Poor customer experience from low staff engagement

Seth Godin posted recently, about employees who take a “dont blame me, all I do is work here” approach to customer service. They distance themselves from the customer’s experience, rather than empathising with (and taking responsibility for) the situation.

Unfortunately, Qantas were proving Godin’s point to me while he was still typing. I was due to fly from Sydney with Qantas last week, arriving back in Wellington at midnight. I even checked-in for the flight, which at that stage was running 45mins late. Still the Qantas employee at the check-in was smiling, helpful and empathised with the impact of the delay. Sadly the empathy wouldn’t last.

When I arrived at the Qantas Club lounge, a deadpan lady told me “your flight has been cancelled”. So deadpan, that I laughed at her joke and kept walking. Alas the joke was on me, and I was dispatched immediately to the Qantas Transfer Desk.

Now if this transfer desk had been a country, it would have been Antartica. Cold and inhospitable. The staff were grumpy, huffing and puffing and barking orders at both customers and each other. Customers stood looking sheepish and confused. One lady asking politely for help, kept being interupted by a staff member with a deep sigh saying “let me start again and explain to you…” not once actually answering the passenger’s question.

Without eye contact or achnowledgement, I was told at one point that I was only wait-listed for a flight out that night. When I asked what would happen if I didn’t get on the flight, I was told with more deadpan delivery “we overnight you, and get you on a plane sometime tomorrow”.

I realise this is standard process for airlines. But how the process is followed doesn’t need to be. After all, queueing for a ride at Disney theme parks is a far from standard experience. Yet the transfer desk staff didn’t acknowledge the impact potential over night delays might have on passengers, let alone appear to care. It was clear the staff weren’t enjoying themselves, and despite them getting me on the flight at the last minute, I left there feeling it was my fault Qantas had cancelled their plane.

So why was the customer experience so bad? The Qantas man whisking me through the airport on the buggy was quick to defend his colleagues. He suggested their attitude came from having to deal with irrate and grumpy customers, and that after a while the body shuts down and they become immune.

But is this true? At what point in the customer experience should the roles switch, and customers be expected to empathise with the impact on staff? If they are responding to an emergency then fair enough, but the transfer process is all too common. The desk is permanent and they are being paid to do a customer facing job.

Airlines are a logistics business, just like postal or express deliveries. But DHL & FedEx have built their brands on employees taking pride in making sure parcels are successfullly delivered. The bigger the problem, the greater the satisfaction there is in a successful outcome. Stories are told, and the people celebrated, of how far staff go out of there way to ensure timely delivery. I doubt anyone was celebrating the efforts of the Qantas staff in getting passengers home that night. But maybe they should start thinking about it, because the experience I got from Air New Zealand when I rushed up to the gate was a stark contrast.

The plane had been held 20mins to collect the reject passengers. I was expecting to be rushed on-board, feeling bad for delaying the plane. But instead the staff were all smiles, greeting frustrated passengers with a warm “glad your here now, you can relax, we’ll get you home on time”. Later, as we disembarked, the usual “thanks for flying with us” announcement wasn’t just a script. Instead they acknowledged that not all of us had had a choice in flying with them, but they were glad that we had and it was their pleasure to serve us. And this despite the fact that the last minute passengers had led to food choices running out. But this too was handled with a smile and a joke.

Empathy has a huge role to play in customer experience, and that can only come when staff feel engaged with a brand. While the Qantas staff took the “I just work here” approach, AirNZ ackowledged how passengers were feeling about the situation and did something about it.

Now some would argue AirNZ were just being nice, to try and win passengers from Qantas. And if they were, they succeeded. Just don’t tell Qantas until they’ve sent over my luggage.

Posted in Customer Experience, Engaging people, People & Culture and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. From a social-neuroscience perspective, without empathy, people simply become objects to navigate-and with so much of the human brain geared to connect with others, when we’re ‘blanked’ it causes insult and frustration – ultimately any customer-facing team’s ability to increase loyal customers (or not) is a direct reflection of their skill to build rapport …. here’s the best bit, any human being who has the ability to simply ‘smile’ can build rapport.

  2. Although I have read numerous similar tales of pax being treated this way, as a QF Staff member I can only empathize with my work mates. Qantas Management has beaten it’s staff into uncaring people who must conduct themselves in this way just to make it through the day. Staff need their jobs to pay the bills etc. They are not allowed to have pride in their work. They just go through the paces to make it to the end of their shifts. Stop picking on staff and complain to Management. They are the real people who have no empathy for their customers. Only the bottom line. $$$$$

  3. QF Staff, thanks for your comments, it’s good to have both sides in the discussion. Picking up on your suggestion, I tried to share my comments through the Qantas website. I discovered two things:
    – in the About Qantas/Media section, the Qantas Opinion Forums have a sign saying “Currently not accepting comments” – hardly engaging customers!
    – the careers page says “Our growth and our current position in the market is a direct result of the people who work with Qantas and the contribution they make every day. We are very conscious that building and developing a team of experienced and motivated people has been, and will continue to be, key to our success.” – yet QF Staff’s comments suggest that this is just PR hype, rather than a genuine cultural driver.
    So I sent them customer care an email through the Contact us section…
    I wonder if they’ll reply?

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