Can iPads Revolutionize Customer Service?, Are Customers Getting a Raw Deal?

Brian Cantor

In a new Call Center IQ feature, we look at customer-related trends, case studies and news stories affecting specific industries. Recently, we looked at two customer management developments in the restaurant industry. This week, we tackle stories with relevant impact on airlines.

In a strategy it says will "revolutionise" customer service, British Airways announced that it will become the third major airline to experiment with using iPads on its planes (and the first to do so with a customer-centric focus).

The new customer service endeavor, which was launched on a trial basis with 100 cabin crew, enables flight attendants to "have prior awareness of customer preferences and a greater understanding of each customer’s previous travel arrangements, allowing them to offer a truly bespoke, personalised service."

Effectively replacing the need for flight attendants to consult printed documents, the iPads provide full seat listings, the identities of individuals traveling together, customers’ Executive Club statuses and notes on dietary restrictions. They also keep the crew updated on customer service developments, flight timetables and safety issues.

"The iPad is already allowing us to offer a more personalised onboard service, but the possibilities for future development are endless. We’re receiving great feedback from cabin crew and customers already. It allows the crew to offer the thoughtful service they want to deliver and customers are treated as valued guests," explains in-flight customer experience lead Bill Francis.

Replacing paper with computers has indeed brought "revolutions" in many past instances. But in this specific case, confirming a "revolution" will require British Airways to show that iPads will do more than simply enable flight crew to better deliver the customer experience it was already expected to deliver. The success of British Airways’ iPad project will very much hinge on the significance of the "endless" future developments in personalized service.

Sure, computerized seating charts will allow flight crew to more-rapidly help passengers find their seats, more-easily mitigate disputes over seating arrangements, more-efficiently figure out ways to seat separated parties together and more-readily confirm whether or not all passengers are aboard. These will all add value to the flight experience.

But should customers not have already been under the assumption that airlines were committed to the most effective practices for performing these tasks? Is saying, "We’re going to be better at doing what we were already supposed to be doing" really revolutionary?

In order to justify its grandiose claim, British Airways will need to truly act on the idea of "personalized onboard service." Being able to quickly gather a passenger’s relevant details is helpful, but assignment of the "revolutionary" label will be more about what the flight crew does with the information.

No matter how helpful and valuable, using more-personalized information to more efficiently manage the flight experience is not necessarily tantamount to "personalised service." But if the flight crew instead uses the combination of passenger information and freed-up time and resources to recommend places to go upon landing, give tips on the security and bag-check wait times for the return flight, offer relevant tips on in-flight entertainment and dining, provide updates on family members who are not seated adjacently and more frequently tend to customer concerns (like by providing more water refills), for instance, it could indeed come closer to redefining—and thus revolutionizing—what customers expect from airlines.

Told they are always right and rarely penalized for voicing even the most trivial of complaints, customers have little reason to blindly trust businesses.

Yet one business practice that typically does receive such trust from buyers has recently been flagged for its potentially-unjust impact on pricing.

A spotlight by NBC of Dallas-Fort Worth discusses the Texas Department of Agriculture’s ongoing concern with the accuracy of scales in environments like airports and grocery stores.

During an inspection of the scales at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport last year, the DFA found that, on a single day, thirteen of the 135 scales were not functioning properly, while nine would simply not zero out. Although customers were not always penalized—in some cases, the scales were understating the weight of the luggage—it is still troubling that instruments trusted to fairly dictate prices can be so inaccurate.

One airline representative confirms the company’s scales are calibrated quarterly, but existing calibration practices have evidently not been enough to guarantee accuracy.

Customers, technically, possess the right to dispute the measurements, but it is unclear they will have adequate information to pose such a challenge.

Unless the scale blatantly does not zero out, is a customer truly going to have enough cause to pose a challenge? No matter how much precaution customers should be taking to assure they are not ripped off, at some point, they have to put faith in businesses to adhere to honorable, fair practices.

And the problem is not limited to airlines.

North Texas inspectors also found scale issues and grocery stores and coffee shops, says the NBC story. In the last year, eighteen problematic scales were found at Kroger locations, eight were found at Albertson’s establishments and twenty four were uncovered at Wal-Marts.

These, moreover, are institutions where accuracy can be even more pivotal. Unlike airlines, which price luggage based on the range of weights into which it falls, food stores usually charge customers based on the exact weight of the good. So, whenever there is even a slight problem with the scale, the customer is being charged incorrectly.

"We know the economic challenges are still lingering in Texas families, so we want to make sure they get every penny they pay for," said TDA spokesperson Veronica Beyer, confirming that an inspector will investigate every complaint that comes in about suspicious scales.