All’s Fine When the Sun is Out

A series of unfortunate events, the customer experience and the organisational impact


By Andrew Grant (with interview Michael Burchett GM Conrad hotel)


Things go wrong, there is often no getting around it. And for organisations responsible for serving customers, when things go wrong it can have a major impact on the customer experience and in turn the overall perceptions of the organisation. Yet while some organisations quickly recover and even prosper when things go wrong, others suffer enormously. Statistics show that the customer experience overall is actually declining over time. A quarterly survey of 65,000 Americans which looked at The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) has found that in the past five years the index has dropped. For some reason, the more an emphasis is placed on improving the customer experience, the less it seems to work.

From our observations and research we have discovered that good customer service often comes from a strong vision, clear systems and processes that embody that vision, and simple common sense. And yet so many are still finding it difficult to get it right. Why is it that one organization can have bright smiling staff that are always willing to help, whilst staff in another company in the same industry suffer from low morale and can find it hard to smile? Why do some individuals and organisations flounder and fall apart under pressure , while others are able to turn potentially negative incidents around through positive initiative? Finding the solution is not always that difficult. Following are a few personal stories from our travels which reveal just how important good customer service is for the customer experience and ultimately the image and reputation of the organisation, and how easy it can be to get it right.


Stop 1: Sugarloaf Ski Resort Maine USA

cnn_ski_resort_accident“200 hundred stranded, several dead and many injured.” This is what we were hearing from the crowd as we looked up the mountain at the emergency zone, still in disbelief that a chairlift cable had literally been blown off its runners in 40 knot winds. People did end up being stranded for hours in the strong winds and icy minus 20 degree Celsius temperatures, but fortunately the impact didn’t end up being quite as severe as it had at first seemed (a few did need to be flown out for emergency treatment, but as far as we know no one died). The way the ordeal was handled ended up causing unnecessary additional stress. On one of  the busiest days of the year in the Christmas/New Year period, with thousands of people out for a holiday, an emergency became a public relations nightmare. At the time there was no official information about what had happened, and no one was informed of the planned procedures going forward, so in the absence of official information the rumours spread and the panic built up. As the media trucks rolled in the rumours continued to spread like wildfire. Almost all of the lifts on the mountain were shut down with no explanation as to why, even hours after the incident. The online the status of the resort remained “fully open” so angry people poured into the mountain buying daily passes to be funnelled into one tiny crowded run. And yet some simple actions could have ensured that the impact of the incident was minimised – perhaps noticeboard updates at the base of the lifts and/or at the entry points to the mountains, or a loud speaker announcement providing accurate information and helpful next actions. In this case they didn’t realise that no action can actually be a negative action. (See CNN report here).

Key Lesson 1: Like the old chairlift that fell down under pressure –things can easily grind to a halt where the right systems are not in place. Staff can become paralysed, ‘blown off the rails,’ and it can be difficult to avoid negative outcomes.


Stop 2: Portland Airport USA

The storm that hit the east coast was one of the worst in years. The whole region was blanketed in a heavy snow and everything came to a standstill. It was fascinating to watch how different people handled the emergencies. At the airport, when a group of people in the departure gate next to us were ready to board their plane, instead of the boarding announcement they heard an announcement that the airline didn’t have enough staff to cover the flight and the flight was now cancelled. They were told they would all need to go home and wait for the next flight. Then they were told the next flight would be in 3 days. An angry crowd soon descended on the poor man who made the announcement, and his attempted pleasant approach quickly degraded into an aggressive defensiveness. Rather than a sincere apology and constructive recommendations and alternatives, which may have helped to rescue the situation somewhat, things rapidly deteriorated. A bad situation had become a public relations and customer experience disaster. Unlike the broken chairlift (which was an freakish accident) the US gets regularly gets hit by serve winter storms, and you would have thought that the airlines would have learnt to deal with these situations. And yet the poor man that was lynched by the angry crowd seemed to have no idea of what was about to hit him and how to handle the situation effectively.

Key Lesson 2: Good customer service requires learning to think ahead (scenario planning) to anticipate potential problems and to know how to deal with them effectively.


Stop 3: Somewhere over the Arabian desert

A380 leaking doorAcross the other side of the world, flying over the Arabian desert on the new A380 airbus, I hear a major crack and an extremely loud noise. The initial noise is frightening enough on its own, but then the sound of hissing air that seemed to be gushing from the door continues for the whole flight. After several recent incidents regarding emergency landings for this particular plane, the passengers were terrified of what it could mean! Instead of turning the plane around, which I fully expected given the apparent gravity of the situation, I was horrified to see the crew simply shoving blankets and towels around the door in an attempt to stifle the sound. “It’s leaking,” was all that one of the crew could offer in response to my enquiry about what was going on. With the worry about an emergency landing somewhere in the Arabian desert on my mind and the incessant hissing noise at what must have been an extremely high decibel measure – which was not effectively stifled –  it was impossible to sleep or concentrate the whole trip, and I could not believe the lack of response the airline had in the follow up. After over a month period and several emails we received a fairly standard email denying that it was a leak and stating, “We are sorry for the inconvenience…” Nothing more. Surely the airline knew of the bad PR the A380 was having, and yet they simply left a deck full of business class passengers seething over the lack of adequate follow up. It may be important to note here the statistics from an International Bank, which found that 68% of customers stopped doing business with vendors due to an attitude of indifference from an employee while only 16% said it was due to problems with the quality of the product.

Key Lesson 3:  Immediate proactive action and a sincere apology to support upset customers in an unpleasant situation and ensure they feel like they are being listened to and respected can help to avoid the considerable impact of a negative experience.


Stop 4: Queensland Australia

The recent devastating floods in Queensland have been described as, ‘Australia’s worst natural disaster ever’. The flooded area was equivalent to the land area of both France and Germany put together. The damage to property has been estimated to be in the billions of dollars, and of course the impact of the loss of lives is immeasurable. The media has been effusive with praise for the rescue teams and for the individuals offering to help. Headlines such as “Rising above the misery,” and “Heroes continue to emerge in the aftermath of the floods” reflect the positive emphasis that is being placed on the follow up process. As a result, money is pouring in from donation efforts from a range of individuals and groups with creative money raising ideas. Queensland was clearly not ready for this, and had limited experience/training/resources to deal with  a disaster of this scale. There was no customer service, marketing or PR department busy ensuring that the impact was minimised, and yet the media response was positive. Clearly, where there is communicated a genuine awareness of issues and sincere desire to work together towards positive outcomes, people can feel a part of the recovery process, which creates a positive attitude.

Key Lesson 4: When people are personally motivated and work as a true community with a common goal and focus they can achieve amazing results


Stop 5: Conrad Hotel Bali

Over in Indonesia, the GM of the Conrad Hotel Michael Burchett has managed to change a whole culture with his staff ‘Hiccup’ policy. When a potentially negative incident occurs, it is labelled as a ‘hiccup’–to indicate that it only needs to be considered as a slight concern in the regular functioning of the hotel, and that if dealt with efficiently and effectively recovery can occur quickly. Positive experiences, which are called ‘Smiles’ are also recorded in the same way. All incidents and follow up actions are recorded so that there is accountability for proactive responses to incidents and also shared learning opportunities. It is interesting to reflect that hotels wanting to increase customer satisfaction and win new business can spend millions on renovations, and yet surveys have shown that only 1 in 5 hotel guests can remember the room and the rate after they leave a hotel, but all of them can remember whether they received good service and good value. A satisfied guest will tell 5 people about their experience, while a dissatisfied guest will tell 10 people. So while heaps of money are poured into the hardware the advertising, it might be more effective to put more of this effort and energy into ensuring that guests have a great experience.

Key Lesson 5: It is important to raise awareness of the impact of negative customer experiences and celebrate positive experiences and to ensure follow up actions became second nature to staff through well established principles and processes.


Many disasters are out of our control, and most customers recognize this – however proactive effective customer service when things turn bad- can often turn a bad story into a good one, stop it escalating further, and may cost a great less in the long run. But for this to happen a holistic approach needs to be implemented throughout the entire organization where people feel empowered to take some initiative, and this happens when people are clear and happy about the values, vision and mission of their company.


Interview with the GM of the Conrad Hotel Bali:  Michael Burchett

Using the in-house Intranet site, two forms are included so that Team Members, all of whom have email access, can pass on feedback received from guests, both positive (Smile) and negative (Hiccup). Both reports are distributed to all Team Members to keep everyone well informed.
Smile simply states the positive feedback passed on by our guests, and is shared with all Team Members.
Hiccup is more detailed and notes:

  1. The nature of the Hiccup – what happened?
  2. What action was taken, including further follow up required.
  3. The Learning, in order that the same issue can be avoided in the future.

The Hiccup form provides the opportunity for other Team Members or Managers to add comments to further enhance the Learning or to support the “Owner” of the Hiccup. The “Owner” is the initiator or the first person to interact with the guest; “Ownership” may be delegated.

Because of our focus on empowering all of our Team Members, we accept and support through reinforcement the fact that it is OK if a mistake happens, and the focus is to resolve and learn. Over the years since we opened, this reinforcement has encouraged our Team Members to grow in confidence and thus feel more empowered.
Hiccups are not a stick to criticize, rather they are a tool to learn.

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