Thursday, October 30, 2008

A week in the life of Jet Airways

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)


Anand Sudarshan said...

I enjoyed the article very much. For three reasons –

1.Jet Airways is truly one of my favourites – as an airline, as a brand. I proudly say wherever I go, in India we have the best domestic airline one can travel. It’s way better than domestic airlines I have travelled in many countries. Your observations on the way the employees managed to keep a positive face reflected the customer-driven ethos that entity has built. Fascinating..!

2.Jet Airways sacking / re-hiring, I felt, was a complete political drama. That brought out in sharp relief the difference I see between the brand (Jet Airways) as a customer, and my respect (or lack of it) for doubtful corporate practices of the kind that was adopted. The murky background that appears to belong to Jet, only got murkier with all these shenanigans..! It amazes me that there could be such a difference between the customer-facing company, and the corporate entity...

3.The relevance of a brand, is never more real, more stark. It’s easy to be a success when the going is good, as everyone ought to know. I believe that brands like Jet Airways have the potential to stand the test of times – rough & easy times, both.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes it is the bad times that truly bring out the best or the worst in brands. I agree with you entirely that a brand like Jet Airways is something that all of us Indians can be truly proud of.

Short Backward Square said...

Sachin Tendulkar deserves the record. He's been an amazing player for years.

Raja Srinivasan said...

Interesting reading Sridhar. I like the comment about 'Obsession' and 'passion'. Falls in line with my philosophy at work and life.

Once, at a job interview, I was asked to comment on the statement: "I like to win, I don't like to lose". I thought over it and said the statement was all wrong. "like" is a very simple term to use and does not convey enough emotion. I would reword the statement as follows: "I love to win, and Hate to Lose". Surprisingly I was one of the very few candidates that seemed to have an impact with the CEO of this company. He told me everyone agreed with his statement, but I was the only one who corrected him. I was asked to explain myself. I told him, that since I hated to lose, I'll do everything in my power to get into a winning situation with everyone and everydeal I encounter. Then I can really enjoy the success. Whereas if I say "I don't like to lose", you are not putting enough emphasis in your work ethic. Maybe the Jet Airlines staff have been told that they hate to lose a single customer, hence the exemplary level of service.....

Dr. Athreya said...

Compliments on your article on Jet, in BL.

Many of us share your pride in Jet. You have brought out very well the threat to their image; the turbulence for the employees; and still, how, despite all this, they have kept up the high standards of service. You have worn into it examples from cricket and IT. Lots of humour. Appreciate your references to Custommerce and Customer centricity.

I wonder if you may have avoided the direct reference to Airtel and Mittal. "Praise in public; and critique in private" Leaves doors open for us to approach any one for help! Best wishes...

Bala said...

Enjoyed your article, and I agree with you. Jet is a great example of consistent service. I agree with your comments on Airtel and there are many brands like them. They are all very good till the customer faces a problem.. but fail at the moment of truth. My personal experience with Airtel, ICICI Bank and even Maruti (On Diwali day!) are not any different.

I can see that you are bold in naming brands that fail. I did see your reference to some of them in your book One Land, One Billion Minds.


Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes I guess one must voice one”s views, though I somehow feel that people neither “forgive” nor “forget” and hardly take criticism in the right spirit.


C.N.Ram said...

Dear Sridhar,

I thoroughly enjoyed your article and I share your sentiments on both Jet and AirTel. I disagree slightly with the good doctor on your publicly airing the criticism against AirTel - if they can't take it, we don't need their money or their help (In a devious way, I think they need our help)! Though, I must confess that my landing recently in Bengaluru on a Jet Airways flight was the hardest ever in a long time, and no, the pilot did NOT apologise, (maybe since you were not on the flight!). What the heck, I am still a Jet admirer even though Kingfisher landed me smoothly (and on time in Mumbai!) and I don't think of them in the same league as our favorite.

I am glad we have people like you now who are able to write about what we believe in, this is a great start to the next phase of Custommerce! I wish you would also plague the life out of all those who provide insincere and inadequate service. In your own humourous and unoffensive style. I think this would hit the hardest, compared to downright withering criticism.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes it is always intriguing when you get both good and poor service from the same service provider. I guess if the good outweighs the poor then one can still say great things about the brand, particularly when one sees the poor service in all sectors.


Shankaran said...

Thanks Sridhar. Very nice article and I agree with your view that the events have dented the Jet brand. I too am an unabashed fan of the airline and I too am very relieved that the employees seem to have put this behind them. I just (literally) got off a transatlantic haul from Chennai to Newark on Jet and was thoroughly pampered as only Jet can pamper you!

The sad part is that nobody believes Naresh Goyal’s protestations that he reversed the decision because ‘he could not bear to see tears in the eyes of his employees’. Sad because we live in such a cynical world that we do not believe in basic ‘goodness’ anymore! So I took a call to ‘choose’ to believe that the man did something out of fundamental decency because it is a thought that enriches and uplifts me. Rather than join the cynical masses who are probably right in believing that he was arm twisted into it!!


Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Shankaran, I think all of us have become cynics in some sense of the term, perhaps a reflection of the times that we live in.

But having said that, we must concede that they are getting their service act together and many companies could do well to learn from them.


C.K Sharma said...

Sridhar – I enjoyed reading this. It echoes my thoughts on Jet and, without being explicit, points the finger at the PR disaster that this particular episode must have been for the brand. I guess as a brand gets under one’s skin and becomes part of our life, it derives one great advantage – and that is our readiness to give it grace, to forgive it for the odd sin or two. Without the emotional connect that Jet has with customers like you (and myself) this grace would not be given so easily. The classic example is a US company called ValueJet which had the safest record in the airline industry. Then in the nineties it had one crash – and the airline got wiped out. On the other hand, Singapore Airlines got a lot of press after its accident at Taipei about ten years ago, but within 2 weeks thereafter it was business as usual. The emotional connect has an impact on share price and on customer retention.

It’ll be interesting to see the impact of the unfolding news on ICICI Bank as a brand.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes, many of us forget that branding is a process and not an event. Tylenol is another example of a brand with consumer connect, that came out of a crisis, while Union Carbide did not have the same success.

Mohan Kumar said...

Dear Sir,

This is with reference to your recent article on "Jet Airways" in today's "Business Line". You always cried service, service and service whenever you speak on brands. But service is a cost. So it will reduce our profit. So our well being. The fundamental tragedy is that the service receivers never realize our efforts to render the so-called services.

Last week I had a chance to travel in a worst bus, least to say, worst from Coimbatore to Mettupalayam which is nearly 40 KMs from Coimbatore. What does a normal commuter expect from a bus traveling? The bus should not like an air bus or your favorite Jet. But it should be like a bus. Apart from safety measures like air pressure, tyre condition, oil condition for brakes et al, it should have a decent interior. The seats should be atleast covered with rexin. The bolts should be fixed so that rods should not make noise when bus is running. The engine sound should not disturb us. I felt everything in that bus. Even the conductor did not wear full uniform. Please note I only felt the inconveniences. Not other passengers. They did not care for such inconveniences. No murmur. Why?

Because, from Coimbatore to Mettupalayam, there are three buses for every minute! The buses normally packed, even in terminal itself. If you missed to sit even in terminal itself, then you have to stand throughout the one hour journey. Apart from this, there are numerous stops. In every stopping, people will board into bus like flies. So there is no need to make a differentiation. Is it a perfect competition or monopolistic competition? But, the revenue is same for every operator. It is fixed by regulation, not by market forces. You can't charge more, whatever your services may be.

But still some bus operators, including government buses invested heavily on passengers' welfare. There are some bus operators in that route change their buses every year. They maintained music systems, DVD players, fine looking interiors etc. All this is related with cost. Definitely it will reduce their profits. Revenue will not increase so much. Still, they maintained their standard. Please note, their standard. Suppose if that bad operator smashed a good bus operator, if passengers died in both busses, people will scold the whole industry that everyone is bad.

They did not realize when I invested heavily to safe guard their interest. They did not realize all my efforts to sustain the same quality. They did not realize when accident occurred the impact is in minimum. They shout accident is accident. Both bus operators were treated like same. Then why should I invest heavily in service? I can't understand.

You may aware of CAMS. These people are registrars of almost all mutual fund companies in India. When you invest in mutual fund you will receive statements only through these registrars. They get all data from mutual fund companies and update their records not every day but every minute. Again 24 hour service! As a mutual fund investor you can view your investment status at all days, at all time. They have to render their services to AMCs, mutual fund advisors (companies & individuals) to help the mutual fund investors. (Sorry, something is wrong!). These CAMS people invested heavily on ITES. They offered a set of services to mutual fund advisors @ cost of free. As a mutual fund advisor I used all these free services. But when I have a problem with CAMS, I will shout. It will not be an exaggeration if I say every mutual fund advisor has some bitter experience with CAMS. These CAMS guys are clever. "I will do every service for you i.e. mutual fund advisor. But you have to pay me. Still I am giving you free service but that will not help you. If you want a superb service, pay me." What an idea. So an advisor should not shout on CAMS in any AMC meeting or any other forum. Because, a pucca service is available in market. For Indian rupees.

There is another best way to tide over this service related problems. I have a friend who is also an insurance agent like me. He is a non-smoker. He is a non-alcoholic. He does "Diyanams" everyday. He goes temple everyday, every auspicious day. He speaks all morals. He claimed himself that he born as a sales person. Every thing is correct. But I knew him personally. Those persons who knew him personally became enemies of him. He makes all strides in his profession as an insurance agent. Crores of rupees. All industrial recognition. He said every thing correctly. But, he sold ULIPs in extra ordinary manner.

I have other friends too. When we spoke on him I showed my feelings. One of my friends taught me the lesson. "Sir, you are a fool. You don't know what to speak, where to speak. Your entire proposers will become insurance agents. And above all you join them as insurance agents. The problem with you is that you are practicing what you are preaching. You should preach every good thing. But you should not practice them. Above all, this should not be realized by the opposite party".

Yes. It is true. This is a tactical way. We, individuals,corporates every one do the same thing. We preach. We do not practice. Above all, the customers should not realize our disservice.

There is a story in our rural side. A farmer came for lunch. He was hungry. But his wife said that there was some stool in "sambar" pot. He ordered his wife,"ok. Pour it into my plate. But with a filter."