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Customer Perspective: JetBlue and the Valentines Day Crisis

In this reading, you’ll learn how JetBlue leaders engaged customers as the valentines day crisis storm ran its course.

As a company that had been built on a commitment to exceptional customer service, JetBlue leaders always felt as though they had a good sense of customer interests. As the Valentine’s Day winter storm approached, there was a great deal of concern for and conversation about these interests. What would customers want JetBlue to do as the storm approached? What would customers expect from JetBlue as the storm covered NY with snow, ice, and conditions simply unsafe for operations? In this reading, you’ll learn how JetBlue leaders engaged customers as the storm ran its course.

As the President’s Day winter storm was approaching NY, customers were watching the weather and most understood the pressure it was going to put on JetBlue and the air traffic system as a whole. The company could cancel all of its flights, just as its competitors had done, and customers would understand. But there was just something about knowing that there might be a break in the weather – enough for JetBlue to operate – enough to deliver on the company’s commitments to its customers and not let them down by not trying.

JetBlue had already developed an exceptional relationship with its customers before the Valentine’s Day event. Their expectations of the airline were pretty simple:

1) Keep me safe. Don’t do anything that might risk my safety.

2) Don’t lead me on to then let me down. If you’re going to cancel, then cancel. Don’t make me come to the airport and then cancel my flight.

3) Give me options. Let me be a part of the decision process.

4) If you can do so safely, please try to get me to my destination.

Given what turned out to be an ‘irrational sense of hope’ that the weather would allow JetBlue to operate, company leadership made the decision to do what it could for its customers. Sadly, the hope, while well intended, proved to be a fool’s errand. JetBlue’s operation melted down in spectacular fashion.

In the heat of the crisis, what did JetBlue do to care for its customers?

Before flight operations began on Valentine’s Day, the company made an effort to contact customers who had purchased tickets to fly over the holiday weekend. Its Reservations department called the phone numbers provided in customer records to offer them opportunities to reschedule their flights. Unfortunately, as this was the only holiday of the quarter and as customers had already made deposits on vacation properties, cruises, and the like, many appreciated the effort, but elected to try their luck with the weather.

Once operations did begin on Valentine’s morning, the terminal filled quickly with customers. Some of these were put on their planes and headed out to taxiways. Many, however, quickly realized that they were going to be stuck at JFK for some time. For these customers, JetBlue did its best to communicate regularly at their gates with updates and the latest projections for when they could expect to depart. Carts of snacks and drinks were wheeled out, something more commonplace during lengthy delays today, but pretty uncommon then.

Leaders from JetBlue headquarters made their way to JFK, where some had been since very early that morning, and positioned themselves at gates so customers could see and talk to them about what was going on – or rather, what was NOT going on; how everyone found themselves here; and what was being done to solve this problem. Some leaders were there for days, handing out business cards and looking customers in the eyes, telling them that as executives at JetBlue, the situation was their fault, and that this would never happen again.

At other stations away from JFK, with notice that flights were not leaving or coming from NY into their airport, station managers did their best to communicate with customers and share everything they knew to help them understand their situations. Also, as it turned out, a decision JetBlue leaders had made very early in the airline’s history produced an exceptional crisis mitigation instrument for station managers at locations away from JFK. During the airline’s original strategic planning, executives knew that most of JetBlue’s customers would be vacationers and families. With an understanding of what these customers really wanted from an airline and knowing that flight delays were inevitable, all of station managers were given an annual budget for pizza, which they were to spend against whenever flights were significantly delayed. Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, JetBlue station managers spent tens of thousands of dollars on pizza. And while this didn’t completely resolve the current crisis, it gave customer service crew members at JetBlue a mechanism to say “we are truly sorry” – which they had to do for three days while the airline tried to get its operation up and running again.

During this time, JetBlue’s Reservations crew members worked overtime to talk to customers about their options – refunds or rebookings – and apologized profusely for something that they promised would never happen again. They also had to call on hundreds of customers who had been separated from thousands of bags – helping them understand when they could expect to be reunited with them.

And finally, JetBlue leadership delivered several messages to customers, designed to help the company recover their trust. David Neeleman, JetBlue’s founding CEO, recorded the first ever YouTube apology, as far as historical records can determine, which got millions of views.

JetBlue introduced a Customer Bills of Rights as a way to formalize what customers should expect from an airline and to illustrate how serious the company was about accountability – a key element of establishing or reestablishing trust. Neeleman made appearances on morning and evening talk shows, from the Today Show with Matt Lauer to the Late Show David Letterman, to personally apologize and to talk through what happened, how sorry he and the leadership team were, and the purpose of the Bill of Rights.

While some claim that any media is good media, it didn’t feel this way at the time. However, as the world continued to turn, six months after the Valentine’s Day Massacre, JetBlue’s Brand Strength with Customers was the best it had ever been – better, even, than before the operational melt down.

Why? Because JetBlue leaders understood the interests of their customers; owned their mistakes as they were made; did their best to recover from the crisis as it happened; and took steps to describe how JetBlue would not let such a crisis happen again.

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