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In April 2009 I flew to Australia with Qantas, a brand I’d always heard good things about. I’ll spare you the details but the long flight sucked. 

So I decided to write to customer services to issue a light complaint, in the hope for a bit of love on the return leg. 

I contacted Qantas via a form on its website, while logged in to my frequent flyer account. An auto-response email was promptly fired back at me. Some 18 months later I’m still waiting for a proper reply!

I’ll now provide some analysis of that auto-response email:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us.  As a member of our Frequent Flyer program, we value your feedback.

No you don’t. If you did you’d have replied to me.

We strive to provide exceptional customer service and customer feedback helps us identify products and services that need improvement.  

Feedback only helps if you take notice of it and bother to respond.

The details of your experience have been logged in line with our continuous improvement program.

Logged? Well I guess you can log something and then ignore it forever. Logging something and burying it does not amount to “continuous improvement”.

Please note that Customer Care reviews all feedback, and will endeavour to respond to you within the next 25 business days.

25 ‘business’ days? Is Qantas crazy? No respectable business requires more than a month to respond to a customer query. It’s a total outrage to even attempt to set expectations along these lines (when 24 hours is perfectly achievable). My return flight was only two weeks away when I wrote the note of complaint, so I didn’t hold out much hope. The phrase "will endeavour to" actually means ‘might or might not bother to’.

Qantas also appended this charming one-liner onto the end of its auto-response email it sent me:

Note: Please do not respond to this email as this is an "outgoing only" service that does not accept incoming messages.

Ah. Here’s a direct translation of what this means: "Note: Do not reply to this email because we are idiots who have no desire to have a two-way conversation with our customers. Now please go away and shut up."

Why do firms insist on sending service-related emails like this from a 'donotreply@' address? It’s insane. And it leaves a very bad taste. Brands should allow the customer to choose the service channel, and they should respond via that same channel, rather than fobbing them off and slamming the door shut.

Putting the cart before the horse

I’d filed this one away in my head but noticed that Qantas last week launched a Twitter presence, and has swiftly started to use it for slightly lame marketing reasons

Maybe I’m in a minority of one as far as bad service (wait, I mean ‘no’ service) and Qantas is concerned, but then again what if I’m not? It’s all very well jumping on the social media bandwagon, but no company should embrace social media without sorting out the business basics first.

The point is, if Qantas can’t respond to customers in the right way – and within a reasonable timeframe – in private, then how on earth will it manage to do so in public?

One of the common misconceptions about social media is that it is free or cheap. Sure, you can quickly set up a Facebook Page or Twitter profile, but once it scales, do you have the resources in place to manage social media properly? 

For the really big brands, social media might start off as a marketing / PR play but it is highly likely to become another channel for customer service, and potentially a big, noisy one. And that’s something that will require people and processes (that actually work).

Qantas will learn some hard lessons if it ignores customers in public, or waits 25 business days (or 18 months) before responding to tweets from unhappy customers. It’s easy to pass the buck when nobody is watching, but it’s a whole different ball game when everybody can tune in.

Chris Lake

Published 29 November, 2010 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Michael Harris

Michael Harris, Freelance consultant at Private company

Chris, this entirely the wrong article to write and shows an inheriant misunderstanding of how big businesses work.

It also demonstrates no understanding of the local issues in Australia which finally caused Qantas to start a journey on using Twitter to communicate, which you could have easily gained a grip on with a bit of journalistic research.

Your core thesis suggests that before any company ventures into the world of social media, that they should have every bit of their business functioning perfectly, including existing feedback channels.

This is implicitly wrong, and your article acts as a slap on the wrist for companies where their operations are spread over wide areas who can't have everything right at once.

Instead of bemoning Qantas for not having existing feedback systems right, you should be applauding them for using social media, and a unit of their business having the flexability to identify and react on unique opportunities so quickly.

Innovation and opportunity breeds improvment. By encouraging companies to enter the social media space in a considered fashion, this creates a further outlet for companies to become better aware of other issues. This in turn leads to improved feedback channels, and greater opportunities to resolve business issues.

Digital marketers should be encouraging companies, specially large disjointed organisations, to enter the social media space if only to become exposed to a greater range of viewpoints and issues related to their business.

You can argue the central thesis of your article until you're blue in the face - but it will still forever be wrong.

And for the record, I'm a frequent customer of Qantas and have also expeirenced these exact same problems and wanted to see it rectified. Rather than write a pithy, one sided and ultimately ineffective article that will do nothing to bring about a solution - I took direct action and did something about it.

As a result of this I now have a direct line of contact with a senior company executive for Qantas - and I'm hoping based on initial interactions that there's a good chance these issues could be fixed in the coming year.

over 5 years ago

Stuart Aplin

Stuart Aplin, Owner at Decibel Media

Agree with so much in this article, especially that too many companies use the standard 'Thanks for contact us, your opinion is important to us and we appreciate the feedback' line without any further follow up, but you've got to remember that the customer service people and the marketing people are often completely different teams with very little centralised oversight.

In a perfect world all customer communications (whether it's the marketing activity, the actual transaction process or the post-sale relationship management) would be seen by every company as simply one of many potential touchpoints and would be managed holistically.

Some companies are heading that way but it requires such a massive shift in internal structure and processes that most businesses (Quantas included obviously) are stuck with each separate team doing their own thing.

Sometimes these teams and their activities do manage to overlap and reinforce each other quite by accident, but until businesses start looking at 'communication' as a single activity i'm afraid you'll always find customer service people logging the details of your complaint and marketing people doing misguided things on Twitter...

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Michael - We'll have to disagree then. By your own admission there is an existing problem with customer service and as such I think that Qantas may be biting off more than it can chew. Shouldn't it make sure the foundations are steady before renovating the house?  

I'm a big believer in social media as a means of driving engagement, it's just that you need to plan and manage Twitter and Facebook effectively. That's the point of this "ineffective" post. Qantas can't answer simple customer queries, even within that ridiculous timescale of "25 business days". So how the hell will it manage to deal with a flood of bad noise on Twitter, the next time a crisis occurs? 

PS - I tend not to blindly applaud brands for signing up to Twitter (arguably two years late). It's what they do with it that counts. And if they fall into the trap of thinking it's all about PR and marketing then they're in for a rude wake up call.

@Stuart - I hear ya. Changing organisational structure and culture is one of the biggest issues that the big brands are wrestling with. I know it's not easy, but you've got to try, right? Customer contact has for years been seen as a burden, when it is really an opportunity to delight and retain customers.

over 5 years ago

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Josh feldberg

Thanks for this. I totally agree some brands get social before they even learn to answer the damn phone....ASOS drive me mad. They answer to emails but have no phone number. Another classic is Virgin trying to provide customer service through twitter- they onlye ever reply please visit www.virginmedia.com 

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Josh - ASOS is brilliant at email service, by all accounts. Virgin Media kept me on hold for 55 minutes earlier in the year. Quite staggering. Once I was put through to the right department (my fourth transfer) the chap dealt with my query within a minute. Madness. 

First Direct is amazing when it comes to the phone... it picks up immediately, and there's no automated shit to wade through. Zappos considers itself "a customer service company that is in the business of selling shoes", and 75% of its $1bn annual revenue is generated by existing customers (go figure, as they say!).

over 5 years ago

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stk

As someone who has published several of our real-life customer experiences on our website, I applaud your efforts to point out a not-so-very-obvious connection. So many companies hop onto social networking bandwagon with little understanding of the magnitude or the ramifications of their actions, especially in light of existing customer feedback failures.

Very few people take the time to provide valuable feedback to large multi-national companies. The least those companies could do is acknowledge it. The very best they can do is act on it.

Every once in a while though, a customer complaint does have an effect. (Thinking about another airline - United - and how they lost that poor fellow's guitar!) Hopefully, Quantas has an ear open on a feedback channel <em>somewhere</em>.

Cheers from Canada

over 5 years ago

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Mike

Hmmm...while I agree totally with what you're saying about having to effectively manage your resourcing in the social media space, I'm a little tired of reading blogs by social media experts lauding their experience over everyone else, with their venom aimed at companies.

While I agree there needs to be a holistic approach to communications (ie there's no point tweeting a quirky campaign like the ashes they're currently doing while their engines are bursting into flames), I think we can afford to provide a little patience while industries find their feet online. Yes they should have experts providing advice, but there is also the culture shift that needs to happen at the same time, and for a lot of big industry, it's a slow ship to turn.

As for the email you got - I totally empathise. 25 business days is a ridiculous long period (by about 24 days) but it may give some indication of how many people are writing to complain.

Mike

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Mike - I hear you. It's not about lauding experience since I have zero experience of transforming the culture of a company with 40,000 employees, much less running a business of that size. That said, I know people who do and by listening to them we can understand some of the challenges they face.

I appreciate that things take time. This is just about ramming home the message that companies need to get the beautiful basics right. Any existing issues will be massively amplified if things get out of control on social media. It's important that these slow-moving firms become more agile, to respond to customers in times of crisis (it's rarely a PR function). Everybody's feeling their way into this space. Best practice is still being determined.

In the past decade customer service has been perceived as a cost burden by a lot of big businesses, as highlighted by the outsourcing of call centres to the Far East. It seemed to be some kind of useless pursuit towards achieving lower costs, as opposed to raising standards of customer service. I think that's starting to change.

Nowadays a lot of brands seem to be embracing more of a customer-centric approach, and are investing in satisfaction and engagement. We're lobbying for that kind of thing and want to help accelerate it.

I used the email (or lack of) as an example of setting the wrong kind of expectations ("25 days" - that's gotta be the equivalent of 25 years on Twitter) and yet still not achieving that low-rent level of service. I wasn't trying to be venomous and am sure that Qantas will put things right for other customers in the future.

over 5 years ago

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Robert Samuel

Great point Chris.  Social media is meant to be a tool in good business, not the subsitution of it. :-)

over 5 years ago

Jason Neave

Jason Neave, Owner at Via Media Communications

Talk about timely. I've been dealing with that innaproriate 25day wait time now for 125 days... Have spent countless hours on the phone (on top of the 3 unanswered emails and attempts to engage an @QantasFF twitter account), and despite the fact I'm both a Frequent Flyer and Qantas Lounge member I still can't find anyone who will take ownership of what is a serious problem - well, serious to me only it seems.

I actually love the airline, but familiarity is breeding some serious contempt at the moment, made more frustrating by their efforts to jump on an Ashes meme rather than actually offering to engage customers through the channel.

If phone, email and twitter won't work, maybe they'll take notice of a letter from the Ombudsman?

over 5 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

Congratulations Chris – it is only by “making an example” of the big boys that I think any of them have the faintest chance of survival, and probably the whole western economy with it! By all means allow them a bit of time and grace to bring her around, as Michael was suggesting, but not so long that their whole market has moved on.

I’ve followed all the blue-chips suggested channels, over the years, and also gone straight to the top, as Michael was suggesting, but which obviously only a tiny fraction of customers and prospects get a chance to do with these faceless/nameless “brands”. In my instance it was RBS and Fred the Shred and his Head of Retail sidekick, before he personally was infamous and before the OFT managed to ruin the small claims/big stick that was working so nicely for getting £40 “automated bounce” charges paid back. He was obviously too busy changing his £1,000 a roll wallpaper and buying car parks from his Lear Jet to pay too much attention to pesky/lowly individual customers though, so merely had his “customer service” gal tell me how much better a bank than NatWest (who had lost a “staggering” £750 MILLION), RBS really, really were….

But I have equally found such risible nonsense at places like Experian (no names policy), Newsquest (telesales dept with main switchboard on CTPS), AOL (don’t give out email addresses) and Virgin Media (if “Mobile” rings “Media” published/promoted "Customer Helpline", it’s 25p a minute, even to listen to 30mins of elevator music while-u-wait – and do watch out when 25MB of data-stream is 30p, but 50MB is £80 – without warning – now won’t you “Dear Customer” – love “The Team”). And, most recently, in the Chartered Institute of Marketing Members LinkedIn Group (not even owned/managed by CIM, note) – and whence I think much of this total nonsense emanates in the first place – who obviously prefer not to have non-members pointing out any of these embarrassing illnesses, and use the bouncers accordingly (although I see the club owner has joined us this morning – which is nice  ;-)

The signs that we might be bringing her around, and only suffer a glancing blow down the side of that iceberg, is that Procter & Gamble (B2C) have Customer Service Reps in training to actually communicate, as real people, with large swathes of Mumsnet/Facebook type customer-bases and IBM (B2B) do indeed have sales people who blog (both US based thus far I think, but the cloud knows no bounds). And that, might, eventually, get the message home to even the likes of the CIM that, in actual fact, not many of us do like to buy our products and services “as instructed”, from a vending machine, and with absolutely no recourse if anything goes wrong with that. P&G having been one of the ones quoted as “responsible” for having the CIM lose its way from being The Sales Managers Association, in the first place – as the CEO was telling us when he re-re-re-branded and launched The Sales Leadership Alliance - in September 2010 - just in time for the centenary.

It’s “people”, people, in other words, be they sales, customer service, marketing or business development, who do business with “people”. And if you cannot afford to have “people” make all the difference to the product or service you sell/market, you’d better just be the “cheapest chips”, or die.

over 5 years ago

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Jonathan Moody

I have found on several occasions during the last five years or so that the following gets a response pretty quickly once you have exhausted customer service channels: - Write a brief and accurate account of your experience. - Add a list of media (social and otherwise) where you might feel inclined to share your experience. - Email it to as many top executives in the company as you can find, especially in customer service, PR, communications. Try it - you might be amazed how quickly the organisation responds. Do, however, make sure your complaint is genuine and as specific as possible.

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Jonathan - Ha! I did that with the mobile operator Three after they sold me a 3G phone that - get this - wouldn't send or receive text messages for around six months. I spent 30+ hours on the phone before emailing Canning Fok, the chairman of parent company Hutchison Whampoa, and a bunch of Three's UK directors / PR folks. That it ever came to that was an outrage. It's a case study in how to lose a customer for life.

@Andrew - love the concept of the Twitter tax. The gap between marketing and operations is surely the cause of 99% of customer issues.

@Jason - I feel your pain!

@Neil - An audience with Fred The Shred! Good examples. Things are definitely changing for the better, it's just that it needs to accelerate...

over 5 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

Yeah not so much an "audience" Chris, more a "reject" letter from his PA actually ;-)

over 5 years ago

Corrie Davidson

Corrie Davidson, Social Media Manager at Sisarina, Inc

Regardless of their customer service in the past, I would encourage Qantas to get involved with social media and congratulate them on taking advantage of a trending hashtag that was easy for them to piggyback off. At least someone in the company is trying to make changes.

Before lambasting them for what we are assuming here was "bad service" to you on your long flight (and while I would never defend lack of response or follow up to a customer complaint) we don't know what really happened or even what you said in your email to them. Companies make mistakes. They should attempt to rectify and correct those mistakes, yes, but discontinuing progress of the company due to a lack of success in one area seems hardly justified. Hopefully their foray into social media will help them become better at helping and connecting with their customers.

p.s. I have never flown Qantas, but have had MANY trying air travel experiences of my own... like everyone I imagine.

over 5 years ago

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Emma

I reckon that if their twitter had been running while you were on your flight from hell, and you had tweeted your experience at them, you would have got a response right away. I work for a travel company, and we now have customers giving us feedback whilst on our tours via favebook and twitter, and we are able to solve the issues and respond to them there and then, whilst customer feedback questionairre complaints filled out after a trip take a lot longer to process. I think many of the points you raised were valid, but I think you need to actually use twitter etc more before you comment on its uses, and get real about the amount of time it can take to process backlogs of compaints (although the fact they didn't respond at all is aweful!).

over 5 years ago

Adrian Bold

Adrian Bold, Director at Bold Internet Ltd

Great article Chris. There are far too many organisations giving poor customer service and using technology and automation in a negative sense, i.e. using it as a communication blocker as opposed to a way of streamlining and prioritising customer issues.

over 5 years ago

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Bruce

It seems you're just mad because they didn't upgrade you for free 19 months ago. Wow, remind me never to cross you, 'cause your grudges last forever.

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Emma - Yep, I'd have definitely tweeted it, I use Twitter a lot. My point is that Qantas needs to resource for that, and it's a customer service function, and not one for the PRs. Using Twitter for PR / marketing reasons isn't going to cut it. It's early days for Qantas on Twitter so we'll have to see how it gets on. In terms of getting real, you think that 25 days is acceptable (much less 18 months...)? This is a business model issue, pure and simple: Qantas needs to invest in service if it cares about customer satisfaction and retention. 

@Bruce - Sure, I was a little pissy at the time, but that vanished as soon as I returned home. I clean forgot about it. Like I said, it was a light complaint and while I would have loved to be upgraded I only really expected a reply. It's not a grudge, just a mental note to book via another carrier next time around due to the lack of reasonable service. 

over 5 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/MobileEnterprise

Seems like this post has hit a bit of a raw nerve. There are a number of observations that highlight how social is changing customer service. Regardless of what the specific issues are, social is catalytic in opening up customer service to the scrutiny it has needed for so long. Companies historically have talked about being customer-centric, but the reality was that they were simply paying lip service. Social is forcing companies to now actually deliver on the promise. What companies like Qantas will find is that unless they truly understand the type of company they are, their culture, their DNA, whatever it is that makes them what they are, they will come unstuck very quickly through social. The opening of a Twitter account or Facebook page doesn't suddenly make you open, empathetic, authentic, real... These terms are new to the world of customer service. Wrapping an emotional layer around a part of the business that traditionally is very structured, very conservative, very transactional, very process-driven is a challenging one. It has taken Best Buy three years to get to where they are now. The test will be not in Qantas being on the receiving end of negative tweets (because that quite simply goes with the territory) but in how they respond. Their response will answer the question to everyone whether they get social or not. 

over 5 years ago

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Jonathan Moody

I think this sample letter posted on Social Media Explorer sums up my sentiments about hese issues quite well: Dear (Company X): I just want the widget that I ordered, please. I want the exact widget that I ordered, by the date and time that you said it would be ready and for the quoted price. Really, that’s all I want. Yes, I do want to know if you’re having problems doing what you told me that you would do. I still won’t be happy if you can’t meet your commitment, but I might be able to adapt to your new plan. But, really, I just want the widget that I ordered. Yes, emphasizing with how I’m feeling (i.e. wishing nasty things upon you and your kin) might make me feel better when you didn’t do what you said you would do. The first time, that is. But I don’t forget when you’ve let me down. By the way, I don’t usually like to be recommended, upsold, downsold, cross-sold or know what my friends have bought during the order life cycle. Most of the time I can only afford the widget that I’m buying right now. The main reason that I’m buying from you is that you have a decent promotion or discount that makes it interesting for me. And I badly want (or need) the widget that I ordered by the date that we agreed upon. Yeah, it’s kind of neat that you’re on Twitter, Facebook and that you have a blog. That is, I care about what you have to say in social media if it’s something that I want or need. I don’t care about how much you gave to the United Way or how your CEO put on a T shirt and shorts and washed cars for a local charity. I also don’t care about which industry awards that you won. Your statements of caring about me and my needs must be matched with acceptable execution in order for your words to have any meaning. By the way, if you’re only engaging me during the order fulfillment cycle, then you’ve done it wrong. I might be more receptive before I buy something. I’ll definitely be more receptive after you do what you said you were going to do. Now, can I just have my widget please, when you said I’d get it and for the price that we agreed upon? Hey, if you do all that then, what the heck, I’ll probably follow you back on Twitter. No guarantees that I’ll pay attention, but heck, what’s another message amongst the thousands that I get every day? Waiting (almost) patiently, Your customer

over 5 years ago

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