Planes, wifi and customer service

I write this from a Qantas plane high above Queensland on my way to Cairns for work. I have gone in recent times from a weekly plane traveller to one with more of a sporadic use of my frequent flyer membership. That change in usage of planes for travelling has brought more sharply to mind the issue of connectivity on planes.

You see, when I was travelling weekly, I loved the down time that being unconnected from the world gave me: I could shut my eyes and relax away from the phone calls and emails and just spend time thinking. It was great and, at the time, I really needed that time.

Now though, the time spent on planes does nothing but irritate me. Forget for the moment the general lateness of planes coming out of Brisbane Airport (another 25 minutes late departure today) and the fact that if I don’t get an exit aisle seat sitting in economy class requires me to shape my body like an origami crane to sit with anything that resembles comfort. Those facts are things I have no real cavil with and have to expect from travelling on planes.

What really irritates is the fact that we still are forced on planes to shut down all electronic devices and are required to place all devices in flight mode. I understand the rationale: electronic signals might effect the navigational instruments on planes. I wonder though: is this risk an actual risk or an imagined one? Have you ever heard of a plane crashing and the reason given by the aviation authority’s is that someone broke the rules and was playing with his iPhone? I know I haven’t and, given that I do spend time on planes regularly, I am sure I would have remembered it.

Is the slavish devotion by airlines to the "no devices" paradigm more to do with customer service than safety? If that were the rationale it would be two fold:

1. I can think of nothing worse than sitting next to someone speaking on the phone for 2 hours so the fact that there is no phone connectivity does have the ability to improve my experience.

2. If I am not connected then I, as a passenger, can not jump online to whinge in "real time" about the service I am receiving which has the effect of sanitising the flight experience.

Those rationales are all well and good but is it too much to ask that I have access to my email whilst I am in the air? I know there are airlines in the US who have rolled out limited wifi services (I have seen people I follow on my twitter feed wax lyrical about them) and wonder why we don’t have the same on the "nations carrier"? If cost is an impediment I would gladly pay more but I suspect it is not cost that is the issue. I return to the customer service imperative noted about and wonder if a keenness for a lack of "live" criticism is behind the lack of a move to in plane wifi?

I know we are only 7 years into the iPhone age of doing business but airlines seem to be way behind in servicing their clients needs when it comes to business travel: if they weren’t I would be posting this blog immediately rather than when I take my iPad off flight mode upon landing.

That fact raises another question for Australian business travellers: wouldn’t it be nice to have a high speed train to get on for business trips? Again: I know I would pay a premium to get on a train: I would avoid the need for taxis to and from airports for a start and I am sure that such a train would have zero impediments on cellular use. I know Qantas would never let that happen but it is nice to dream about.

When did consumers decide it was ok to accept bad service? Or is it just me?

Anyone who follows my twitter feed (@Shumpty77) will know that from time to time I have been known to express my dismay at being treated in a fashion I have considered to be less than helpful by customer service staff.

Today was a day that was the antithesis to those experiences that I have been known to lament loudly inasmuch as I received really good service today. I regularly attend a cafe in Brisbane called Fuel Salads. As per usual on my regular visits to this establishment I was greeted warmly by all of the staff, they knew what my usual order was (but asked me if that was what I wanted) and generally treated me well and quickly. Indeed the owner commented that it had been a couple of days since I had been in and enquired as to whether I had been unwell.

Now whether this display of customer service was simply put on for my benefit to keep me coming back to their establishment or was genuine (I hope, indeed am certain, it is the later), it got me thinking about customer service generally and led me to reflect on some of the negative experiences I have been faced with recently.

Not wanting to belabour the point but a quick perusal of my archive of tweets on this topic reminds me of these recent customer service gems:

1. My experience at Sprout on Saturday night.
2. Being variously ignored in favour of other customers behind me in the queue or because the server was on a phone call discussing last night’s “shenanigans” at the counters of various food court eateries.
3. Being told that I might “more comfortable” in a mens “big and tall” store not once, not twice but thrice (on three different shopping excursions).
4. Having my telephony services disconnected by my service provider despite being ahead on my bill payments for no reason (still waiting for a reply to my complaint on that one).
5. Various hours spent on the phone to call centres on these shores and abroad.

Now whilst I have been known on occasion to stamp my feet and walk out in some of these scenarios, generally my default setting is to grit my teeth and get through the red mist created by the poor service because either I really need the good or service I have gone to the establishment for or because I just could not be bothered to go to another establishment because I have other things to do.

Therein lies the problem: the pace of the world that we now live in means that all too often we are too busy to even ponder reacting adversely to poor service because there is always something else equally or more pressing to deal with that we have to do next. This is something that I firmly believe the purveyors of goods and services not only thrive off but they rely on.

Shopkeeps (for want of a better expression) know the odds that any particular disgruntled customer is going to not proceed with a transaction because of bad service or is going to complain about bad service (or both) is so low that they do not seem to bother with ensuring that their staff actually provide better service or are trained well enough to give such service.

As I reflected on this I had cause to pause and also ponder the difference between the service I seem to get on a daily basis in Australia with the service I have received whilst travelling, most obviously when I was in America some 18 months ago. When I was in the US, I tipped everybody. Naively I did not equate the tip that I was to give with the quality of service I was obtaining until it was pointed out to me one day that I was, to someone that I had received excellent service from, undertipping. It was only then I truly understood that the life blood of the customer service industry in that economy is tipping. Wages are low and tips necessary to keep above the poverty line.

Now I am a realist: a culture of tipping or reward for excellent service is never going to fly in Australia. Simply we have a work force that is unionised and the unions would never allow their members to suffer the disadvantage of a wage reduction.

So if the utopia of being able to reward (or punish) customer service staff for their performance immediately upon the completion of a transaction is not available (and it never will be in my life time), all that is left is for consumers to talk with their wallets in declining to proceed with transactions, walk out of stores (or hang up the phone) when they are not served with alacrity and complain vociferously when they do not get service that meets their needs.

That is what I will be doing from here on in … will you?