What is REAL customer service?

I normally write about communicating effectively with others but I’m writing this while being impacted by a relatively severe customer service incident for a service provider.


Briefly… I’m flying from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland on one of Australia’s carriers (not the iconic one but the younger, funkier upstart), when we get an announcement from the Captain about 30 minutes shy of the estimated landing time.  

“We have a minor technical issue, nothing to be worried about, but we’re going to have to land in Brisbane to get it all sorted out”.

I’m actually OK with this. Very OK in fact as if there’s anything wrong with a plane, I, and I would imagine most of the passengers on the plane, would like it fixed.  No real complaints from anyone, just a few mumblings, but hey, what can you do?  No amount of complaining is going to fix the issue.


So we land in Brisbane, and the comedy of errors begins.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this shouldn’t take long as the engineer is hoping to fix the problem quickly.  We ask you all to stay on the plane for now”.

That’s fine, I’m encouraged that it won’t take long.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry that we can’t use the toilets on this plane while it is on the tarmac..." (yep, I wouldn’t want to be on the tarmac and under the plane if someone used the toilet!),  "...however, we don’t have a process at the moment to get you off board to use the toilets in the terminal.”


“Could only the people who are absolutely ‘desperate’ (I could hear in the cabin manager’s voice that he really wanted to say ‘busting’), please come to the front of the plane and we will escort you off the plane and to the toilet and back for security reasons.” 

Now that’s really going to make me stand up and take the long walk of shame down the aisle in order to be escorted to the toilet first.

This is almost a solution, but I can see that the cabin crew are delighted to undertake this bit of baby sitting.  It’s like a personal escort, but it's really so that we don’t run away.  I feel like I’m back in primary school.

As people realise that they are not the only ones needing to ‘go’, there are quite a few iterations of to-ing and fro-ing to the rest rooms.  I now figure that the repair is taking a little longer than I originally thought.  So while only slightly ‘desperate’, I figure better to be safe-than-sorry in the bladder department and I think I might as well go.  As I heard recently from a recipient of an award at a gala dinner, "when you're over 50, never pass an opportunity to go to the toilet." He also mentioned a couple of other things you should never pass on the opportunity to have.

Luckily for me the First officer is my escort.  Nice guy, very apologetic but also with that, ‘we just have to wait for the engineers to give us the ok otherwise the plane might not stay in the air’ look on his face.  I find out, that although it’s only a minor issue, they need to fix it or the plane is grouned.  Something to do with ‘it only seems to show while we’re flying, not while on the ground’.  That’s the sort of conversation I have with my auto mechanic!  “I can tell you that the noise from the back wheel is there!  It’s just doesn’t seem to be happening right now!”

Once back on board, I settle in for what I hope will only be a short amount of time until we take off.  And then…

"Ladies and gentlemen, we can only test this problem by starting and running one of the engines while on the ground. So I’m very sorry, you’ll all need to disembark.” 

There’s that noise from the back wheel problem again.

So we all leave, and are asked to stay near the gate as “it shouldn’t take to long”.  Mind you it’s already been 45 minutes, which to be fair, isn’t too bad when you’re fixing a heavier-than-air metal tube transporting a couple of hundred passengers.

After about fifteen minutes, just enough time to grab a coffee and a bite as I’m sure the plane won’t have any more catering, I hear the announcement to move to another gate.  Oh dear, the plane’s not going to be ok after all.  Which means luggage has to be transferred to the new plane and more delays.  Once getting to the new gate, I look out the window and see that the luggage ramp is there so all good so far. Until after another fifteen minute delay…

“All passengers on flight xxxx, please proceed back to gate 46." 

Which was our original gate.  Great work! They fixed the plane.



However, the all-round guffaws, laughs, mumbles and grunts from the passengers, all dutifully waiting at the new gate some distance away from the original, was palpable.  I was one of the laughers.  You could write this stuff for a sitcom, but people would find it too far-fetched.

But, this means moving the luggage back…I can just imagine the expletives from the ground staff.

And now, I sit here writing this as I wait for the flight to be called.  Oh wait, another announcement to move back to the original gate, where we’re already now waiting somewhat patiently.    


It makes me ponder the question again, what is REAL customer service?  

Is it smiles and impeccably groomed faces that this company is famous for? Is it the relaxed, friendly demeanour of the staff?  Is it their relatively recent uplifting to give the 'old-stodgy' company a run for their money?

No, those things are differentiators only when the basics are met - and today, they didn’t meet them.  Is the maintenance schedule strong enough to have prevented the issue in the first place?  I have to cut them some slack here, Australia has very stringent safety standards.  So if we couldn't avoid the problem, what then?  

It’s about process when things aren’t going right.  Organisations can end up putting a lot of focus on the ‘people’ component of an organisational system.  That’s what customers see, isn’t it?  Today, they saw that the other two elements failed.  ‘Process’, or how we do things, and ‘technology’, the tools and the data to support decisions.  And sadly, in this case, the communication across the three elements.

With the amount of time and resources wasted, could they have flown into Maroochydore and transported the engineers to the plane, not the other way around.  If grounding the plane in a satellite airport was the issue, then what about the impact to another flight to which they had to cancel due to ‘engineering issues’, which may have been a flow on effect from our plane?  

  • Did they have a process to get people to the toilet? A basic human need - sounds trivial but when you gotta go, you gotta go.
  • Did they make a decision quickly enough about the flight readiness of the plane to not move passengers and baggage from one plane to another… and back again?
  • Did each department communicate well with each other so their customers felt empathy for the issue rather than finding it falling into a category somewhere between ‘what the hell is going on’ and ‘I’m finding it hilarious because you can’t make this stuff up’?

So as I write this as I wait to be re-boarded, I ponder that unfortunately for the carrier, no amount of niceness and apologies from very well trained staff made up for the fact that process let them down.  I hope today is documented to create some new procedures for them.



After being reboarded, we made the (very) short trip from Brisbane to Maroochydore.  A low altitude ‘up and down’ flight culminating in one of the highest speed, bounciest landings I’ve ever experienced (and I fly a lot), followed by a cacophony of reverse thrust louder than a thousand bengal tigers all roaring at once in order to slow us down sufficiently to not run off the end of the runway.  You know those moments when you’re running a bit late when you’re driving and every thing is not quite as smooth as it should be?  You get the idea.

More apologies and ‘thanks for understandings’ as we leave the plane and arrive at our destination, three hours late.  It just shows that although there was a stack of bad luck against them, no manner of ‘visible’ customer service can cover for an inefficient delivery of the actual service.

What a way to travel to see my family on my birthday.


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Toby Travanner - Conference MC, Training Facilitator, Event MC, Business Coach, Corporate MC, Keynote Speaker