Recently I flew Cathay Pacific on four separate flights. Overall, I would say the experience was good, but not great. Cathay did manage to surprise and delight me, yet they also managed to frustrate and irritate me.
There is a complete disconnect between their messaging and service delivery. Golden Rule Service says a company should give me the service I would give them in the same situation. From the ticket purchase to landing back home, I often encountered disconnects in their service delivery. Cathay has a last mile service problem. Let’s take a look at Cathay’s service from purchase to landing.
People: They Make a Difference
Admittedly, I did not see their ad campaign until late April when it cropped up everywhere I went in Asia, magazines, lounges, and billboards.
Sounds great, right? Maybe not so much once you’ve entered in your credit card details.
Ticket Purchase and Seating
In early March I purchased tickets for the following routes:
BOM-HKG-JFK (1 day stopover).
For a total of four flights on Cathay and at least two days of my life.
I started to get nervous about what would happen when I tried to select my seats on my return flight using my minor status on OneWorld on American Airlines and British Airways. There was a glitch and the system would not let me select a seat in advance. I wanted to avoid the dreaded middle seat on a 15-hour flight, so I thought I would call in. Here’s a service problem: their US number is effectively disconnected.
In fact, Cathay’s contact information is limited to a single number with no social connections. Cathay clearly doesn’t want you to ask the hard questions.
Cathay does allow One World Ruby members to select seats before the 48-hour check in window. On the Cathay website, it would not allow me to choose a seat despite clearly saying below the seat selection, “One World Ruby Members and above.” Frustration!
I made several dozen phone calls to the only US Reservations and Service Line they offer: (800) 233-2742 to no avail. In fact, the line is either busy or says, “…If the line is busy, try again.” Is that service? I started a search for better channels. When I searched for alternative numbers, I discovered Cathay has a reputation of not picking up. At all.
After the first three results, the rest of the page was about the poor reviews of their phone service.
At this point, I decided to try social media. I wanted to practice this the Golden Rule way so I tried to be pleasant about it. I tweeted my request after I had to search on Google for their twitter account because it’s not on their site.
Note that this started on March 7. On March 9, in the afternoon, I received an email from their North American CRD Group (email@example.com) claiming that their website changes had created a higher call volume. This is a standard Cathay response because many people mentioned it on the customer service review sites.
I then emailed firstname.lastname@example.org. A whole day later, at 2:39am, as I was sleeping, I received a phone call which I mistook for the alarm. When I saw a Hong Kong number I picked it up. (Sadly, the phone ring has trained me well).
A very nice woman started to tell me that S class got me nothing. She told me to call the reservation office if I wanted to try to change that. In Mumbai. So I broke it to her that I was in New York and she had woken me. That did not faze her. She said was she could see I booked it from Mumbai. When I asked her if she had bothered to check my US billing address and passport, etc… She claimed not to be able to see that. Since she could or would not help, I ended the call.
Frequent travelers understand my frustration here: I do not want to end up in the middle on two long segments. What kept driving me was that I knew I was right and that Cathay should not treat me this way, because I would not treat them like this if the situation were reversed. I knew I could resolve it, testing my customer service navigation abilities. And Cathay did test my ability to find the right person.
On March 10, I responded to Cathay with my booking details for assistance. It wasn’t until March 12 that I received a phone call, at 10am EST thankfully, from a very nice, very helpful gentleman based in Hong Kong. He immediately apologized and offered to help book my seat. He was patient while I brought up Seat Guru and when I asked him for the equipment details. He even offered several seat options and then confirmed my seats. I thanked him for his help and we both went on with our day. This is all I was asking for, so why did it take a week?
When I last flew Singapore Airlines in 2008, their staff had no issues recognizing my Gold Status and helping me find an empty two-seater without even asking for it. I was never made to feel less than worthy even though their KrisFlyer program has many more benefits for serious SQ flyers.
Having the non-refundable Cathay tickets in hand, I went on my trip.
Flight 1: CX831: JFK-HKG: 15.5 Hours: Uneventful.
Cathay impressed me during the boarding process. The staff took the time to create rope line early on for Economy class so we would board in the correct order. They had helpful signs as well.
The Economy seats were designed well, with both people kept in mind, in a Golden Rule way. I want to point these out because it is clear the seat designer used Golden Rule Questions to build a detailed understanding of how people use seats when they fly. The seats were more like hard shells that did not go back, rather allowed you to move the seat down and forward to lean back. The cup holder was well placed. When the tray table was down, it revealed a power outlet with normal adapters. There were two flaws with these seats, however. One flaw is that 66AC are misaligned with the tray tables, forcing me to encroach on my neighbor’s space. The other is the power outlets are run by the computer. If the computer fails, so does the power.
Amenity kits, however, were lacking and sorely needed on a 15.5-hour flight. The crew seemed helpful, but only to the minimum extent required.
Flight 2: CX905 HKG-MNL: 1.5 Hrs. Wow.
I received a surprise, random upgrade to Business Class for short flight. The upgrade created delight even for a short flight. I believe they upgraded me because I had Ruby status and Economy was oversold.
These seats were similar to US domestic business class, although a bit plusher. It was the service that was amazing. For a 1.5 hr flight, they provided full table service with a three course meal and drinks. The staff was very friendly and accommodating. Yes, I know, this is business class, yet it we received so much more than was required on a short flight.
Flight 3: CX684 BOM-HKG: 4.5 hrs. Uneventful
So this was the first leg of the problem ticket. Fortunately I had checked in early in the 48hr window to discover the equipment had changed and my seat was in the middle of the 3-4-3 747-400 configuration. Whoa! Made a quick change to my favorite seat and solved the problem ahead of time.
Cathay surprised me by giving me a business class lounge ticket to the BOM and HKG airport lounges. I suppose my British Airways status got me those. I went to the airport lounge which turned out to be a dark, shared lounge with poor wifi. No showers, and the bathroom wasn’t much better than the public one. They also had rather shabby looking food.
So I left the lounge, wandered around, and realized I could get into the British Airways-run lounge. I walked in and it was a completely different world. Bright, clean, with amazing staff who wanted nothing more than to help me. All I really wanted was a samosa and a quiet seat. And I found both. I think Cathay should reconsider their lounge arrangements with local airports.
Flight 4: CX830 HKG-JFK: 15.5 hrs. Pleasant.
Once in Hong Kong, I took advantage of the 24 hour layover to be a tourist. When I returned to the airport, I was greeted with yet another lounge pass and very friendly staff. After deciding against the food options, I went into the Business Class Lounge near my gate. Looking back on the lounge, I would say their staff was friendly, but not super friendly. The barista seemed to be annoyed I was even asking him to make a cappuccino. Yet the lounge itself was designed well, with computer cube seating for privacy and a view of the gate and planes.
Once I was on the plane, it was back to Economy class. This crew knew Golden Rule service. They were friendly, chatty, and accommodating. When I hung around the galley looking for food, they found it for me cheerfully. The crew also spent the time to keep the bathrooms clean, just as one would want to be treated. Based on this flight, I’d fly Cathay again to Hong Kong.
Too Far From Headquarters?
Cathay seems to have a pan-opticon or a headquarters communications problem. The farther one goes from headquarters in Hong Kong, the further down service levels drop. This type of issue is understandable in an organization that hires and operates from a central location. Unfortunately for Cathay Pacific customers, this means local offices cannot help local customers in the way HQ usually does.
When I was flying from Hong Kong, we had excellent service. When I flew to Hong Kong, we had mediocre service. When I tried to work with the US and Mumbai staff, I encountered numerous problems including not being able to get any service. Is Cathay too centralized in a multinational, networked age? Or are staff in other countries so far away from HQ that they do what they want?
Either way, the messaging that Cathay Pacific is putting into their advertising is disconnected from how they actually operate. Even if it just the US staff or the one person who failed to plug in their phone system properly, Cathay has a last mile problem they need to solve using the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule Analysis
There are two large gaps in service, which Cathay needs to resolve before they can attain true Golden Rule Service.
First, they must address the local country reservations line, in particular the lack of support available in the US.
Second, Cathay needs to find and train cabin crews to be consistently excellent in all classes of service. Businesses tend to forget people complain more when something is taken away or is inconsistent, therefore Cathay should see these inconsistencies as opportunities to build a world-class reputation now.
If Cathay wants to solve these issues, they should start with the Golden Rule to ensure an end-to-end service delivery that matches their messaging. Perhaps the people featured prominently in their advertising are exemplars of Golden Rule behavior and it would be great to have this group be the service trainers.
Golden Rule Service is about providing the kind of experience you would want from a person, company, or government in the same situation. Sometimes we cannot pay for the level of service we would like to enjoy, but we do expect to be treated well at any level for the money paid. Since all parts of a business should be organized to deliver service using the Golden Rule, the service one receives should be consistent in all interactions with a business. Cathay seems to have variation in its commitment to service. A Golden Rule Business starts from the premise that one should “treat others as one would want to be treated in the same situation” which means you must also organize your business around this idea.
Airline in-flight service and ground customer service should be entirely aligned to provide an amazing experience throughout. The Golden Rule also says a company should be upfront and clear about what to expect.
I do believe the Golden Rule is the way to treat people in principle and the starting point for any service organization—and all firms are service organizations. The inherent nature of a frequent flyer program encourages the airline to treat their very best clients with more attention than others. At each level, one is treated in the way you would expect to treat people in the same situation. So at the status level I have, I expect one level of service, which I did not receive with Cathay Pacific. Even without frequent flyer status, I should have been able to call or email Cathay Pacific for any questions and receive a prompt answer.
There may be specific reasons for Cathay’s service lapses. Possibly Cathay’s ground support team is organized as a separate part of the business from their flight teams. Or perhaps Cathay’s people hiring is excellent, with a completely disorganized process for customer contact.
Let’s say you had a restaurant. Your food was the kind of food you always wanted to serve people. And people respond by flocking to your restaurant. But they don’t come back. Why? It turns out the people you hired do not match the amazingness of your food. The wait staff loafs around, they aren’t trained, and the hostess loses reservations. You get the picture.
It isn’t enough to have one part of your business be Golden Rule. All of it needs to be. At all times.
Cathay’s competitors helped build this social media customer service guide. Cathay’s team should read it. To me, as a marketer and customer service maven, helping people within the hour seems like a standard operating procedure. Personally, I would strive for answering a customer question in 5 minutes or less because that is how I would want to be treated. It doesn’t matter how much someone is paying a company; everyone should be treated well.
It is a shame there is a disconnect between on the ground service and their in-flight reputation. I hope Cathay will start every project with a Golden Rule Question: “Is this how I would want an airline to treat me in the same situation?”
Which airline practices the Golden Rule consistently? Share below:
Image credits: Josh Hill, Flickr: Simon_sees