Customer service missteps can lead to long-term damage

In an age where bad customer service experience can go viral in a matter of hours, it’s more important than ever to respond, and respond quickly, to concerns.

Recently, a series of unfortunate events, which included a diaper emergency and a cold encounter with an Alaskan Airlines desk attendant, led to a missed flight for a young Canadian family trying to get home from Las Vegas.

After the airline refused to let them board the plane, the couple was forced to book a last-minute flight with another airline, setting them back $1,000. They complained to Alaska Airlines, but the company essentially told them, tough luck. This is when things got ugly for Alaska Airlines.

The newlyweds set up a Twitter account and a blog titled “Alaska Airlines Hates Families” to share their story. The online response was huge and quickly went viral. Their experience became a hot topic all over the Web, from blogs to news outlets.

Eventually, the airline relented and offered to reimburse the couple, but not before it suffered a severe backlash from angry families across the Web.

The airline’ mishandling of this situation shows just how powerful customer service missteps can reverberate in the world of instant communication. What the desk attendant did in this specific situation was probably wrong, even given the airline’s famous commitment to on-time flights; but the way the company fumbled the response to the customer’s complaints is telling. They had an opportunity to rectify the situation and save face after the incident, but ignored it.

The experience left the family feeling ignored and unvalued. That is the opposite of good customer service! In an age where time is money, and everyone is cutting corners, customer service is one of the first things to go, but that is absolutely the wrong approach.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it dehumanizes the experience. The couple weren’t treated like the valuable customers they are. Not only did Alaska Airlines lose their business, but the experience and resulting online firestorm caused potential flyers to consider other options when planning vacations—a real blow to their brand and bottom line.

I’ve said before that it’s important to welcome feedback in the Web 2.0 era. But that also means you have to be willing to respond—quickly! Alaska Airlines had an opportunity to turn this episode from an unfortunate incident into a positive experience. By delaying their response and passing off a legitimate customer concern, the brand suffered incalculable damage.

Companies have always had an obligation to provide people with great customer service. Now that people can broadcast their experiences online, it leaves no room for neglect. This example highlights just how damaging it can be to neglect customers.

No company is perfect, and accidents happen, but your ability to deal with negative experiences can have a huge impact on the way people perceive your service. That’s what I try to convey in my customer service training programs, and this story is a perfect example why.