When guidelines & heuristics are better than strict policy

April 7, 2012

Yesterday I was traveling from NYC to Vancouver after spending the week in New York delivering our Practitioners Foundations course.  I always enjoy my visits to New York as the rural to urban contrast for me coming from a very rural home in the West Kootenay’s of British Columbia Canada is always a delight.  Seeing different places is one of the more enjoyable aspects of my work which to some degree offsets the not so enjoyable fact that I’m often away from my family.  Now my transit options are limited living in rural Canada but the small town I call home, Castlegar, fortunately has a few daily flights that can get me to Vancouver or Calgary which provide a range of international and domestic flight options immediately after a short hop (on much smaller aircraft than the 777 pictured).  Air Canada is the only option which I don’t mind since they have very good service in general with a good international network.  Overall I’m quite satisfied with the service and having attained their highest customer loyalty level in the past few years they definitely do treat me well.  But I do have a few gripes…

Every once in a while I experience the constraints of a bureaucracy or a rigid inflexible policy that really irritates me.  Yesterday was one of those situations. There was a contrast, however, which seemed to amplify my irritation with a final outcome that did mitigate it somewhat.  So let me tell you the story.

I stayed over in NYC an extra day as I had meetings with our training hosts, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.  My return flight was scheduled to depart LaGuardia (LGA) late in the afternoon for Toronto (YYZ).  My meeting ended mid-morning so I was at the airport well ahead of my scheduled flight.  Now because of experience, I know that Air Canada has a strict policy with budget air fares that require a fee for same-day standby.  Being cost conscious I only pay change fees if I absolutely have to or if there is a cost benefit.  Given my knowledge of this I did not ask for standby when checking in at LaGuardia.  However to my surprise the attendant asked if I would like to go standby earlier.  I smiled and said sure.  I was very pleased I would get to Toronto earlier and in my mind was hoping this was to be a sign of a corporate-wide policy change.  To put icing on the cake my LGA experience was made even better when an Air Canada concierge representative (if you are at the top level of the loyalty program AC has assistants available at major airports to assist with travel) politely encouraged me to call them ahead next time as they will take care of all my travel change details before I arrive.  The lovely concierge representative gave me her card and made me promise to call ahead next time.  Now this is great service!

So I’m in flight to Toronto and knowing there are many flights to Vancouver I was hoping to catch an earlier connection to have dinner in Vancouver at a normal time and get some needed rest.  On arrival I rush over to the gate for the next flight to Vancouver (it was actually just boarding so my timing could not have been better) and asked if I could get on the flight – the attendant said something like “Yes you can but there is a standby fee given the fare class you are traveling on.”  When I said that I was permitted to go standby in LGA without any charge the attendant simply said “well, operations at different airports may do things differently but the policy is that for your fare class a fee applies.”  I smiled and said no worries I’ll do some work here in Toronto in the lounge and travel later.  I thanked her for her consideration but was left feeling quite irritated asking myself why in Toronto, which is Air Canada’s main hub, are policies enforced in a way that really irritate Air Canada’s most loyal customers?  This contrast made me even more grateful to the AC staff at LaGuardia who showed what in my opinion was the best example of true customer service and consideration for delivering a fantastic customer experience.

So I went to the lounge and I decided to call Air Canada concierge in Toronto to politely complain.  The Toronto concierge representative was empathetic towards my situation however she said that this was policy and they had to adhere to it.  It was at this point I started to get concerned that if I were to raise attention to this story that I could get LGA staff in trouble for bending the rules.  I can’t see that happening however if it were I tell you I would likely start to seek alternate carriers for some of my travel.  In my mind the LGA staff were amazing.  And although the YYZ staff were just doing their jobs, there is an underlying issue with the fact that they chose to adhere to a strict policy rather than accommodating a very loyal customer.

Now I’m glad to report that the AC concierge representative in Toronto called me back barely 5 min after I was told that they could not do anything to say that I was on stand-by for the next flight out to Vancouver.  She said she was extending the original offer initiated in LaGuardia.

So the key point to this story is that when it comes to customer service adaptive and flexible policies need to be considered especially when they help deepen and expand customer loyalty rather than compromise it.  I fully acknowledge that in some cases policies not only need to but must be strictly followed however in the story shared it seems that this is not one of those situations.  A few questions I would love to ask the AC management team who are instructing front-line staff to strictly adhere to policy for standby travel:

  • what is the cost to AC to allow a passenger take a free seat especially a traveler with no checked baggage?
  • why is it that AC is very keen to allow complimentary standby if it serves them (i.e. the flight booked is oversold) but when it serves the customer they want to apply a fee?
  • what if the flight booked is delayed or has mechanical issues?  Now you have a passenger that could have been advanced earlier but now needs to be accommodated at an additional cost

I could go on with other points but overall it does not make sense from any perspective that I can consider why this strong adherence to policy is good for business. Maybe the standby fees provide a nice supplemental revenue stream to AC. However I would think that delivering a customer experience which encourages one to always fly AC versus another carrier is more important than forcing me to buy the privilege to go standby after business meetings happen to end early.

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