emerge or when frog-spawn appears in their pond. Participation in this is huge - in 2007 over 2,250 people contributed to data on when they first mowed their lawn! A second example of active online engagement from the Woodland Trust is their Ancient Tree Hunt, a community where people can log and record on a map where ancient trees are to be found. Almost 7,000 trees have been identified to date in the UK. These form the heart of the community with people encouraged to add more information about these trees and even to blog about their visits to the woods or trees.

The Woodland trust achieves admirable levels of engagement. It is solely concerned with a topic that people care about and engagement with them is integral to their involvement with the Trust in the first place. That’s why they show signs of getting things right online. They understand engagement; that’s what they do.

Real-time research: the Mesh Planning experience

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I went to the Espresso Briefing this morning from the Word of Mouth UK Marketing Association (WOM UK) at the lovely Bean ‘n’ Cup in Camden. Fiona Blades from Mesh Planning was presenting a case study of their Research for Lynx/AXE for the Boom Chicka Wah Wah campaign - a 360 campaign that started with the commercial below.

Fiona’s talk explained how Mesh used a real-time research method. Recruiting a network of boys and getting them to text every time they came into contact with one of four brands (including the Lynx brand to make the process more thorough) or one of four catchphrases. They also had to say how they felt each time they responded. This data was then expanded using an online diary and the entire data set provides a wealth of information on where and why people came in contact with the brand or slogan and how they felt about this.

This depth of information provides real-time feedback on the effectiveness of a campaign but also helps to measure advocacy - references on social networks or even in conversation with others were to be included and reported back.

The research shows one way in which you can use new technologies inventively to gain a greater depth of insight than traditional tools allow. Real-time surveying gets a more accurate observational record of what people see; combining this with a retrospective diary tool allows you to capture what people think. This combination is powerful and provides a richer data set - you can record peoples’ opinions before and after exposure to a campaign and then really understand how they came into contact with the brand and so start to explain why their attitudes change.

At FreshNetworks we use similar tools in our online research communities allowing us to track and monitor how peoples’ opinions change and then to understand why this might be the case. New techniques like this are expanding the power of research and increasing the depth of our understanding!