The efficient airline’s image has taken a beating with the events of the past fortnight..
The media-savvy employees protested, politicians took up their cause and Jet Airways reversed the decision to lay off a portion of its workforce.
I have a confession to make. Jet Airways is my favourite service brand. I have been a raving fan of the brand ever since it commenced operations and have been part of its frequent flier programme for as long as I can remember. I make a reference to t he brand at every forum where I am invited to speak and do so with even greater pride when the audience has foreigners in it. My usual statement introducing the concept of service and Jet Airways is “We Indians have to be pretty good at service as we have a long track record of service. After all we served the British for a small matter of 200 years!”
While that sounds pretty funny when it is said, I must hasten to add that despite our experience, Indians and Indian service providers probably more often than not are more likely to be classified as “unacceptable” or “below average” rather than “world class”, with Jet Airways being one of the few which might classify for the “world class” tag. And yet the same brand has been going through a fairly traumatic time over the last few days and in my own estimation the brand’s image has definitely been dented in the eyes of the general public and consumers of media if not in the eyes of the actual consumers such as me who still continue to patronise the brand come layoff or pink slip.
Sorry, we don’t need you
October 15 was a normal day for most Indians, but for 1,100 Jet Airways employees it was going to be an unforgettable day for all the wrong reasons as they were asked to leave the company immediately as the company was performing badly. The media went to town, breaking news and giving different counts of the number of employees who had been asked to leave. The unwanted employees seem to be ‘last in’ into the company and are probably feeling the brunt of the global downturn and have been ‘first out’ of the company’s rolls.
However, one must give credit to the beleaguered employees who did not take all this lying down and took to the streets, albeit in an orderly way, and demonstrated in front of every television camera and media reporter in the country shouting slogans and asking for their jobs back. The obliging media recorded every slogan and every interview, had a field day and ensured that the agitation was in the news for the entire 24 hours of the day. To add fuel to the fire every politician got into the act, every political party in the country (and we know the acute shortage of them at present) joined its voice in support, trade unions found one more cause to rally around all, adding to the overall media mayhem. I am not getting into the rumour that many Indian politicians own stock in Jet Airways as that is irrelevant to the piece. Coincidentally, a group of us were travelling to Thiruvananthapuram on October 16 for a customer service seminar being organised by Custommerce, a day after all this drama. So I politely told the (still) smiling girl at the Jet Airways counter that I would pray for her job’s safety at the Padmanabhaswamy temple when I went to Thiruvananthapuram. She in turn asked me to pray for her colleagues who had lost their jobs. The service on the flight was exemplary despite the obvious turmoil in the cabin crew’s hearts and Jet Airways and its employees went up one notch in my esteem.
Conscience over commerce
However, when I went into my room and switched on the TV set (normally my first act when I enter hotel rooms) the airline had done a U-turn. Naresh Goyal in a hastily convened press conference announced that he was taking back the entire lot of displaced staffers as his conscience was bothering him, he had been unable to sleep and his senior management (sic) had taken the decision without consulting him! The staffers were jubilant, just as the rest of India was a day later when Sachin Tendulkar broke Brian Lara’s record.
Lots of people claimed credit for the ‘conscience’ of Goyal and it is really great news for India that we have so many Good Samaritans in the political system, some of whom pioneered the ‘conscience vote’ in Parliament and continue to selflessly work for the nation’s progress without claiming the slightest credit! The trade unions in Bengal were cock-a-hoop and continued their celebrations as Saurav Ganguly scored a century and promptly changed their slogan to “Dada don’t go”.
But to my mind amidst all this tamasha and happiness of the staffers, Jet Airways suffered as more reports came in of its cutting routes and entering into a strategic alliance with Kingfisher, its arch rival, even as the atmosphere was rife with stories of bail-out packages. In the midst of all this life was going on as usual for the airline and its staff. I took two more flights in the same airline over the next two days and was relieved and delighted to see that the brand was renewing its commitment to service and taking the reverses to its image and the bad press in its stride, pampering ill-tempered and demanding customers like me, replacing my warm cup of tea with a piping hot one as the lemon slice that I asked for was delayed and continuing to smile at the spoilt and ill-behaved children who come on their flights.
The most significant part was that last week when I was returning from Mumbai, the flight had a really rough landing, frightening some of the chicken-hearted travellers like me who promptly remembered God in their hour of need! As we were preparing to leave the aircraft the pilot promptly apologised for the bad landing! Honesty in accepting one’s own sins of omission and commission gladden the hearts of consumers.
So why do I like Jet Airways? I think it is because of real, live, committed people who are serving me. Contrast this with Airtel which, in my eyes at least, has moved from a human, customer-friendly organisation to an automated , unconcerned corporation which hides behind technology. Can someone tell me how I can speak to a human being at Airtel? Maybe I should try Sunil Mittal!
So where does Jet go from here?
I am no expert on business strategy, least of all on the business of aviation which seems to be going through troubled times, to put it mildly. But I do know that customer satisfaction positively impacts stock prices, even if the stock market is currently chaotic. Take Amazon, whose CEO Jeffrey Bezos says with great conviction: “I’m so obsessed with the drivers of the consumer experience; I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by the customer experience.” In the Custommerce seminar that I mentioned, Geet Sethi, the renowned billiards player, described “passion” as a very weak word and spoke about “obsession” as crucial to success. Yes, a passion for customers should well be replaced by an obsession with customers and their needs.
It is also at times like these that companies are riddled with self-doubt, a bit like the Australian team that has just been handed its heaviest defeat in recent years, and start worrying about what they are doing. They resort to short-term measures such as cost control and give the customer and her service less importance than they deserve. They tend to forget the reason for their original success and pre-eminence over the years in the current preoccupation with economic turbulence. Stick to the basics, be obsessive about your customer, lobby with the government if you must and soon there could be a break in the current threatening clouds that are hovering so worryingly.
Strong brands will continue to prevail because of their customer centricity and Jet is one such brand. And what about the Australian cricket team to which some reference has been made and which has been a dominant brand for the last 13 years? It has competed with Jet Airways in the same period in the sort of media coverage that it has got, mostly unfavourable and maybe they need a bailout more urgently than the troubled airline! I do hope that Jet Airways will ride this crisis, in the interests of customers such as me who are just discovering what it is to be pampered!
(The author is a CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds)