Zero Defects…or Else

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The well-chronicled debacle at JetBlue Airlines following the recent Valentine’s Day Storm, which cost the airline some $30 million in overtime, passenger refunds, and future travel vouchers, has sent shivers through every executive and brand manager who think they have their Customer Experience figured out. CEO David Neeleman who has spent the past seven years building a strong corporate culture centered on customer loyalty and becoming (along with Southwest) the recognized customer-friendly leader in the airline industry, now knows that all it takes is one operational breakdown to shatter that image.

I like to think about brand benefits in terms of functional and emotional. Job #1, the product better work when you turn the key. That’s the functional part. With most product and service offerings, that’s an expectation. In the airline business, even that is an iffy proposition. Although customers do expect a safe flight, they are resigned to the fact that as a fairly regular occurence flights will be delayed, baggage lost, crew unavailable, etc.

With expectations really low, there is great potential to improve the experience. To that end, layering in a well-conceived customer-service experience can be a great differentiator, but only if the underlying product works even within the low-ceiling expectations of the typical passenger. JetBlue does have plans to upgrade internal processes so they can better cope with service disruptions. I, for one, hope that the plans to implement these operational changes don’t come at the expense of the better emotional experience on which they had built the company.

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