web analytics

Hot Spots, Shard, London, Architecture, Collaboration



I’ve had a really poor and rather stressful experience with British Airways this Summer.

This is my professional blog and therefore is not the place to recount the full sorry saga.

Let’s just say it led to a ruined holiday, an experience that they admit is “a catalogue of errors” (their words), errors which include some with, in my opinion, serious security implications and an overall ‘customer journey’ which has been lengthy, incompetent and designed to raise one’s blood pressure.

I work with leaders. It’s a big chunk of what I do for a living. I coach them as they devise and implement their strategies and agendas. We talk about their impact and the conditions and culture they create around them. The mood and tone of their business.

There’s nowhere to hide as CEO. That spotlight is always on you.

In previous blogs I’ve explored what adds up to leadership. I suggested a few areas last year where anyone could focus to enhance their impact and reach their goals.

Unusually for me – in fact it’s a first – I wrote to the CEO of BA with a detailed outline of the situation and a plea that he (or a member of his team who had some influence) take a quick look and help me reach a resolution. I wasn’t asking for much. Recognition of what I have been through (it’s not over yet after nearly three months) and a refund of a flight. Immaterial for them.

The resultant behaviours of the organisation lead me to reflect on what must be going on in that company and whether Mr Williams (for that is his name) knows what his team is saying and doing. There must be learning points in here for us all:

For what have I experienced:

  1. At its best: one staff member called me and was clearly sympathetic. She admitted all the mistakes that I’d outlined. So far so good. But she was clearly not empowered to be in any way flexible in order to resolve a grievance. So all her fine words amounted to very little at this end of the call.   Compare this to, say, Timpsons. They are renowned for giving their shop managers a certain amount of leeway (and budget) to resolve a customer issue on the spot. The resultant culture is one which delivers them repeat custom, financial success and, crucially, Best Place To Work awards on a regular basis. It’s about empowerment and allowing a little flexibility.
  2. Otherwise: in an email one team member (I have encountered at least a dozen now – no attempt at case management) wrote: “We act with the full authority of Keith Williams to resolve complaints.  He doesn’t get involved in the day to day business as he’s rightly focused on the overall performance and our future growth.”   Hold on a second: a leader who doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day business and who, according to a previous comment, doesn’t see interaction with customers as his job. I don’t believe this of a CEO of such a major business. Really don’t. So what has happened in BA to drive an outcome where this is the message to a customer? Is it a training point? A motivation point? A culture of fear? Have staff been told that policies can never be flexed? I’m speculating of course – but there is certainly a problem and there is work to be done in ensuring such messages are not conveyed to customers in any of our businesses.
  3. “To Fly. To Serve.” The  £millions that have been spent to on that rebrand. Yet this attitude does not feature in any way in the behaviour of the staff with whom I have interacted. They have been dismissive, process-obsessed, obstructive and, I’m sorry to say, at times incompetent. So the biggest point of all – and one which we organisational consultants work on all year round – is how do you translate a new brand message into behaviours? Which programmes does a CEO need to sponsor so that the end result in every customer contact is one where the customer feels ..er…like a valued customer?  Just like the hotel chain (Ritz Carlton I think) who trained their staff to stop whatever they were doing if a customer sought help. Either to solve the problem themselves or find someone who could – regardless of their own role or what they were doing at the time. I think there is a lesson in here for every CEO.

So the intent of this blog is not to “have a go” at BA. I certainly won’t be flying with them again unless I can’t avoid it. But I want to pull some lessons from the whole fiasco and offer suggestions on areas for focus in your business:

  • Do you focus on empowering your people so they are able to resolve issues swiftly and fairly?
  • Are you sufficiently close to the front-line of your business that you know what is going on?
  • Do you allow your staff to engage with people or are they hidden behind anonymous systems, email addresses and social media accounts? 
  • If a long-standing customer is sounding aggrieved, do you try to understand? Do you get involved?
  • How do you ensure that your brand message translates into appropriate staff behaviours? Do you realise that customers immediately spot any disconnect between brand imagery and customer experience? 

As for me….I’m hoping for a break soon. Flying Virgin Atlantic of course.