Ansett Australia takes decisive steps to improve Service delivery

This article was kindly submitted by Ms Belinda Davoren, Community Relations Manager for Ansett Australia, a major airline in Australia and Asia Pacific following her case presentation in Manila in August 98. The idea of setting up a rapid deployment force to handle customer service failures is to my knowledge unique and deserves attention. Especially the details of how to make it work inside a large organisation, overcoming the inevitable turf fights, channel conflicts and 'it's not my table' syndrome makes interesting reading.

Niels Kjellerup, Editor September 2nd 98


by Ms Belinda Davoren, Community Relations Manager.

All organisations today are attempting to differentiate themselves from their competition in the most cost effective method. It is becoming very apparent that this can be achieved through quick and personalised customer service, and service recovery.

Ansett Australia has made significant steps towards the way they handle customer issues, and how this vital customer information is utilised throughout the whole organisation.

The process was begun by the Executive Chairman, Rod Eddington who established a unit called Community Relations. This unit has been operating for two years and is growing in its ability to assist and ‘value add’ to the various front-line departments. Community Relations is placed within Corporate Affairs and reports to the Director of Corporate Affairs. This provides the unit very little, or no, hierarchical barriers to stop any initiatives being implemented.

There are 25 Community Relation (CR) staff based nationally and internationally (ports where Ansett Australia flies to) with a mix of full-time and seconded staff. Seconding staff is a new initiative for Ansett. Two staff are seconded from front-line areas of the airline, and work with CR, learning new methods of handling customer issues and the emphasis now placed on the customer’s feedback. At the end of the secondment period these staff return to their front-line positions and two more staff are brought into head office. This is an extremely effective method of helping to ‘spread the word’ of the new Ansett and the importance of the customer.

The main objective of the unit is to manage complaints and compliments and to do this more effectively and pro-actively than ever before. Customer feedback is received by letter, fax, email, phone, flight attendant reports or directly from a front-line staff member.

A performance indicator has been established, for the Community Relations staff, of acknowledging and resolving all customer issues within three days. No longer are standard letters sent out to the customer as this gives no opportunity to obtain valuable feedback from the customer. All responses must be made by telephone. Questions are asked of the customer to ascertain what was done well and what could have been done better. Also, we ask the customer if they have any suggestions of how a situation should have been handled. By responding to all customer feedback by the telephone Ansett can be sure that at least 80% of our customers are satisfied and will fly with us again. We know this to be true because it is very hard to close a phone call if the customer is NOT happy with the outcome.

The Community Relations staff are empowered to make decisions immediately to resolve the issue. If they were not given this empowerment, then the customer would think, "I am obviously not speaking to the right person, I will try to contact someone higher up in the company". All Community Relations staff have extensive customer service experience and are trained in conflict resolution. The CR unit coordinates any legal or insurance issues and acts as an early warning signal to the organisation to highlight when there is a service problems with an aspect of the flight experience. By empowering these staff, and having them totally decentralised throughout the organisation, Ansett Australia is able to give all front-line staff an avenue to address all customer’s issues, if they themselves are not able to finalise it.

Customer feedback and information is logged into a computer database system which allows front-line staff to enter any customer data which they may deal with over the period of a day. All this information is collated on a monthly basis to provide a measurement on what the customer ‘really’ thinks of our product and service to executive management through to front-line supervisors.

Obviously as the name suggests, the staff within the Community Relations Unit regularly do presentations to a variety of Community and Commercial audiences. Some examples are: Guide Dogs Association of Australia; Australian Quadriplegic Association and Royal Victorian Blind Association. Some of the commercial organisations which we have presented to do not use Ansett as their preferred carrier. We can then use this as an opportunity for our commercial sales executives.

The main message of the Community Relations Units is that we do not want to take over the work of front-line staff, however, we do want to standardise it.

There are three main cultural changes which Ansett had to overcome internally. The first being the mindset that Getting it right the first time is more important than Service Recovery. Yes, it would be marvelous if we were able to get it right all the time, however this is not possible, especially in a service related industry. The front-line staff are still able to retain the customers if they recover well, and it is highly likely that you will create a totally loyal customer who will not defect.

The second cultural change which had to be overcome, is the ‘silo’ method of thinking which, up until recently, was very predominant within Ansett Australia. The organisation was very ‘consistent at being inconsistent’, depending on which area with which the customer was dealing. Community Relations is an effective tool to encourage all front-line departments to think about how the customer is handled beyond the parameters of their particular area. Staff are encouraged to consider the repercussions of their actions on the next aspect of the flight experience. This is being accomplished by CR becoming involved in all front-line training and meetings (eg. Flight Attendants; Airport staff, Reservations; Global Rewards (Frequent Flyer) Service Centre staff, Telesales and the Commercial Sales staff). Because the Community Relations Unit is totally neutral and involved in customer issues for all departments, they add feedback of the other areas, what they can contribute and how they are affected or can affect that particular department.

Encouraging total cross-departmental communication is created by establishing forums. Once a month Community Relations holds a national and international conference call for one hour. The areas involved in this call are: Global Rewards, Reservations, Flight Attendants, Airport staff, Baggage staff, Retail staff, Holiday reservation staff, Air New Zealand staff and the 25 Community Relations staff. During this conference call all service issues and problems which have been highlighted by the customer are discussed. When a product improvement is considered, it is discussed by all areas and then the relevant department can take the idea and implement it into the Ansett service.

The Community Relations Unit is implementing many pro-active customer measures. Obviously the most important issue is to obtain as much feedback from the customer as possible. For this reason, a computer system is being implemented by the CR department which will enable front-line data entry from any department within Ansett. It is commonly known that approximately 23% of customers give feedback to front-line staff outlining particular service issues with which they are not happy. However until recently there was no effective avenue to allow Ansett staff to give these vital statistics back to the organisation.

Another pro-active customer follow-up tool is the implementation of a Flight Attendant "Hot Line", which is accessibly on every aerobridge in all airports. This allows the Flight Attendant (if they have done all possible to resolve the customer issue and the customer is still not satisfied) to ring through on the ‘hot line’. The Flight Attendant advises their own name, the customer’s name, the issue and a contact number for the customer. Community Relations immediately telephones the customer and follows up on ‘what Ansett can do to restore their faith in our airline’. The concept is to encourage the customer to give feedback, and not wait until the customer gets so angry that they write in a letter of complaint or defects.

Similarly, another pro-active procedure which has been implemented is Airport Service Recovery. This is implemented when an incident occurs (in flight) which affects all the customers on board the aircraft (eg. pressurisation problem; aborted take-off or flight diversion because of weather). In the past there was no effective process developed to handle the incident. Ansett found from experience, that there is a very real need to create an effective communication channel between airport operations through to head office. The staff at the time of the incident, need to remember that service recovery does not end once the customer leaves the airport. It is vital that telephone contacts are obtained in order to make contact with the customer. There is now a total procedure which involves pilots through to all airport staff, coordinated by Community Relations and then passed (if necessary) to the sales executives if there are customers from commercial accounts which have been affected.


Community Relations Unit will not grow in size as Ansett Australia is very aware that it is vital that all front-line staff take ownership of any customer issues which may arise. However front-line staff must be confident that if an issue requires further follow-up, that they have an affective back-up.

The Community Relations Unit will continue to create pro-active measures for any service issues and will increase the awareness of the Unit, both internally and externally. Also, it will ensure that the pro-active, ‘best practice’ methods are standardised and globalised throughout Ansett Australia and its partners.

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