January 04, 2018

Rule #1: In a crisis, always stick to the truth!

I got an unintentional refresher of key principles in crisis communications, when I stranded last week at Luxemburg airport due to snow chaos:

  1. Always stick to the truth. Never lie.
  2. Manage your customer journey well instead of thinking in isolated touchpoints. Otherwise you risk customer satisfaction.
  3. Today’s markets are multi-touchpoint, multichannel, always-on and hypercompetitive. If companies don’t acknowledge digital savviness – including the usage of simple flight trackers – they snub their customers or lose them to competitors.

What happened was a simple snow storm. This might not be daily business for Luxemburg, but it should be part of the equation in winter. The airport display boards were featuring massive delays or flight cancellations for the remainder of the day. Whilst check-in at the gate, I raised the question if my flight could leave to Munich. The answer with utter conviction was: “Sure! A delay of ten minutes only!” My double check how this could be true if the runways were completely blocked with blinking snow ploughs – i.e. the whole airport in shutdown – only lead to a laugh.

Entering the #StarAlliance lounge, I repeated my inquiry seeing the crowd with eyes fixed to the displays and then meandering to the snow outside. It was the mixture of a ‘force majeure’ on a Friday afternoon with stressed business travelers plus leisure travelers either coming back from Christmas or heading somewhere for New Years. There was only one single staff member at the check-in. Long lines were building – all with the same concerns: Will my plane be cancelled? If it is leaving, in how many hours? Will I reach my connecting flight?

The lounge’s staff situation was far from enviable, as she simply couldn’t answer most of these questions. What did strike me:

  • She worked with Excel-sheets – which were outdated the same second they were printed due to the continuously changing situation.
  • Her PC-screen showed the same information like the public display boards – again, not real-time information but outdated ones.

Hence no wonder that she was confronted with aggressive passengers including the one who showed her his laptop with the most accurate stats of a flight tracker and yelled: “How could you lie into my face telling that my plane to Istanbul will land in 5 minutes? The plane was rerouted to Brussels and hasn’t even taken-off to Luxemburg? So we both know that I will never leave earlier than in two hours – if at all tonight.” The only thing the poor employee could do was admitting that he was true and she was not. This scene repeated and repeated for the next hours making her not the most perfect brand ambassador she could have been as one of the key touchpoints for the airline brands.

Make the three C’s – Concern, Control and Commitment – your mantra

This tiny event illustrated in Luxemburg (and I experienced the same at Heathrow, Munich or Beijing) some of the key tenets of crisis communications for companies:

  1. Seek first to understand the situation

Communicate all relevant details to key stakeholders. A “No comment!” is not an option. Even if you are still assessing the situation and need more time, simply tell that you are looking into the issue and will be back in touch. If you don’t have a voice right from the beginning, people assume guilt or make their own assumptions.

  1. Take responsibility

Don’t try to cover up a problem or a crisis. It will only worsen the damage. Instead, manage the situation by taking responsibility and communicating immediately and effectively.

  1. Follow the PATH; i.e. act proactive, accountable, transparent and honest

Real-time is not just a suggestion any longer but an exception of customers. It is an exception that will not turn in your favor if unmet. Due to this real-time verdict – including the challenges of social media – reputation management matters more than ever. It can be lost in the blink of an eye. Think of your needed actions as a „path“: proactivity, transparency and accountability. Never ever be dishonest.

  1. Don’t communicate like a robot

Repeating the sentence “I will look into it!” doesn’t make customers feel better. Send the message that you are emotionally involved and work on making things better. Extending a heartfelt apology is key. Show empathy and sincerity. This will build trust and reduce rumors or misinformation.

Net-net: Make the three C’s – Concern, Control and Commitment – your mantra in a crisis.

In the Star Alliance-lounge incident the usage of state-of-the art flight trackers plus a second staff member could have been some first ‘quick fixes’. The end-to-end journey is what makes people remember. Only by looking at the customer’s experience through their eyes, an organization can really understand how to meaningfully enhance customer satisfaction, improve sales and retention, reduce service cost, and strengthen customer and employees’ satisfaction.

PS to close the loop: Yes, I made it home – with 3.5 hours of delay and a shaky flight in a small prop airliner BUT heaven compared to camping at the airport.

» view LinkedIn article