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.