A Cautionary Tale: Always Assume Your Next Customer is Famous

Let’s face it – anyone can have an off day.

But it’s a pretty spectacular off-day when a customer you tetchily call a “busybody” turns out to be an internationally known comedian with a show to develop for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

That’s precisely what happened to one hapless Virgin Atlantic employee and now her insult has become the title of comedian Shazia Mirza’s 2011 Edinburgh show, “Busybody”.

To be fair, the show, which has just received a 4-star review from the Scotsman, concerns not just this one incident but a myriad of tales about getting involved in other people’s business.  However, choosing the Virgin Atlantic incident as inspiration for the title of the show means that in the process of promoting her show across the media, Shazia has been asked to explain the origin of the title again and again.  So now, not only the hundreds or thousands of people who have seen her Edinburgh show know that a Virgin Atlantic employee threw an off-hand insult her way, but also the hundreds of thousands who have heard her on recent arts programmes or who have read her reviews. 

Is it fair to judge a company on one super-publicised incident?  Probably not.  But unfortunately for Virgin Atlantic, it’s human nature to form opinions in a less than rational manner. People are likely to “over-weight” this information when evaluating Virgin Atlantic’s care for customers.  Here are just some of the reasons why.

First it is current information – brand new and up-to-date.  The fact that Virgin Atlantic came top of the transport sector in the Institute of Customer Service Customer Satisfaction awards in 2009 fades into the background in the presence of this up-to-date information.

Second, people generally don’t evaluate numbers well when weighing up competing information.  The fact that the customer service award mentioned above was based on 24,000 customers’ views is not likely to be given the rational weight it deserves when we are presented with a vivid, entertaining and memorable example of one person’s experience of shocking customer service.

Third, it happened to someone we know.  At least, virtually know.  As a regular presence in our newspapers and on our radios and TV, Shazia Mirza has become a friendly voice.  What’s more, she openly shares her feelings about personal moments and circumstances in her life with us.  She makes us laugh.  And doesn’t ask for anything in return.  No really – what more could we ask of a friend?!  So what happens to Shazia really matters to us and we give it a lot of credit. 

Fourth, it’s holiday season.  Many of us are jetting off for a week or two in the sun and the experience of airport misery is on our minds, whether it’s a recent experience or one about to happen. This gives this piece of information particular salience and means we are more likely to retain and recall it as typical of the (patchy) customer service provided by Virgin Atlantic. Unfortunately for Virgin Atlantic, whether they are generally representative of the stereoptype of uncaring and unfriendly airport staff or not, this incident concurs with the prevailing view of people not being treated well at airports.  Thus, this nugget of new information slips neatly into, and reinforces, our general expectations of how unpleasant airports and airport staff can be.

Oh dear.  Virgin Atlantic works very hard at presenting itself as personable, different from other operators and genuinely interested in the welfare of its customers. Is this incident indicative of a general attitude to customers?  Or have the actions of one rogue employee, picking on the wrong person, conveyed a false impression? 

Either way, something will probably have to be done. 

Will Virgin Atlantic explore the circumstances that led to the employee (their employees) flinging a casual insult at a captive customer. Could there be ways to improve processes, work practices and leadership to limit the chance of this happening again?  Is this person still suited to a front-line customer service role in an undoubtedly tough environment? Do employees understand and share the passion and vision of the brand and are they supported in their efforts to convey this?  Are there ways to check stress levels and/or continuing match to the role requirements and to find alternative roles that capitalise on people’s strengths if not?  What a great opportunity to examine the evidence and take the next leap forward to improving the customer experience.

Or might it be left to Public Relations to limit the reputational damage somehow.

Substance or surface? I expect both Shazia Mirza and I will be watching that space.

Links and further reading

 For irrational influences on decision making you could start with the book “The Social Animal” by Eliot Aronson and for a positive take on it “The Upside of Irrationality” by Daniel Ariely

Jonah Lehrer’s excellent list of five books on irrational decision making is here http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123275192235811483.html

Shazia Mirza’s site is www.shazia-mirza.com

The Scotsman’s review is at http://www.edinburgh-festivals.com/viewreview.aspx?id=3036

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