Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why is my favourite brand going downhill?

Jet Airways, which stood for smart and courteous service, now seems to have hit an air-pocket

Jet: Not sitting easy these days..

I have always been a great admirer of Jet Airways. I have had nothing but praise for this company that to me and several others epitomises world-class service. I have featured the brand in my writings and talked about it in seminars. When journalists ask me plaintively whether any Indian brand can be a force globally I speak with conviction about Infosys and Jet. Nor have I been alone or unique in this, as anyone who has travelled by the airline usually compares it favourably with other international airlines that they have travelled by. Jet stands for smart service delivered courteously time after time without being in-your-face.

I continue to be a frequent flier of the airline and remember fondly their mailer “Now we see you, now we don’t” sent to my friend who had stopped travelling by that airline temporarily. I am an admirer too of the way the airline has trained its staff to constantly address me by name and get my complex and maybe even long-winded South Indian name right. In startling contrast to what a retail outlet did for several years - it sent me over 70 mailers each and every one of which was addressed to ‘Sridhar Raitanujam’ perhaps quietly addressing my great preference for curd or raita, a form it frequently takes in India. But to return to Jet, I must confess that I am getting increasingly disenchanted with the brand, particularly in recent times.

Tough times call for tough actions. Do they?

In my opinion, Jet’s troubles began when it took over Sahara, which later became Jetlite. Historically airlines that take over low-cost airlines find the ride bumpy.
We have global examples that bear testimony to this theory. The attitude of the ‘no-frills airline’ to customers and services is very different from the regular airline’s own stated philosophy of service. It could be argued that the customer too knows what she is getting into when she ventures to travel by a no-frills airline.

In the heyday of Air Deccan, the customer braced herself for the 20-meter dash from the bus to the plane if she wanted a decent seat. She also hoped that she would not get thirsty as she knew she had to pay for the water and several of her savvier co-passengers came into the plane armed with packets of greasy food, leaving a healthy aroma in the plane which continued on to the next flight. But the regular airlines were different.

They plied the passenger with food at least, if not with drink, unlike the Damania of old, where guys would make a beeline for the bar at 6.30 a.m.! Those were the days and naively we thought they would never end, but unfortunately they did.

The problem with Jet now is that I do not know what to expect. The biggest problem seems to be that there are hardly any Jet Airways flights to travel by today or maybe I am not travelling at the times and to the places they want me to. I used to have a convenient flight out of Bangalore leaving at 7 a.m. which would enable me to do a full day’s work at Mumbai and return by a flight which left Mumbai at 8.10 p.m.

I would land at Bengaluru International Airport (what a grandiose name for such a teeny-weeny thing) at 9.30 p. m. Of course, I would reach home after 11.30 p.m. but then those are the advantages of having an airport that is closer to Hyderabad than Bangalore! I have realised to my chagrin that this 7 a.m. flight has become a Jet Konnect flight which used to be Jetlite or Sahara (how confusing can it get).

Nor does the confusion stop there. I get a message even earlier saying that I have to buy breakfast and will not be allowed to use the lounge at the airport. In contrast when I do travel by Kingfisher Red (which is Air Deccan), I get to use the lounge where I normally stuff myself and also get complimentary snacks (this will almost certainly take that brand further into the red but that is another story).

I am not for one instant suggesting that the way to the consumer’s heart is through his stomach, but it seems to help. But more seriously, I do know that brands have to economise in tough times such as these and given the fact that most airline brands are in the red, they must cut corners.
But whilst they are looking at ways of economising are they losing out on the very essence of the brand?

When they have two airlines trying to address differing market needs are they sending out conflicting signals to the market? In short what is the Jet brand today and how is the Jet Konnect brand different other than the fact that you have to buy your food? I am sure the company knows the difference between these two and I do hope they know what they are doing. It did not seem like a cheap airline and it did not seem vastly different from Jet, other than the food bit.

Company policy and all that jazz

I am a very poor planner of my time, so I usually end up rescheduling flights, taking earlier flights out of cities or taking later flights out. Of course, aiding and abetting my confusion is the fact that my clients run my life and a lot of their confusion rubs off on me. (I am safe because my clients do not read what I write.)

Today thanks to the tough times that we live in, Jet Airways has started to charge for advancement as well. I always remember that one used to be penalised only for postponements.
Recently the same thing happened when I was trying to return earlier from Chennai. I wanted to take the earlier flight as usual. As the earlier flight was a Jet konnect flight I was informed that I would be charged both for cancellation and booking by the company, the net result being I had to pay Rs 1,500 more in addition to the Rs 3,300 that I was paying for the ticket.

I thought it was ridiculous and was surprised to note that a cancellation would amount to Rs 250 only. So what did I do? I cancelled my Jet Airways ticket and returned by Kingfisher. So much for customer loyalty and customer retention programmes! I kept arguing with the people on the phone and they kept saying ‘company policy’.

When will brands realise that the enemy of customer service is the term ‘company policy’? And outsourcing means the entire problem of the service provider comes back to the brand.
I know that a sample size of one is not serious enough to warrant a hue and cry. But it is also better for a service provider to overreact to a problem rather than brush it under the carpet. It is true that times are tough. It is also true that airlines have probably been hit harder by the current situation than certain other categories.

But Jet is no ordinary brand, in my view, at least. It has the capability of holding aloft the banner of service brands in this country and across the world. It needs to do some serious soul-searching and quickly understand from its consumers as to what they think of the brand now. Are they still using it? Are they quietly suffering? For there are many others who may quietly walk away into the sunset and that could hurt the brand even more.

I am not sure if these problems are too serious or I am overreacting to them. But then I am a consumer who is demanding, always comparing, creating problems and looking for their solution.
I also know that when the company responds to my problems and retrieves the situation I will be happy. Sadly I am promiscuous too and the step from being an ardent fan to a harsh critic could be a swift one, in my case, at least. My overriding regret, though, is for the brand which is letting the times get to it and runs the risk of losing its very essence. Did you have a similar experience? Then tell me about it.

P.S: I just received a call from Jet Airways saying that my flight has been rescheduled and I have to leave 90 minutes earlier!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)


Anonymous said...

Since it is a personal experience, good content for blog. But I am not sure why this content should appear in the The Hindu Brand Line. An article in a newspaper must not end up becoming a personal mouthpiece of the author.

Anonymous said...

most of your articles in The Hindu brandline appear to be your personal likes and dislikes and very little to do with the subject of brand.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Observations are based out of experiences and observations lead to consumer insights. I have made some observations about the service, linked it to the past and to other brands like Kingfisher. A service brand is all about experiences. I have linked my experiences to the brand's overall declining standards.
I appreciate your point of view.

K.V.A. Iyer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
K.V.A. Iyer said...

Dear Mr. Sridhar,

As a frequent traveller, perhaps the the slow pace of transition in quality of service from good to bad may well be less discernible to you. Yet it was good that you shared your experience by writing in Business Line today.

As for me, an infrequent traveller, the change was glaring. I was let to fend for myself while at Delhi domestic airport on Aug 9 for catching a Jet Airways connecting flight to Brussels, while I noticed Kingfisher ushering the passengers to their own coach.

At destination - FARO - the registered baggage did not arrive. The only saving grace is that the cabin crew in general continue to remain cordial to passengers despite the ordeal of having to put up with idiosyncratic ways by which its Chairman Goyal treated the staff with mass dismissals and subsequent strange bonhomie probably to mend fence by having lunch with the staff!

The management should have clear aims and pragmatic means to achieve them through proper communication encompassing the whole team right from the Chairman to lowest rung. This is not in evidence at Jet Airways of late.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thank you for your comments. I am relieved to note that I am not the only one having a problem with the brand. I am concerned to note that others too are havig difficult experiences with the brand.

John Edwin said...

Dear Mr, Sridhar,

Please refer to your article in today's Business Line regarding the brand deterioration of Jet Airways

You need at all be apologetic that you are a lone voice.

Yours is the voice which has echoed the voice of thousands of Brand Loyalists of Jet Airways and you have rightly expressed the deep disappointment and hurt of the loyal customers.

The brand would show improved profitability because they would get many fly by night customers while they are quite likely to loose the loyal freq flying customers.

Perhaps one more negative move of the Airlines would be the last straw which would cascade a major flight of the loyalists of the brand to other brands.

Many of us are toying with the idea of moving out but the past loyalty is just barely managing to hold us back and suffer in silence.

How can news papers be denied? What costs do they add?

The much trumpetted "Choice to buy" your own food is so choiceless and so pathetic in Jet. The other day by force due to availability of direct flight from Chennai to Jaipur I had ot take the much spitted Spice Jet. I was pleasantly surprised by their on time performance, seats which were as comfortable as Jet and the Choice of food much much better than Jet. If I did not get off from the Spice Jet flight and run off with relief that I have completed the journey from such an airlines it surely is the starting point to experiment with other airlines.

As you have mentioned, I have also been a person who has seen with great amazement and wonder at the way they have trained - no - groomed their staff, batch after batch flawlessly.

But as you have mentioned, the "low cost" effect is bound to rub off on all aspects of customer handling which the airlines would find it very difficult to come out at a later date.

The airlines unfortunately assumes that moving from a low cost brand to a Global Brand and back again is just a matter of rearranging seats and calling by a diff name.

Once the image is lost, and the "touch" by the employees are lost they do not realize how very very hard it is going to be to retrieve the image

The move clearly seems to be accountant led rather than led by a Marketing or Brand conscious person in the company.

Thanks for the writing on our behalf.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

What a relief that I am not the only one who can see the difference.
You are very right that the other airlines are improving their service and I have certainly been observing and experiencing brands like Indigo and Spice Jet.
However I do hope the brand gets its act right, for it has done tremendous work in the past to keep its customers happy.

Sundar said...

Hello Sridhar:

I waited a while to see the set of informed comments on this well written piece on air travel and travails in India (I believe you did limit your experience and comments on domestic travel in India).
I wish to place some thoughts for your consideration and reader's obsservation and comments.

1. Air travellers in India are seeing problems in their way in the recent years mostly because they feel they are entitled as a resonable bit to have certain elements to make their travel worthwhile, including the cost of air ticket. Somne times their calculations or expectations and todays's reality are at vaiance.
2. Air line companies all the world over are bleeding and there is no time to do things in an organized and long time planning way. So quick actions are sometimes really dirty in the eyes of the traveller.
3. Why do people require food, etc. for short flights? Carrying food/smack/drinks in the flying aircraft is so expensive and always not achieving quality results.
4. Air terminal offices and space has become premium and upkeep is very expensive as well. And there is our love to linger at the terminals (may be a few of us).
5. Air line companies incur lot of dough to retian or rearrange seats in the last minute. And prime time travel in air is more expensive than off peak travel. The law of supply and demand and available day time, business hours, etc. Thus when some one changes his or her plans, the resulting cost/loss is quite a measure.
6. There is quite an amount of work done by air line organisation behind the scenes to make the aircraft fly and make things happen, however, the customer only sees the end product (or does not see sometimes). Errors are always noticed.
7. In spite of years of new airlines flying Indian skies, it is still in somewhat of an infancy.
8. Lastly, every one flies in India, so ther may be some who do not mind the inconvinience, if the travel time is shortened, hoping.
9. One may need to take pride things will improve, and in the meantime, we could be one in the crowd, and not special.

For your consideration.

Sundar said...

The Pilot "Strike" will stab a major wound adding to the way things are happening to Jet.

Saminathan said...

Considering what is happening to Jet Airways over the past few days, it seems like your post was like a prophesy for Jet. I am in full agreement with what you have posted and I also belong to the so-called Jet loyalist now turned away by Jet to join the King Club.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Sundar for giving a company perspective and the exigencies which are forcing airline companies to act the way they are acting. Sadly many consumers feel the way I do. Are we expecting too much? Or did the companies spoil us earlier.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thank you for your views. I feel sorry for the brand though.

Sundar said...

Hello Sridhar:

It was prompt attention from you indeed.

You wondered if the flyers (travellers) by Jet Air are expecting to much are have they been "spoiled' by high standard of coutesy and service.

First off, it looks like it is very hard and very expensive to maintain some of the level of service that Jet was providing. It does not mean they can 'stick' it the customers. However, air travel today is a strange world.

For instance, Airlines in Europe and North America, to name a few, are trying their best in so many 'innovative ways' to reduce cost and not always succeeding, at the same time showing a semblance of great customer oriented service.
The indian scene being quite small compared to other parts of the world is facing more difficulties. Of course, the customer is taking a big part of this hit. It also looks like things will get worse before any improvements can be seen. Also, contributing, is the lack of infrastructure you pointed out; lack of roadways leading to the ports, delays in take off and landing, cancellations, the need for airlines to do milk runs, lack of good food courts in and outside the airports and the like. So in effect the time spent not being in the air is not well cared for or utilised from the customer point of view. These types of things leave a sour taste with the customer. In summary, may be the customer expects much but not always. May be kindness in criticism may be strategy for the customers and some prompt and effective reposnse and a will to do some thing is a path forward for Jet Air, And no confrontation, does not help. Travellers could choose to take on major woes and not sweat the small stuff.

Lastly, all of us be mindful and be energetic in supporting Air Travel Safety (which is so many things bundles together) with the knowledge that Air travel industry and delievery of service is quite complex.

Hope these comments will receive your consideration.


Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Sundar, clearly you feel strongly on the subject and have done a fair amount of work as well.
As I said, we very often are concerned only about ourselves.But if a brand had wooed me aggressively and helped me to expect and get a high quality of service as part of its marketing strategy cannot suddenly lower the ante.
Sadly the timing of my article has been bad for Jet as they seem to have gone into a strike which seems to be dragging, hurting the company, the brand and the customers.

Sundar said...

Hi Sridhar

Yes, it seems I am fascinated and to some extent passionate in these topics. While that, I do have a deficiency in writing my comments. It is that I am not able to check grammer, spelling and general nature of accuracy of the text in the comment box. Thanks to you and the readers for forgiving me for errors, as they can figure out what is meant even with the howlers and the rest.

I wish to add a couple of more observations for your consideration:

My association in the Indian scene and my own propensity as a (south) indian is being quick to judge. Is this true? When this plays between two parties, the customer and the service provider, the result often is not very good in service based industries. Scene in other parts of India may be better in this respect, this is my opinion. So, slowing down in judgment, some restraint, will certainly give time for Airlines, in this case Jet, to perhaps recover, rejudge and readjust their 'behaviour'; After all they were the darling of the skies only a short time ago. Second, they still have good great people/staff carrying on the business and may be able to work out service quality and cost efficinecy and come out shining. Loyal customers wish that and will support this cause, process and effort. Jet needs a positive break and I hope they will do well and will get back to being on the side of the flying public.


Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes I guess people from the South are perhaps different from people in other parts of India.
Yes Jet has been my favourite brand and I do realise that the last few weeks have been very tough for the brand and the situation has been worsened by the pilots' strike.
I would be the happiest person if the brand comes back to its position of preeminence.