Is Virgin failing the digital future?

Sunday night the first automatic check in machine I try at the Virgin terminal in Brisbane is set to ‘Check-in baggage only’, and the next and the next.  In fact they all are. The one attendant on duty is dealing with another passenger but I have 15 minutes to spare before check-in closes so I wait patiently.  When I have her attention she says, cheerfully, ’the baggage tag printing isn’t working, hasn’t been working all afternoon. Ignore the instruction, just use the machine and get your tag at the baggage drop’. By now it is 40 minutes to check-in and, as it turns out, these machines require 45 minutes clear for passengers with baggage.  I therefore go to the counter. Now I am beginning to suspect my seat has already been given away to a waitlisted passenger because the check-in assistants go into a huddle, make telephone calls, hold me up for many minutes and then announce that the check-in is closed!  My only recourse is the Services Desk.  Here the clerk, in a tone implying she is doing me a favour, says that, as this is the last plane for the night, she can book me on the first flight the following morning at a cost of $120. I explain that my delay was caused by their malfunctioning machines but it makes no difference, she simply repeats (many times) that she ‘understands how I feel’ (She doesn’t!) At this stage my only alternative is to book with another airline and pay the full fare, so I accept.  I am now out two taxi fares, one overnight accommodation – and $120!

While waiting for the cab, I reflect on the way that Virgin started business. It put its focus on its people and they were not only given the chance to take initiative but actively encouraged to do so. It was said that recruitment of young people (and they were mostly young) was on the basis of their ‘improv’ ability – their ability to react quickly (and generally with humour) to circumstances and customers’ needs.  Those early years were fun. The liveliness of the crew was in stark contrast to the more sober performances of the more established airlines.

So what is happening now?  The machines had been malfunctioning ‘all afternoon’, but no one had taken the initiative to put up a sign explaining the cause and letting passengers know what to do.  The programmed and robotic parroting of standard spiels and ‘I understand how you feel’ was so mechanical, the clerk might as well have been a machine herself.  This is a far cry from the early days.  What has gone wrong?

Question today:  Is technology increasing or reducing customer service?  And how is it impacting the ‘human element’ in our interactive systems?  Short practical examples preferred.

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