If you take a flight around mid day in a domestic airline in India, you are almost sure of getting a good meal. I wonder how they keep the enthusiasm levels of the hosts in the aircraft so high Even on a half an hour flight, they give you something to eat and drink and they wear that broad simile on the face. It's like running a hundred meters sprint, while serving the guests with a smile.
I happened to be on one of these mid-day flights, returning to Bangalore. Since I checked in late I had no choice and was allotted the middle seat. As soon as the flight reached the cruising altitude, the cabin crew was ready to serve the meal. To the question on meal preference by the air hostess I was ready with my reply " non- veg"; my neighbor , sitting beside the window, a soft spoken man, also requested for a non-vegetarian meal, but it was easy to hear it wrong because of the low volume. My neighbor on the aisle looked a staunch vegetarian and as expected ordered for a vegetarian meal. All of us began eating; my non-veg neighbor had hardly taken a few morsels of rice, when he pressed the button to call the attendant. The air hostess was quick to be there to enquire about the passenger's concern; who complained "I asked for non-vegetarian food and you have given me veg". "Sorry sir" replied the air hostess "here's a non- veg pack, let me take back the packet I gave you first ".
‘Listen carefully', I thought was the first lesson. Was it the customer's fault of not speaking loud or was it the air-hostess' problem of not listening or clarifying if she were in doubt? I think we should give the benefit to the customer and make sure we pay great attention when the customer raises his demand. This is a simple case of taking verbal orders, but in a business environment; say in a B to B environment organizations must have adequate methods to capture the needs of the customers. The organizations following ISO 9000 standards would call it a ‘contract review process'and will have properly designed formats to capture customer needs before accepting an order.
Now, my soft spoken neighbor began relishing the new meal given by the airhostess, it was again a few mouthfuls when he stopped and grumbled, "Oh goodness, vegetarian again". I thought to myself, this seems to be a labeling problem. Packaging and labeling are areas that could lead to several customer complaints. My vegetarian neighbor was startled a bit; he exclaimed "In that case, the packets with "Vegetarian" mark could actually have non-vegetarian food". That's right, I thought and that could even be a bigger problem- a staunch vegetarian forced to eat non- vegetarian food, because of labeling issues. Well, my non-veg neighbor was prompt to press the button and the smiling air-hostess was back, yet again! "Veg. again", he complained. The air-hostess rushed back to search, but I am not sure what she wanted to investigate. Did she want to check all the labels or did she want to open up all the packets marked "Non-vegetarian" to see if it was true? She was back in about five minutes, while this hungry passenger kept waiting.
She promptly reported "Sir, I checked all packets and they are the same". Now I was thoroughly confused. What did she check? What could one search for without knowing exactly what the problem is?
This seems to be a symptom of excitement, just based on a complaint. This can happen in any industry and such excitement and lack of understanding of the actual complaint can only lead to panic and chaos. Capturing all possible details related to the issue is vital for quick resolution of the problem. The customer contact personnel also should be able to understand the technicalities of the product and service, so that they can ask relevant questions, clarify and obtain the right inputs to solving the problem. Normally, in B to B scenarios, organizations have properly designed formats to capture customer complaint details; some times it may seem to be bureaucratic or too much of paper work, but it is extremely important to capture all details to address the problem.
Sitting in the aircraft, I was wondering what this man was going to do next! Would he eat the vegetarian meal or stay hungry and whine? The air hostess was in a tearing hurry to move away from the scene after pleading her inability to do anything on this issue. She didn't realize that I was now trying to intervene to sort out the customer complaint. I requested the passenger to clear the rice on top of the pack and check what exactly is underneath- I asked him if he saw vegetables or chicken pieces. The unhappy customer reluctantly cleared the rice with spoon and to our surprise we saw chicken pieces. My vegetarian neighbor heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God, there is no labeling error", he uttered. My hungry neighbor realized his mistake and continued to have his meal. Unfortunately the air hostess had left the spot and she never realized that this was indeed an unjustified complaint and the customer was happily having the meal.
I thought this was an excellent lesson to learn of what happens if you don't listen to your customers. We may not be able to address the problem effectively. Also, it is possible that your product or service is fine; it's only that the customer was skeptical because of a previous bad experience with your service or product, or he didn't know how to use the product or he was not asked the right questions. So it's important to listen and ask the right questions and to clarify.
Pradeep Kumar E.T. A Master Black Belt in Six Sigma and Country Head- Operational Excellence with Tyco Electronics Corporation India Pvt Ltd. Feedback can be e- mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org