Brand suicide case study: British Airways

When a company like British Airways gets its customer journey wrong and suffers from an identity crisis, there are useful strategy lessons for players in the telecoms industry. In particular, it highlights the nature and challenge of designing a management system with the right methodologies, metrics and mindset. Are your “First Class lunch menus” upside-down too?

Brand suicide case study: British Airways

One of life’s tragedies is to see a dear old friend engage in self-destructive behaviour. You feel completely helpless as a bystander, watching the unstoppable slide into disaster. I (along with many others) have been horrified as a much-loved brand, British Airways, has taken up cutting its commercial wrists in order to meet some unfathomable internal need.

This avoidable trauma contains some parallels and lessons for those in the telecommunications industry.

A childhood watching Concorde streak by my window

To say I am a brand loyalist to British Airways would be to entirely miss the point. My father joined BOAC, a predecessor of BA, in November of 1970 whilst I was still in my mother’s womb. He worked there for 34 years as an engineer at Heathrow’s Hatton Cross maintenance base, mostly doing 747 major overhauls. My dad worked shifts, and often came home scented with kerosene and with black grease under his nails. It was a welcome stable family income in often unstable economic times.

One upside was I got to fly to faraway places as a child on cheap or free standby tickets, and sometimes we even got home again! I remember spending four nights as a nine-year-old sleeping on the floor in Larnaca airport in Cyprus along with dozens of other stranded BA staff. In the end BA sent out a Tristar on a ferry flight to fetch over 200 passengers, all being absent employees or their families.

We used to scan the weekly BA News for staff travel offers, occasionally pouncing when we saw one we could afford to go on. Our suitcases would carry cheap food from the UK, and our self-catering accommodation always was in the off-season and with a travel industry staff discount. As a child, I often went to the airport hoping to go on holiday, only to get the bus straight back home again when no empty seats were available.

When people moan about travel nowadays, I just roll my eyes and think they have no idea how good they have it. I can assure you that the benches in Grantley Adams airport in Barbados are rock-hard to sleep on! But BA was there to make aspirational travel financially possible for us, even if some hardship was involved.

My first ever taste of Club class was flying home alone from a family holiday in the Caribbean aged 18. I was bored out of my tiny mind when deprived of a computer to play with for a week! I once hand-digitised the then-new BA crown logo (including the fresh ‘to fly, to serve’ strapline) onto my BBC Micro. The novelty and excitement of a “thing” from the outside world appearing on the screen was palpable. I also used to attend a smoke-filled room where the BA staff Computer Club took place, and overgrown boys would show off their new digital toys.

I suspect I have long had a role model too in BA’s famous “smug British asshole flying over comfortably from America” advert. Anyway, enough reminiscing.

From flying flags to world’s favourite airline

Over the decades I have watched the transition of BA from a nationalised airline designed to “fly the flag” into a sleek international commercial business, now one of a stable of IAG brands.

This transition included the “Putting People First” programme in the mid 1980s prior to privatisation. The retraining engaged its workers, many with a military background and mind-set, in a culture change necessary to survive and thrive in a competitive consumer-driven travel market. The result was indeed a transformation in attitudes and commercial outcomes, setting it up for being the world’s most profitable airline by the mid-90s.

An airline is basically a data centre with a nasty paraffin habit, and BA also has a long record of being a “digital pioneer”. This can be seen from the earliest reservation systems onwards. For a brief and proud period in the late 1990s, my father worked down in the hangar whilst I did overpriced IT consulting to BA in the offices above as an employee of Oracle architecting the first Web check-in systems.

So me and BA go back a long way. My relationship nowadays is not as an industry insider or supplier, but as a customer and neighbour (living within walking distance of LHR T5 – and, yes, I’ve walked home after a flight!). After doing a lot of long-haul business travel last year, I am an Executive Club Gold card holder. This possibly says more about my (and my colleagues’) ability to game the BAEC points system than the outlandish size of my luxury travel budget.

We’ll take less care of you: a downturn in standards

I have felt the difference recently as BA has turned to “putting profits first”, with an Americanised MBA-driven business culture. The “value engineering” going on is a bit like how packets of chocolate cookies seem to get a bit shorter and narrower without the price changing to reflect this. The process is reminiscent of the telecoms “network optimisation” sector, with its capex liposuction surgeons with their dodgy eyesight and shaky hands.

What this all illustrates is how financial models are blind to the emotional and ethical impact of policy changes. In the case of BA, they have recently decided to relinquish their key differentiators on shorthaul routes: free food and drink, and a few inches of extra legroom over Ryanair, Wizz and Easyjet. They had already downsized their business class offer from big seats (where you could always open your laptop) to small seats (with a guaranteed, but useless empty gesture, of nobody in the middle one).

This new “Buy on board” (BoB) drinking and dining experience has involved BA teaming up with another troubled classic British brand, Marks & Spencer. In theory, this should offer the budget traveller greater choice and value: only pay for food if you need it, and you can “upgrade” to posher nosh and a fuller feast if you so desire. [Side note: I am typing this as I fly on BA. I just asked for a glass of tap water, and this seems to require a special delivery from the other end of the aircraft. It’s not a standard item on the drinks trolley…]

The reality of BoB is somewhat different to the theory. They have had problems with stock control and payment systems. This means they can run out of food or drink, or fail to serve the whole aircraft in the time of the flight. I have seen many traveller complaints on Flyertalk and elsewhere.

My experience last week flying to Edinburgh was one of no menus, or real explanation of the changed system and that you could still get a free glass of tap water. It seems BA cannot decide if it is in the retail business, or not. This may remind you of the retail stores of some telecoms operators…

You can contrast this with an airline like Norwegian that has value engineered the experience from its inception. You can order food on a longhaul flight from your seat via the IFE system, and have it delivered just when you want it. The ability to eat right when you want is normally associated with a first class service, and this mass democratises the feature. It’s a bit like how Ryanair give you punctuality and low fares, breaking what was presumed to be a trade-off.

The core lesson here from BoB is that the customer is always on a journey, and they experience that journey as a continual passing of time and interactions. Your internal silos and systems should not “poke out” and impede the customer on that journey. They should all work in harmony to enable the outcome the customer seeks, and avoid any setbacks on the way, or at least gracefully fall back when the inevitable problems occur.

Let’s take a look at my journey today from Heathrow to Gibraltar, and how this has interacted with the new BoB policy.

Capacity and scheduling problems for people and packets

Due to some poor planning on my behalf, I ended up making my way through the terminal today in a bit of a rush, having skipped breakfast. I’m dressed down today as I’m visiting friends and going to be scrabbling around almond orchards tomorrow. The check-in at Heathrow terminal 3 was guarded by a lady whose job is to perform access control to the premium First check-in line. The default is for her to be ready to reject economy vagabonds, rather than welcome you. When I uttered the magic passphrase “BA Gold”, the anticipated frown transformed into a welcome smile.

For telcos, I get little sense that they have any idea who their valued customers are when they are at the network “check-in”. Some vendors claim to have some kind of performance segmentation, but I bet you nobody can tick a “VIP purchase decision maker” box and they get bonus slots in the mobile radio resource allocation. I use prepaid Giff Gaff on O2’s network in the UK, and probably get a near-identical service to any other customer.

After dropping off my bag in Heathrow terminal 3, I was guided to the “fast track” security. This had a whopping and slow queue! The system was poorly managed, with a single person loading trays at each belt in series, rather than multiple in parallel elsewhere in the airport. Only two of the three lanes were open. The queue backed up enough that the security checker at the entrance began to advise people to go over and take new “slow track” entrance as it is “quicker to use the other door”.

This is what in networking is called a “quality inversion” – when the low-priced product has better service quality than the higher-priced one. It is very common in telecoms systems, where services like broadband can for much of the time offer better capacity and quality than expensive dedicated circuits. All attempts at selling packet data “QoS” thus far have also failed due to a lack of setting appropriate upper and lower bounds on the network classes of service.

Here is a fundamental misalignment of the “intentional semantics” (better service for premium passengers), “denotational semantics” (“Fast track” label and claim), and “operational semantics” (bloody awful long wait in a slow queue behind Olympic-standard faffers). Aligning these three is the core job of the owner of the “quality system” of any kind of enterprise: what did you want, what did you ask for, and what did you get?

Boundaries and hand-offs cause service quality problems

The security is a responsibility of the airport, not the airline, but as a passenger I don’t care about these administrative handoffs. There is a basic failure to execute flow management, with no “quality floor” on the fast track (and no “quality ceiling” on the “slow track” to support my haughtiness). The processing capacity was not even sized to mean demand (lunchtime on a Thurday in mid-January), let alone peak!

You can think of this as being a bit like cloud and telecoms working together, and the two parties blaming each other for the poor experience, with the customer left to pick up the pieces. There’s no system for fault isolation, and when you add together to efforts of the individual parts, you have little sense of whether the end-to-end whole will have the desired performance properties.

Nobody really has a quantitative grip on the supply needed to match a process of random demand arrivals at a capacity constrained resource. There’s no visibility to the airline that my experience is being impaired by another player in the journey.

The disjointed travel experience then continued. There are no signs as you come out of the “premium” fast track, either for where the lounges are, or which gate your flight will go from. I was born a mile from the perimeter of Heathrow, and it’s not a place I get disoriented or lost easily. So there was yet another delay whilst I got directions to escape from airport retail mall hell, as I was injected at an unfamiliar point. (Good news! Nothing and nowhere in Heathrow is as bad as Stansted, which is a sensory assault of the worst and most disrespectful kind.)

Now, you might think this is all trivial, but I am now in a state of anxiety. Will I be able to get some food and drink into me in the lounge before the flight? Because there is a real possibility I might end up spending the whole morning and afternoon having had only one latte to sustain me.

Feelings are facts

The take-away here is four-fold. Firstly, we are all corporeal in our nature: we have bodies, and these have innate feelings. We are particularly sensitive to bad experiences and feelings, and hunger and thirst are universally bad experiences. The result of the BoB policy is I am spending time worried about an attack on my sense of wellbeing. Every setback in the customer journey is magnified in effect, as it increases this anxiety.

This means that “success” is not having occasional wonderful experiences where I feel a total VIP; instead, it is avoiding truly bad sensory experiences. Furthermore, our memories are formed when attached to strong emotions. (An unconscious inner desire to inflict personal harm on BA senior management is a strong emotion.)

In telecoms, we are often fulfilling important social and emotional needs. Indeed, we help to solve hunger and thirst, but also feeling loneliness, lovelorn, or lost. The emotional impact when the service fails is not well understood by marketing departments, and networks aren’t architected to identify “unusual failure” and offer compensatory apologies. We are essentially totally blind to the emotional world our customers inhabit.

Secondly, the “failure modes” of BoB interact with the “failure modes” of the rest of the customer journey, and the result is the arming of a new catastrophic failure of “no food or drink” whilst trapped in a travel experience from which there is no physical escape. The experience is the effect of the whole journey, not a series of isolated process interactions to be optimised. The failure is cumulative in nature and the experience is driven by its “worst moment of existence”. So (for example) you can’t make up for a broken toilet on the plane by offering the customer an extra coffee with a double whiskey in it, as it doesn’t work that way!

In telecoms, we have little understanding of the nature of the experience we are delivering, and when it has become unacceptable. The ability to isolate problems in digitial supply chains is embryonic. The marketing focus is on delivering “peak [bandwidth] experiences”, not on making bad ones suitably and sufficiently rare.

Thirdly, in psychology there is the “endowment effect” and we are biased to be over-sensitive to losses. When free food is taken away from us, when we have come to expect it, we then experience every flight as a reminder that we are no longer loved and valued like we once were.

In broadband and mobile it is common to over-deliver and then take away the performance as usage grows. The experience is not engineered to be monotonically improving, and this is design to dissatisfy. We’ve actively set out to create a system which will cause the most possible disappointment by over-delivering with “best effort” that cannot be sustained or made predictable.

Lastly, you can get all kinds of things wrong in the customer journey at higher Maslow levels, just not at the bottom. Whilst BA can make me hungry (a low down the pyramid need), it can’t sacrifice safety (right at the base). Airline safety is taken out of the hands of airlines, and into an antifragile system. This system learns from every mistake, and every crash or incident makes aviation as a whole safer from the following investigation and root cause analysis.

Telecoms is still trying to engineer robustness, and this is a stupid idea that will bankrupt a lot of people and still not make us safe. We need a different engineering paradigm if we are to cut costs safely. At the very least we need to be able to model and understand the safety margins we work with.

Experiencing corporate Borderline Personality Disorder

So, I then waft into the First Class lounge, as you do. Champagne bar to the left, Sir, food to the right, we don’t make announcements. Lovely! Just the tables are at the far end, and the food is not adjacent. OK, a bit of an odd design. Still serving hot breakfast, shame there’s no orange juice in sight.

The telecoms lesson here is one of consistency. Am I a valued customer or not? One minute you’re offering me unlimited premium champagne, the next I am not worthy of even a free cup to pour my own drink into. If someone is in a hurry for a flight, maybe I should even get the full personal service – let me take your things, you get your food and I’ll sort you a table.

In humans, an irrational fear of abandonment attached to persistent identity issues is regarded as a serious psychiatric condition needing long-term management and care. The “love you now, now I don’t” push-pull is an unhealthy pattern of relating.

Guzzle, guzzle, quick! OK, now a few other things I observe while munching. My phone is now “data dead”. BA have a “captive portal” in front of their amenity WiFi that always demands that you enter the top-secret password of the month that you never notice until you’re already sat down and realise it’s changed from last month. This experience is essentially a silent denial-of-service attack on my Internet connection by BA. For anyone who knows me well, this is Not A Good Idea™, as I get severe separation anxiety when not immersed in a computational universe for a prolonged period.

Both airlines and telcos are transport industries of different kinds. They both require customer service interaction, and can provide their own “path” to their service. In the lounge, there are agents dedicated to help you with you travel. In telecoms, you call customer service.

In this case, BA has also launched a DoS attack on its own main channel to reach its customer in a personalised manner. I get notification from the BA app of my flight gate opening, but I might have happily say there waiting for a boarding announcement oblivious to the fact the Internet connection has been seized by the captive portal. This is a disconnected experience (pun intended) resulting from different cost centres and management teams not working together.

Sip your own champagne, skip the dogfood

For telcos, the lesson is that your customer care should be a flagship of your products and services for unified comms and CRM. Drink your own first class lounge champagne, don’t serve dogfood. If you want to sell quality-enhanced voice, your own care line should be the flag bearer for the experience and its business impact. That is why Ofcom’s recent £2.7m fine for EE for over-charging users who called customer services whilst roaming are so necessary and appropriate.

Quick, still hungry! More drink! I grab some dessert and open a few more of those annoyingly tiddly cans of pop. (Why free champagne yet measly servings of soft drinks I have no idea. Seems a universal thing that you offer huge cans of beer and teeny ones of juice.) Then the nice lady comes around and plonks a lunch menu on my table. What can possibly go wrong?

Well, it’s all about attention to detail, as retail is detail. The menu is upside-down, and as we act congruently in all contexts, the food and service is therefore also liable to be “upside-down”. BA is on the hook for the experience, here but they think they can push it down to their vendors and manage it through contract terms.

This doesn’t work very well, as the telecoms industry often finds out. You simply cannot anticipate the failures when you let go of the experience. You need to take control over the experience design process and manage the variation and design failure out of the system.

In the case of the menus, they needed to have an external pattern that would make it obvious they are the wrong way up. In the case of broadband, it’s about having a quality management system to manage network quality variability. This system sees success or failure in the terms of the user and their ability to run the applications they value to an acceptable performance level. This is not the same as delivering peak “bandwidth” for marketing purposes. Indeed, the engineering for these objectives can be in direct opposition.

To not fly, to not serve

The flight was signed as “boarding”, so I rushed through my food, abandoning the last of my velvet cake (Gold life is so tough) to get ready to dash to the gate. The sign at the counter said “boarding”, but the human said “please take a seat, Sir”. So it wasn’t boarding. You’ve sent me a false signal that benefits your own people-moving objective by buffering me at the gate, where there are now no empty seats. Very premium passenger experience (not).

I think you’ve got the idea. And also a sense of how BA’s own systems of feedback will never tell managers what they want to know. You are what you measure, and BA isn’t measuring the right things.

I get endless satisfaction surveys from BA, but the nature of the questions sees travel as a series of disjointed activities to be scored. There is no systemic or holistic view of the customer journey. Hence those surveys will only reinforce the dysfunctional management system that is based on command-and-control analytical model. I won’t be filling in any more of them, as it’s cruel.

With BA, they don’t have a reference model of how all these systems and activities interact, and what the feeling state of the customer is at each point, or what the effect of all the handoffs and different management domains will be. Their surveys ask about “satisfaction” with distinct processes, but do not ask me what really matters. Was I anxious, excited, worried, confused, nervous, angry, grateful, or overjoyed? When, and why?

For example, today we flew into Gibraltar after a circuit of the rock to line up with the runway. I had preplanned to be on the right hand side window of the aircraft to enjoy the view. But that was a “peak experience” they could have engineered for any Gold flyer going to Gibraltar for the first time and landing from the east. It doesn’t need a fancy IT system, just an empowered gate agent or cabin service director.

For telecoms, we have a serious problem with our quality management systems, too. We’re the last industry on earth to engage with the quality revolution. I’ll document the reasons why another time. But rather like BA, we don’t have a reliable standard reference model of how the mechanisms of the network result in a service quality and user experience.

The responsibility for the management system as a whole, and its fitness-for-purpose, sits right at the top of the organisation: the CEO, Board, CFO and CSO. These are the people in telecoms who are about to be challenged with a total quality revolution.

A crisis of identity

Both BA and telcos face comparable identity issues. With BA, its roots come from two different animals: the Imperial Airways routes to the outposts of empire, and the “puddle jumper” routes to nearby cities like Paris, Copenhagen and Berlin. To this day it has two different crew contracts, Worldwide and Mixed, reflecting these diverse origins and outlooks. Most of BA’s profits come from routes with the higher standards of service and more experienced and expensive staff.

It can’t quite figure out how to resolve the differing management cultures it is formed from. Is BA a global brand or not? Is it a premium brand (commanding a premium price) or not?

Just as BA can’t figure out what it really is, and therefore acts incoherently, so do telcos face an identity crisis. They are struggling to switch their primary taskfrom a supply-led to a demand-led paradigm. At the moment the implicit belief system is “putting packets first”, and this has to change.

So to wrap up, if anyone from BA is reading this, here’s my message: surveys are no substitute for love. If you love your work, and love your customers, then we will love you back. Understand what we revenue-mile pax love and hate, and why. Join us on those journeys to capture the real highs and lows. Satisfaction and loyalty are not the same, and you’re measuring the wrong things and so managing the wrong things. Focus on making the bad emotional experiences rare, and making an occasional “wow!” one too.

At the moment I still like you, but love without reciprocity is just irrational brand infatuation. You’re asking for a positive human response to your brand, whilst creating confusion and not attending to basic human needs like comfort.

And if anyone from the world of telco has got this far, we’ve not even begun the journey to putting people first. Learn from the struggles of British Airways and their stumbles in mass customising a competitive service industry. Packets are not people (or pizzas), so we have to be careful of metaphors. They also work at the speed of sound or less (now Concorde is gone), and we work at the speed of light, so we have some unique challenges to deal with.


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