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  • Writer's pictureKara Holm

5 Ways to Strengthen Customer Relationships

What happens when a company fails to communicate appropriately with its customers?

Frustration, dis-satisfaction and the erosion of hard-won loyalty.

Travel delays are inevitable. Airlines, such as Air Canada, have an opportunity to build customer relationships when things go wrong; but the airline has not prioritized customers, and, as a result, suffers the negative effects of failing to meet expectations

Award-winning airline Air Canada has been in the news this winter for its poor communication and lack of commitment to resolving customer issues. Just about everyone has an airline horror story: this is my most recent experience.

Last month, my return flight from Las Vegas was delayed due to issues with one of the flight computers. As a result, we missed our connection. When we landed, I received an email indicating that we had been rebooked. Great, right? No, not so much. Air Canada booked us on a flight 24-hours after our original connection. At this time of the year we are prepared for delays. However a full 24-hours as a result of a mechanical failure, when there are flights leaving for our destination every two hours is not acceptable. I expect a company that wants my business and is responsible for my situation to do better.

In the Toronto airport we tried to secure a seat on one of the many flights to Halifax that day. The agents advised us that we could try standby, but also warned that there was a significant backlog of passengers from weekend weather events. We were given different information about the standby list by each of the agents we spoke with. The agents were not proactive about offering solutions. Through careful questioning we learned that we qualified for a hotel voucher, but the information was not volunteered and the agent was not empowered to confirm the offer without approval. We were not offered meal vouchers, although I am sure if we had asked, they would have been provided.

The agents gave us the impression that it would not be possible to get to Halifax that day, by any means. A quick web search revealed that there were seats to Halifax available on both WestJet and Porter Airlines. (One has to wonder how the weekend weather only caused issues for Air Canada.)

Since Air Canada was being so non=committal about our chances of getting home that day and my travelling companion had a very important meeting the following morning, we booked him a flight on another airline at his own expense. We later learned that Air Canada is able to book flights on other airlines. Not one agent volunteered this option to get us to our destination in a reasonable timeframe.

These were all missed opportunities for Air Canada to show us that they were committed to solving the problems caused by its mechanical failure. While the airlines may not be obligated by law to look after passengers delayed by weather or mechanical error, providing great service is a competitive advantage.

Finally back in Halifax, I wrote to Air Canada about our experience asking the airline to refund the cost of booking a seat on the alternative airline. The automated response read, in part:

We appreciate your feedback and you can rest assured that an Air Canada representative will get back to you within 25 business days.

25 business days to respond? “Rest assured”?

Interestingly, I received a response within three days relative to my ticket, offering me 15% discount on a future flight. A gesture I appreciated although it seemed small. (I received a 25% discount code for two passengers when I complained about the communication about weather-related travel delays in December 2016). We have not received a response from Air Canada about the cost recovery of the flight on the other airline for my travelling companion or any type of compensation.

Another acquaintance was recently delayed by 5 hours due to mechanical issues on an Air Canada flight in a small airport. She was not alone in missing her connection. Air Canada agents, rather than helping customers directly, handed out cards that explained how customers could rebook their flights online using the “delayed and cancelled” service. While some people might want the autonomy of rebooking their own flights, most people appreciate receiving help.

We all understand that operating a major international airline is a logistical challenge. In both cases, the situation was not the issue – the issue was how the situation was being managed (or not) being managed) by the airline. The interactions with the Air Canada staff – instead of being focused on solutions and offering positive, consistent communication to travellers – were frustrating and confusing. Many of the agents we spoke with were nice, but not helpful. (As we have addressed in this blog before, being friendly is not the same thing as being effective). They all gave us different information, stressing how complicated everything is and explaining their problems, rather than fixing ours. Air Canada puts the onus on its passengers to ask questions and identify solutions: instead the airline should have given its staff clear messages to share with customers and empowered staff to resolve issues.

If Air Canada were my client, I would suggest the airline invest time and resources in simplifying processes, and improving service through communication so as to reduce the number of complaints, rather than giving out flight discounts to quell the discontented customers. In my experience it is more strategic to make your investments in areas that avoid problems, rather than in correcting issues.

Because of my home airport and the routes that I fly, along with the Altitude program, I shall continue to fly Air Canada. This is not a choice I make as an expression of preference, it is simply the most convenient decision for me. Air Canada could easily shift that relationship and make me “feel good” about being its customer. Communication is key!

5 ways to strengthen customer relationships (in adverse circumstances):

Today we offer 5 Ways to Strengthen Customer Relationships, based on the learnings from this Air Canada experience.

  1. Train employees to focus on solving the customer's problem. This sounds like overly simple advice, but it’s so simple I have to believe that it is often overlooked. The agents we spoke with were focused on explaining the reasons they could not help us, not on how they might be able to provide a solution.

  2. Don’t put the onus on customers to ask the right questions to get the information they need. To build trust and loyalty, offer customers the information they need to make decisions. This means ensuring guest-facing employees understand the processes and are able to communicate them effectively. “Here’s what we can do to help you…”; “Some options you might consider are…”

  3. Empower employees to offer solutions. We have offered this advice in numerous blogs. The faster the issue is solved, the better.

  4. If the business processes are so complicated that employees don’t understand them and can’t explain them, customers will never empathize with the business when things go wrong. Identify the most common issues and create simplified responses to be shared with employees using easy to learn and repetitive “key messages.”

  5. Remember, it’s less expensive to retain a customer than it is to attract a new customer. Invest resources on the front-end to keep customers happy, rather than on the backend, recovering relationships with alienated clients.

Most reasonable people understand things will happen. How a business responds to the challenges makes all the difference. Change the conversation – focus on preventing a negative experience, rather than recovery. Be prepared to use those challenging situations to strengthen your customer relationships and build loyalty. Businesses that take this approach will be rewarded with improved retention and long-term revenue stability.


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