How Singapore Airlines converts the biggest critics into its strongest brand advocates


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Remember the story about food on Virgin Atlantic?

Earlier this year, I had published an article on how Virgin Atlantic had dealt with a passenger whose grievances about bad food had made it to The Telegraph, as the “world’s best complaint letter”. Sir Richard Branson had personally called him up and requested him to help choose the menu for future flights. Virgin Atlantic had successfully turned a critic into a fan.

Generally, this is an exception in the airline industry, as complaints often fall on deaf ears. But as I discovered, at Singapore Airlines, it is a practice to take special care of a disgruntled passenger, ensuring that he is a convert by the end of the brand engagement. The first time I heard this, I was wondering how this was possible. That’s when I was enlightened by an experienced SIA crew member.

The downside of an unhappy passenger

On every flight there are bound to be passengers who feel that they have been shortchanged, mishandled or even mistreated in some way or the other – often resulting in anger or frustration. But instead of trying to understand the situation and try to appease the passenger, most airlines tend to ignore such passengers, to not cause further trouble. But in such bad economic times can airlines still afford to maintain the same attitude when dealing with unhappy passengers? Probably not. And here’s why.

  • With social media, an unhappy passenger can spread the word far and wide. Did you read almost a hundred comments on the United Airlines saga?
  • An unhappy passenger not only doesn’t fly the same airline again, he also takes away other potential business
  • We all know it’s much harder to get a new customer, than to please the current customer and get him to fly again

Therefore it makes perfect sense to treat an unhappy passenger like a VIP and this becomes even more so relevant in an enclosed and constrained environment like an aircraft.

How Singapore Airlines cultivates VIPs?

Singapore Airlines has a very systematic approach to service recovery whenever a problem is encountered within the flight. And here’s how they turn unhappy passengers into their biggest fans:

  1. If the problem is directly or indirectly caused by the airline, the airline acknowledges the problem and assumes full responsibility. EG, if the in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work on a flight, the customer if offered a seat-change and if he doesn’t take that up, he’s given a $50 voucher. Who wouldn’t be pleased with that?
  2. Other than generous compensation, having an ever-smiling and courteous cabin crew helps calm nerves in a tense situation as well. SIA Girls seldom lose their cool.
  3. If for some reason the crew isn’t able to resolve the situation, he or she doesn’t hesitate to ask for help from the in-flight supervisor.
  4. And even the in-flight supervisor is not reluctant to apologize. He knows that if he can make this customer happy, he will be back.

Here are the simple rules SIA crew follows in making a decision in situations like these: If it’s simple, give it to the customer. If the thing that was miscommunicated is easy to do or follow through with, just do it. If it’s complicated, try to compromise.

And it’s these simple practices that make Singapore Airlines the only airline in the Forbes Top 50 brands in the world.

What do you think? How has SIA managed do it consistently while others are struggling with this? Let’s discuss…

Special thanks to veteran airline crew, Z. Ahmad, for his inputs for this article.

There are still 4 more autographed copies of the book to be given away, and a 4GB Apple iPod. You too can be a winner, just by re-tweeting a comment from SimpliFlying or leaving a comment on this site. Learn more here.

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Showing 16 comments
  • Tim Lloyd

    Great piece. I have always been told that satisfied customers may recommend your business to two people, whereas disatisfied customers will share their experiences with ten people. Social media will amplify that effect several times over.

  • Jan Mulder

    There is a difference between words and actions. This was our experience with SIA. SIA pushes passengers to buy tickers early. In fact, months in advance. Our tickets were from Amsterdam to Manado (Indonesia) via Singapore. Shortly before our departure the Indonesian government required dutch passengers to have a visa. We were unaware of this, as we often have travelled to our family in Indonesia.
    As we were not informed by SIA of this visa requirement (and nothing was on their website which we checked before departure) we got stranded for several days in Singapore. In my view SIA entered into a contract to use their means and expertise to bring us safely to Manado. Their refusal to let us onto the ongoing flight to Manado (which only flew 2x week), got us stranded at our own expense.
    All we asked for, when we got back, was a refund for the hotelcost. No more, no less. But we got a clear NO as an answer. And, low and behold, after our letter suddenly a warning appeared on the SIA website about the Visa.
    I ask you, would you expect this from a GREAT airline?
    I certainly did not!

    Jan Mulder

  • Ronald Kuhlmann

    I’ve got whiplash. Just last week your were broadcasting the shortcomings of SIA because of their handling of your recharge issue. It did seem like a small request and clashes completely with their “if it’s simple give it to the customer” mantra.

    What your example illustrates is that, regardless of policy and training, everyone gets it wrong from time to time. The real test of any firms mettle is not how they operate when things are fine, but rather how they cope with problems and unexpected events. Some get it right more often than others and the outcome is a mixture of policy, morale, training, personality and timing. Every brand needs to reprove itself in every encounter.

    I was waiting to board Southwest some years ago when a guy got out of the boarding line and threw a tantrum because he had to wait in line for seating. The agent skillfully advised him that this was their operational model and it worked pretty well. He continued to grumble about the experience, to the point that other passengers were hoping he would just go away. Southwest is one of the worlds strongest brands but it did not mesh with the passenger’s expectations.

    The best products have well defined promises, meet expectations and do it with predictable regularity. That is the key–not the level of service but the alignment of expectations and performance.

    In your SIA example, they failed on some level which belies the idea that they have some lock on a secret formula. Polling large bunches of folks, I’d bet that Southwest has just as many satisfied customers as SIA but they have pulled that off in a very different manner.

  • Joan Planet

    Nice article and nice blog as well. I wish more airlines would follow these ideas…

  • shashank Nigam

    @Joan: Glad you liked SimpliFlying. Do join Tweepiittion as well, where you can win a book on SIA or a 4GB iPod ( )

    @Ronald: I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that a brand is about the alignment of expectations and performance.

  • Elizabeth Zachariah

    should be how all of us do business…

  • George Wu

    There is a strategic marketing aspect to this as well. Beyond just providing better customer service, there’s an old maxim that converting your harshest detractors into satisfied customers creates your strongest promoters. It’s often tough to justify the return on investment of doing so with every one of your critics, but it can sometimes be done at reasonable cost. You see this in your article – Singapore Airlines trains it’s staff to compromise in complicated situations. So they sky is not the limit.

    Clearly Singapore Airlines is thinking smart not just about providing good customer service, but about taking advantage of bad situations to create good will. That sometimes it’s not just about making the disgruntled customer shut up and go away is something all businesses need to keep in mind.

  • Spectra Nova

    Great Lesson! That’s what a response attitude and a tremendous sense of empathy achieves

  • Ian Whittaker

    Hi Shashank,

    Simple really, as you know, treat someone right (because it’s the right thing to do) and they will be happy with your service, things go wrong in life, it’s how you deal with them. Deal with them right and the customer will sing your praises, use you again and refer you to others. A good book is ‘how to win customers and keep them for life’ by Michael LeBoeuf.

    Kind regards


  • Robert W Mann

    Etihad takes the same approach to elegantly resolving service failures. It works.

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