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Many companies are viewing their customer service division as an increasingly important part of the business – and the air cargo industry is no different, particularly in North America. But, warns Ian Putzger, there are some pitfalls to avoid

When was the last time you found yourself yelling at a stubbornly unperceptive automated customer service agent, or alternatively a human halfway around the world who – like the machine – is obviously only equipped with little more than a few stock phrases to get rid of you?


Some airlines have come to the conclusion that neither option constitutes much of a benefit for customers, and may even put future business in jeopardy. Instead, they try to facilitate the process and create an experience that leaves the client satisfied and willing to come back. To that end, Air Canada and American Airlines (AA) have established ‘customer experience’ departments in their cargo organisations. Both oversee the carriers’ call centres, as well as all other aspects of customer service, including handling complaints and claims.


“We have created a team that is largely focused on the customer experience,” says Joe Reedy, vice president of sales at AA Cargo. “We have customer service teams that oversee what happens on a daily basis. We want them to be on the lookout for problems in order to implement solutions that help us to serve our customers.”


Air Canada has set up its customer experience department at its Toronto hub. Lise-Marie Turpin, vice president of cargo, describes it as “a one-stop shop for customers”.


“If you have an issue or a question, there is somebody who is looking after your shipment. You don’t need to figure out who to call,” remarks Mike Morey, director of operational strategy of Air Canada Cargo.


Industry veterans would retort that this ‘somebody’ would be the airline salesperson they deal with on a regular basis. Traditionally, forwarders have reached for the phone to call their airline sales contact when they have an issue or a question.


“We are not taking away from sales and operations,” comments Turpin. “People have problems or concerns that need to be tended to in a timely fashion, and the salesperson may not be immediately available.”


Ram Menen, the former head of cargo at Emirates, observes that the contact between airlines and their customers has changed. “It used to be eye contact or telephone contact. People would come to your office to talk to you,” he says, adding that much has migrated to electronic channels. However, he is adamant that it should not become purely electronic.


“How do we use technology? We need to go electronic, we need to use the tools, but the customer contact must not change. We need the eyeballing, we need to interact with a human being. We need that balance,” he continues.


“You need somebody in after-sales, not sales,” reflects Dirk Steiger, managing director of air cargo research and consulting firm AAA Advisory. “There are so many people who keep sales [teams] from selling, asking them questions about all sorts of things, like tracking or rate inquiries, for example. Some could just be looking for a spot price for a 150kg shipment.”

In an era where airline sales teams have shrunk, often drastically, carriers want them to concentrate on their primary job. Air Canada’s customer experience department is meant to liberate sales staff to sell, says Turpin.


Morey notes that some of Air Canada’s clients have been using a similar approach to their own clientele. ‘Customer experience’ is rapidly becoming a buzzword in business. An article in Forbes last year called it ‘today’s business benchmark’, while a piece in the Harvard Business Review described it as ‘your customer’s end-to-end journey with you, not just the key touch points or critical moments when customers interact with your organisation’. According to the latter article, customer experience is the cumulative impact of multiple touch points over time, which result in a real relationship feeling – or lack of it.


This is miles away from call centres located in remote low-cost regions that are seemingly designed to frustrate customers. Menen views many of these as efforts to please stakeholders instead of customers, designed chiefly to slash costs.


“To enhance the customer experience you need to spend a dollar, not save a dollar to please your stakeholders. Savings come from efficiencies, from fewer people doing more,” he comments. During his tenure at Emirates he resisted call centres altogether. “Nothing is more frustrating than sitting on the phone for 40 minutes with commercials playing while you rack up a phone bill,” he says. 


“Somebody has to pick up the phone and talk to the customer. That’s a major part of the business.”


Turpin and Reedy do see merit in call centres. Both carriers have moved theirs into the fold of their new customer experience departments. Air Canada has made some investments in technology to give call centre staff tools to do a better job, Turpin says. In June, the Canadian carrier implemented one toll-free number for customers across its home market for bookings, rates and customer service enquiries. Menu options guide callers and route them to specialists who can assist them. >>

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