Thursday, 19 August 2010


IMG_0720Image by Daniel Wilder via Flickr
I often speak at conferences, workshops and things and rarely miss the opportunity to laud Emirates Airline, typically using it as an example of advocacy (the fourth step in communication, wake up at the back). I advocate Emirates passionately - it has long been my airline of strong preference.

Perhaps interestingly, EK has my loyalty despite its customer loyalty scheme, Skywards, rather than because of it. For some reason Skywards always manages to make me feel like a beggar. I will never forget my first attempt to redeem airmiles, which resulted in me being thrown out of the business class queue at QAIA in Jordan and told to queue in economy (the upgrade they had confirmed to me wasn't on the system), turning to find one of my clients standing behind me and witness to my seeming pathetic attempt to scab an upgrade I wasn't entitled to. And I will never forgive them for the fact that we should have been checking into Emirates' rather lavish and wonderful Al Maha desert resort this afternoon for Sarah's birthday, but will be going out to dinner instead.

Skywards ticks all the right boxes - it's got a funky website, has lots of 'rewards' and is pleasingly automated - to the point where it's not really a hassle and can even provide the occasional pleasant surprise.Similarly, it can also let you down totally and really screw things up. The latter is a shame, but it's made even worse by the high levels of automation that Skywards employs. When the going gets tough, you get re-intermediated.

I have often wittered on about dis-intermediation, the phenomenon whereby technology removes the middle man and gives us direct access to the stuff we want. It's something I have come to think of as an empowering process - I can research and book my own holiday online, for instance, rather than depending on a travel agent. Similarly, you can buy music online rather than have to go to a shop and buy a CD.

Dis-intermediation is not only empowering for the end user, it also cuts out 'gatekeepers' - the people who sit in the middle and make choices for us - it's the threat hanging over the heads of record companies, publishers and newspaper proprietors. The democratisation of consumer choice, Internet advocates will queue up to tell you, is a positive benefit of technology.

But technology has introduced a new class of intermediary: the call centre. The thinking goes something like this: "Our staff are beings of pure energy who have jobs to do and can't be constantly interrupted by base, carbon based life-forms. Let's outsource talking to our customers and then our people can get on with doing useful things that make us money."

This is why you can't actually speak to anyone who works in your bank's branch anymore, why a call to your London telco routes you to Bangalore and why someone sitting in front of a terminal in Cairo is looking through your credit card statement 'to try and help you resolve this, sir'. These are the re-intermediators, the new middlemen.

So when Skywards fails to make the booking at its Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa despite the failure being clearly and wholly on their part, the people responsible for the booking suddenly fail to respond to emails. Your only recourse is to the call centre, which is staffed by people that can't actually do anything, they can only route requests over the system. They can tell you that they're sorry (how awful, to have to be constantly sorry for others' mistakes) but they can't actually let you talk to anyone responsible. They're the new front line troops, the poor saps that have to sit in a soulless room filled with other operators, being abused by irate people while the incompetent buffoons who are screwing things up never even hear the howls of agony from frustrated, unhappy customers and obviously feel completely free to totally ignore any other form of communication.

The technology that is empowering us is also disempowering us, taking away our choices and our right to expect people executing transactions on our behalf to respond to us and for them to take some sort of responsibility for their actions. And while automating customer service is no bad thing 98% of the time, there surely has to be a better way of dealing with the 2% of instances where rote, scripts and process will not do the job. It's one of the reasons why companies using Twitter as a customer service tool are finding they are met with an initial wave of frustrated customers and then a collective sigh of relief followed by cheering. We just need someone to take some sort of responsibility and fix the mess that's making us unhappy.

We're all missing a human to talk to.
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Anonymous said...

Hi! Pleeease...can I have your email. Need to ask you something. Many thanks.

EyeOnDubai said...

The most frustrating part is that there seems to be a deliberate policy to break that person-to-person connection, for large corporates to shelter behind that unbreachable wall that is '"I have sent an email to the concerned person and they will get back to you." It's not the fault of the people in the call centre, it's the management shirking their responsibilities. If I ever figure out an answer, you'll be the first to know!


Luke said...

Great post. I lost count of the times in Dubai when I had to tell the call centre people at Etisalat or Du that I am not interested in their "sorry". All they could do is open a case file, which someone else would close a few days later without doing anything.

But the most infuriating part is that they are prevented from showing any initiative or taking the matter into their own hands. For example, most call centres don't allow their employees to make outgoing calls - even the phone companies. So they can't call to give an update - you have to call back and explain the whole story to someone else (who can't help you either). I can actually feel the anger well up inside of me just by typing it.

Phillipa said...

I'm so worn down by my battle with mobile phone alleged service provider Savvytel I can hardly type their name without collapsing in a heap. The humans I speak to after two hours on hold don't understand me and I don't understand them. There is no answer to my emails. There is no one who want's to help solve the problem. They have my money and I have bugger all.

Alan said...

I have generally found Skywards call centre staff to be very helpful and often (ok, not always) able to exercise their own discretion to solve a problem. Case in point earlier this week. I was in the UK travelling on a reward upgrade and was suspicious about my pickup as no-one had contacted me. I checked the website and it all showed as "on file" but I was not confident and called the Skywards service centre in Manchester. The operator was incredibly helpful and went out of his way to organise my pickup with only 15 hours to go before the flight. EK's normal policy is 48 hours. The operator's opinion was it was not my fault that they had messed up so their policy should not apply. Great service I thought.

Now bank call centres - that's another story. The red triangles and the citi that never sleeps are truly, truly appalling and it wrankles with me every day that they have my money. Voting with my feet is not an option because they are all as bad as each other.

Rootless said...

Emirates are brilliant - not for their service which is mediocre. But they have figured out exactly the minimum service level they need to offer while still maintaining an inexplicably fawning press and positive public image (not among frequent flyers though as a quick glance at their Skytrax ratings will reveal). As a long-time business traveller who has lived in a number of very different places, I've had top level status in the programmes of a half dozen or so different airlines (representing four continents) over the past two decades. I'm going into my fifth year of gold Skywards and I have to say EK have reduced me to gibbering incoherent rage more times than all the others combined (and that includes some awful US carriers). An it's mostly due to this disintermediation which the "Dubai factor" raises to a new exponent. Untrained people with no power whose only role is to try and soothe you. We see this everywhere here and I've even coined a term for it - obsequious incompetence. Cubed when it's on the phone...

As somebody else pays for my travel and I'm senior enough (yes, in every respect) I get to fly in the front of the plane mostly. It is there that the gap between Emirates hype and the reality of their poor products and services is most evident, particularly for the frequent business traveller as opposed to the "occasion" premium traveller (who they assiduously cultivate). Their business class product is inferior to that of most other decent Asian and European carriers, except for the car service (though Alan's experience of the lost car booking is common - even on paid fares). Where they are particularly below-par is when things go wrong. This is where they are among the worst abusers of the useless call centre. I have to say that in some locations their local service is much better (again Alan's experience in the UK is one I have often shared: in general EK UK staff - mostly Arab by the way - are usually both pleasant and extremely effective in person and on the phone, also in HK, KL and Singapore but definitely not anywhere in the ME or India). In Dubai, their home and hub, they are a special case disaster.

I think they can get away with this because they have designed a brilliant network. They have absolutely maximised Dubai's location as the hub of Europe, Asia and Africa (often forgotten but they fly to more cities there than any other carrier). They have taken one exquisite insight and played it out superbly. The insight is that people in secondary cities also want to travel and don't actually have to transit through their nearest major hub. So Emirates offer the most efficient way to get from Birmingham to Bangalore, Abidjan to Beijing, Dusseldorf to Perth etc. Some time ago they achieved critical mass with this so each added destination now enhances the offering at minimal additional cost. And they still have loads more room to grow with this. They have had some structural advantage of course and some luck (the density of NRIs in key natural early markets). But I think they have hardly put a foot wrong in constructing an unmatched and now (sorry Mssrs Al Baker and Hogan) unmatchable network. So, much as I do it with gritted teeth, I still fly EK a lot because they are usually the only carrier going where I want to go when I want to go there at a price I am willing to pay to get there. And because of this I put up with being reduced to a gibbering wreck every so often.

PS If you think the airline is bad, DO NOT TOUCH the outsourced "Emirates High Street", which now doesn't even have a phone centre where you can rant about the failure to deliver an item ordered 7 months ago and for which money and points were deducted, order confirmed by email but then nothing..not even email replies any more. And the Skyward service centre can't help, of course, because it's a different department!!

Rootless said...

Sorry for the duplicate postings: please feel free to remove obviously. I got an error message and assumed it hadn't gone so kept trying..

PPS Having also gotten a freebie there, I have to say I found Al Maha to be a big fat meh! (as the kids say - don't they?)

alexander... said...

Rootless - Duly deleted the two duplicates!

I agree that EK's model is brilliant, trust their maintenance and professionalism in the air and have found them pleasingly consistent. Regionally I'd use FlyDubai these days.

Thanks for the warning about Emirates High Street! I would have gone there, having failed to redeem my miles for the hotel.

Been to Al Maha several times and have always enjoyed it - although we were talking about how we might, this year, find it a bit run down and dowdy, perhaps in need of a facelift after its years in the sun.

For now, that's a moot point. Neither of us wants anything to do with the whole damn lot of 'em - expect, perhaps, I will be continuing to press for a response, any response, from someone responsible at Skywards as to how they can just ignore unhappy customers in the way they've been ignoring me.

I'm not going away.

Grumpy Goat said...

It was a couple of days ago that Brandy and Malcolm were discussing bank customer service on the Dubai Eye Business Breakfast radio show.

The conspiracy theory being promoted was that all UAE banks deliberately offer the same abysmal level of customer service, which irritates the customers but not to the extent that they'll bank elsewhere.

Of course, the customer service elsewhere is identically appalling, so there's no real incentive to move.

"Better the devil you know."

I found it particularly ironic that the programme is sponsored by one of these UAE banks. The one with the hilarious advert for the savings account:-

"Here's the interest on your savings account, madam."

"Where...? Oh yes. It's so...tiny."

i*maginate said...

Yalla I'm booking my ticket already! And I still only pay cash...

Anonymous said...

I do genuinely think that it's marvellous that Emirates can count on the loyalty of people like you, despite your many complaints about aspects of its service. I also find it laudable that long-term residents in Dubai can be excited by the concept of their city rather than its content.

Personally, I'm more old-fashioned. I don't believe hype is an alternative to quality. I don't think that clever marketing, however amusing, makes up for shoddy service and in the long run, it takes impeccable execution to make an impeccable idea work.

But that's just me. I also don't believe that calling something world class makes it so. To each their own. Dubai's real coup is its understanding that the world is full of people prepared to ignore reality when fed an appropriately glittering fantasy.

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