A real time example of what’s wrong with the Malaysia Airlines brand

This is the biggest weekend of the year in Malaysia as families across the country go home for the end of Ramadhan Eid holidays. As Monday and Tuesday are public holidays, many people will have a nine day break.

For me personally I’m looking forward to some quality time with my family in Sarawak, one of the best kept secrets in Asia. I’m flying business class to Kuching about an hour and forty minutes flying time from Kuala Lumpur.

When I get to the airport they tell me my flight is delayed. Now I’m a little bit annoyed by this because I’ve been a member of their FFP since it began and they have my email address and mobile number so they could have let me know the flight was delayed. But hey, that’s a minor issue and besides, if it’s a technical problem I’d prefer them to discover it on the ground and not in the air. Incidentally when I checked in, there was no apology from the girl at the desk.

MAS is carrying out renovations to its lounge at KLIA so I am directed to a temporary lounge. When I get to the lounge I show my boarding card to the person at the counter who looks at it and hands it back. There is no mention of flight announcements. The greeting isn’t rude but it’s hardly enthusiastic.

I sit down and get online. The lounge is quiet, I’m in a good mood, and considering I’m at an airport and about to get on an MAS flight I’m relaxed and excited at the prospect of spending some quality time with my family in a beautiful place.

30 minutes later I get to that point in an airport where you feel like you need reassurance that everything is alright. So I go to the counter and ask about my flight. I’m told it is delayed (like I didn’t know that) and the staff member points to a time on the boarding card and mumbles something incoherent.

I don’t know about you but when I’m at an airport there are so many distractions, so many unusual assaults on the senses that I rarely pay attention to announcements however, a little later, I suddenly look up and realize I haven’t heard an announcement about my flight or for that matter any others. I ask one of the MAS staff in the lounge what is happening with my flight. She goes to the desk and comes back and tells me my flight has left!

I’m stunned and ask someone to explain what just happened. The explanation revolves around the fact that it is a temporary lounge and they don’t make announcements and anyway, there is a sign on the desk stating that there won’t be any announcements.

Now bearing in mind getting passengers to the plane is a fairly important part of an airline’s responsibility, the sign below can hardly be described as adequate, especially with all the other messages on the desk.

The pathetic sign stating there will be no flight announcements
The pathetic sign stating there will be no flight announcements

Understandably I’m not impressed. This is business class, there aren’t many people waiting and it wouldn’t take much effort on the part of the staff to inform the few passengers in the lounge that their flight was boarding. Furthermore, if one business class passenger is late arriving at the departure gate, how much effort does it take for the staff at the gate to call the business class lounge and ask if the passenger is there? Aren’t these the little things that help passengers justify paying more for a ticket?

For some reason I’m then sent to the flight transfer counter where I listen to a staff member explain my situation to other staff members who all look like the last thing they want to be doing right now is deal with this issue. No one tells me anything. Eventually after interrupting the conversation I learn that my luggage has been sent to lost and found and I have to go and get it and not to worry, I will be put on the next flight.

I then go back to the lounge and 10 minutes later another member of staff tells me that I have to go and get my luggage because he doesn’t have the authority put it on the next flight which is odd because someone had the authority to take it off the previous aircraft and send it to lost and found but most galling of all, he tries to nickel and dime me for RM150 penalty to change to the 5.55pm flight!

He’s not very happy with the fact that I’m not very happy but obviously is just following a procedure and not interpreting the situation as it is. I realise he doesn’t have any authority so ask him to send a supervisor to talk to me. He walks off to the desk and sits down. 30 minutes later he is still there and making no effort to update me so I have to go and find out what is happening. He tells me the supervisor will be here in 10 minutes.

25 minutes later I get up again and go and ask him what is going on. He says the supervisor will be there soon. As we’re talking the supervisor arrives. She manages to talk to another supervisor who agrees not to charge me the RM150 penalty. It has taken me a lot of effort to get to this stage.

But it doesn’t get better just yet. It transpires that I wasn’t put on the 5.55pm flight, I was put on the waiting list because the flight was full. No one told me this. I asked what time is the next flight, answer 6.30pm but it is also full. The next flight after that with seats is 7.30pm. By the time I board that flight I will have been at the airport for six hours.

So how is related to the problems at MAS?

Throughout this horrendous experience I felt that on the whole, with the exception of a couple of members the staff were sympathetic to my predicament and wanted to help. But the problem is they just didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to deal with the situation effectively.

Being told repeatedly that the lounge is temporary and therefore there won’t be any announcements is not good enough but it isn’t the fault of the staff. It suggests the company doesn’t understand the importance of the customer. Especially highly profitable business class passengers.

It’s great that you are renovating the lounge but it doesn’t mean you lower your standards in a temporary lounge. It might be temporary to you but to every passenger, it is still the lounge. It’s not like I’m paying less for my ticket because I am using a temporary lounge. Does it mean that when you lease an aircraft from another airline you lower your engineering or safety standards?

And besides we’re talking about the worst time in the airlines history. Shouldn’t every customer willing to spend money with the airline at this difficult stage be appreciated more?

The attitude of the lounge staff was at best adequate. I got the feeling they were doing the job but nothing more. And having flown Malaysian Airlines for over 20 years I have to say I’ve felt this way for the last 12 – 15 years.

If the MAS brand is to survive, those that make the decisions on training have got to understand that the airline is not doing passengers a favour. Numerous reports released over the last 5 years point to service as being the main factor influencing consumer brand choices.

In every report I have read recently, the averages percentage of people who switch brands because of poor service is around 70% and goes as as high as 80%. It is universally accepted that customer service is critical to the success of a brand. That service comes from effective and timely training based on the changing needs of customers.

The issue is that what may have been considered acceptable customer service yesterday is no longer acceptable today. Moreover, as more and more companies raise the bar in terms of the quality of service they deliver, consumers expect more. Training needs to be updated and reinforced.

Nowadays, for an Asian carrier to thrive let alone survive, it has to have a culture not of customer service but of exceptional customer service. The ability to deliver exceptional customer service is the only way brands can build the loyalty that will differentiate themselves from other competitor brands.

Armed with the skills and tools needed to deliver exceptional customer service, staff will have the ability, confidence and enthusiasm to go the ‘extra mile’ when dealing with their customers.

Malaysia Airlines is a service product in a very competitive space. Despite the two very tragic incidents in the last 5 months numerous customers such as my family and I have stuck by them.

Right now it is tough being loyal to MAS and it isn’t made easier when they can’t even get the basics right. I, like many loyal customers don’t want any special treatment but I do expect a decent level of service.

As I write this, there is talk in the UK newspapers of a strategic review of MAS that may include renaming and rebranding the airline. I don’t know what they define as a rebrand but it’ll take more than a change of name to save MAS.


Tips for building a retail brand

In terms of service, Christmas shopping this year has been a roller coaster ride from the highs of the interactions in the luxury stores of Pavillion to the lows of the interactions in the wannabe Malaysian fashion store in Mid Valley.

And even though approximately 85% of the interactions have left me frustrated, I want to be positive during the festive season and so am offering free advice to those retailers in Malaysia who want to build a profitable brand.

1) Teach your staff to smile when a customer walks into your shop. It costs nothing and instantly makes the customer feel welcome.

2) If you are a clothes store, get your staff to wear your clothes. If you are not a clothes store, develop a company policy on dress and stick to it. It may also help if you are responsible for laundry, that way the clothes will get washed.

3) Make it a company policy that all customer facing staff must have a shower and brush their teeth EVERY day, before coming to work. This is especially important in restaurants.

4) Teach your staff to approach the customer and say ‘good morning/afternoon’ etc with a smile on their face.

5) Teach your staff to understand how to respond if another customer interrupts a transaction. Essentially, teach them how to say no.

6) If you are a luxury or high end store, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic bags when customers are in the store. Actually, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic anything, ever.

7) The same goes with food. I walked into one store as a member of the staff was eating at the counter. He was on his own so came to serve me. I walked out 9 seconds later with half his samosa on my lapel.

8) The opening line, “Can I help you?” Begs a negative response. Teach your staff to try something open ended, such as “Are you looking for shirts or trousers?”

9) Sales staff are not order takers. If a customer, despite all the attempts by your staff to prevent him from making a purchase, insists on buying something, teach your staff to show something that goes well with the purchase. You never know, you might actually sell something else.

10) Listen carefully, the statement, “NO STOCK LAH!” is being used by many staff to get the prospect out of the store so the staff member can go back to sending sms messages to his friends. Teach your staff to apologise profusely for the fact that they just sold the last piece 15 minutes ago. Teach them to then explain that they will be happy to call other branches to see if they have the relevant product/size/colour. If you don’t have other branches, then teach them to ask nicely for the prospect’s number and explain that your customer service representative will call the prospect as soon as the correct product/size/colour comes in.

11) If someone buys something they have gone from being a prospect to a customer. Remember all that money you spent on launch party/PR/mailshots/leaflets/brochures/billboards/print ads etc? Well, you did all that for this moment. It wasn’t to create awareness, it was to drive this person to your store. And now he’s bought something, what are you going to do? Well, most of you let him walk out the door! Are you nuts? You have a 5% – 15% chance of selling to a prospect and a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer. So what is the point of letting a new customer walk out the door? It’s criminal! I’m serious! Be nice to this person, flatter him, spoil him, kiss him, do whatever it takes to get his contact information because he is now a customer. He is familiar with your product, your store, your staff, despite their best efforts. Your job now is to get him back into the store, preferably tomorrow!

12) Not every white person is a tourist. And not every tourist is a white person, but that’s another story. Just because a customer looks like a tourist, doesn’t mean he is one. Moreover, if he is wearing a suit, he probably has a white collar job which means, in Asia that he is probably paid well. Even if he is visiting, he may be back or he may be lonely so ensure your staff engage him.

13) The needs of a Saudi are different to those of an Englishman. And the needs of an Englishman are different to those of a Korean. You get the point. Invest in some training that teaches your staff to be able to develop rapport with different nationalities.

14) Pay your staff a commission on sales. If you don’t where is the incentive to sell your products? Without a commission, all the staff are doing is increasing your energy bill and destroying your brand.

15) While we are on the subject of remuneration, I suggest you pay your staff more. Every sales person I spoke to complained about their salary. One was earning RM550 per month, with no commission. That is slavery. Sales staff are an investment, not a cost. They represent your brand and, with the correct training, can multiply your profits enormously. And good ones are worth paying for. And before you tell me about the lack of loyalty, please don’t bother. If you create a nice environment with good pay, your staff will stick with you.

If you implement the above into your corporate strategy (if you have one, and many of the stores I visited over the last week can’t even spell it) then I guarantee you will increase your sales and move toward a more profitable brand.

I’ve got about 100 more of these but I’ve got a plane to catch. Happy Christmas!