I Missed My Flight And Learnt About Service Excellence

I was looking forward to flying home. It was a week being away from home.

We reached the airport in good time, late morning. All of us went through the check-in process smoothly. I was confident we will be able to get to our connecting flight in Frankfurt in mid-afternoon. After all, the flight duration between Helsinki and Copenhagen is less than two hours.

We were chatting amongst ourselves. It was a good week visiting different places and obtaining insights. There were preliminary ideas on what to do from these visits.

The first hint of trouble came when I glanced at the signboard. The status next to our flight says ‘delayed’. The impending storm was the culprit for this.

How will this affect our connecting flight?

I made a call to the Singapore Airlines office in Frankfurt and left a message with the station manager, explaining that our flight could be significantly delayed because of poor weather conditions. Can we have assistance when we reach Frankfurt airport, in the event we are short of time?

We boarded our flight eventually – three hours behind schedule. All of us were nervous. We do not know if we will reach Frankfurt in time to go through the check-in process.

The plane touched down. We readied ourselves to rush for the gate. The SIA station manager was waiting for us at the gate with a placard. He looked at us.

“Your flight is still here, but it is already at the runway waiting to take off. However, we have made arrangements for the group to take another flight with another airline that is departing for Singapore later. Let me take you there now so we can try to clear the check-in process.”

We literally ran for the gate. (Those of you who transited at Frankfurt before would know how big the airport is.) Fortunately we had a buggy service to bring us over.

Even the buggy couldn’t help us in the end.

We cleared the security checks. It was the service crew at the check-in counter who refused to give us entry. She said the baggage check-in had closed and all passengers were cleared. It was not possible to accept more passengers as the flight was getting ready to leave.

Dismayed, disheartened at the thought of having to spend a night in the airport (and where do we go?) I called the SIA station manager to ask for help. Does SQ have any seats in the next flight the following day?

Yes, he said. I am sorry that things did not go as planned. Come to the SIA counter and we will see what we can do for you.

It turns out we were not only given seats for the next SQ flight out, we were also given a complimentary night stay at the hotel next to the airport and some food vouchers for supper in the hotel. The SIA station manager also showed up the next day to check that our seats are confirmed, that we are all cleared for the return flight, and even asked the flight crew to give us a bit more attention on the way home.

Does this sound like good service you would want to enjoy? I certainly hope so! This incident taught me not about service recovery but more of service excellence.

What did I learn from this episode about service excellence?

1. Service starts with empathy. It is asking yourself the question what you would feel if you are the customer in that situation. Once you can identify the feelings the customer has, you can then identify the solutions that can help the customer. In my case, knowing that we were longing to return to Singapore, the SIA station manager arranged to have us transferred to the next most immediate flight available as a preemptive move, even as the status of our first flight was not confirmed.

2. Service means going beyond the scope of duty. The lady at the check-in counter for the other airline did her job perfectly. She checked that those on the flight manifest were in before the stipulated time. She closed the gate at the stated time. She carried her duties well. But she lost the chance to represent her brand there and then. The SIA station manager went beyond. He monitored our flight to Frankfurt, made the decision to transfer our seats to another flight, and rescheduled our flight to the next available SQ flight the next day when contacted. All within one day.

3. Service means paying attention to details. As an airline SIA is responsible to get us to our destination. It need not bother attending to our basic needs. Yes, missing our flight means the airline needs to do something for us, by way of compensation. Yet in this case, it is not their fault that we missed our flight. Yet the airline chose to provide us with a complimentary night stay in a hotel. On top of that, the station manager understood that we might be hungry and provided us with vouchers we could utilise that night. Attention to details is what great companies do in service delivery. They go to the last mile for the customer.

It has been some years since this incident. I forgot the name of the station manager, but I remembered the acts of kindness he did. The other thing I remember? SIA, of course. That incident sealed my impression of SIA, and linked the brand with my idea of service excellence. It also won me over to the brand. Wherever I fly I will always choose SIA for the service they give to their passengers.

I am sure all of us have our pet peeves for different brands. What brands come to your mind when you hear the term “service excellence”? How consistent is the quality of service for companies you engage?

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