Oh boy! Oh boy! Indigo airlines has really been punched on the nose by social media ... much harder than perhaps the assault on the passenger who was way-laid by its ground-staff!
Indigo, always considered a ‘nice’ and ‘efficient’ airline, was hit by a maelstrom of unprecedented proportions.
The question being asked all around is whether Indigo could have handled the entire episode any better.
I invited two of Indian PR industry’s senior most professionals, Supriyo Gupta and Jaideep Shergill to share their assessment of what really happened and what really went wrong when the ‘stray bullet’ hit Indigo.
Comeuppance for Indigo airlines
Supriyo Gupta, co-founder and MD, Torque Communications
Not really 6E?
There was this advice that Amitabh Bachchan gave Shah Rukh Khan and the latter recounted in ‘The AIB Podcast’ and I paraphrase: No matter what happened, apologise. No matter whether you are in the right or not. Apologise. Much like celebrity brands, large corporate brands too suffer from the Goliath disadvantage: Of being always up against sinless David.
So the question comes up often enough, as it must have done at Indigo headquarters when they rewound and examined the tape the hundredth time – should they apologise or defend their staff for reacting to a supposedly unruly passenger? At the end, they made a royal hash of what should have been a fairly short, simple statement rather than the convoluted explanation, the botched up handling of the staff punishments and the rather unsatisfactory resolution.
Strangely, even as the passenger seemed to have moved on and shied away from the natural hero role being thrust on him, the airline started seeing a surge of online angst that had little to do with the immediate situation. Post after post started appearing alleging everything from shoddy treatment to profiteering and misleading passengers. Every mishap now becomes news – passenger falling off a wheelchair, smoke in the cabin and more.
The reality is that Indigo is facing comeuppance for being a brand that put too much effort into building an image of clinical engagement rather than one with the touch of humanity. It is arguably still among the best two run airline operations in the country – clean, punctual, usually courteous and driven by an ethos of efficiency. It still runs aircraft which are well maintained both inside and outside and their employees carry themselves with pride. In air and on the ground their staff exude efficiency and look comfortable in their roles.
Yet, it is also an airline that draws little sympathy and emotional connect because it never did strive for that. Seat spaces have got squeezed, food has become extortionate, little slack is given to tardy passengers, all seats have an additional price tag after the price of the ticket. For a brand that set the trend for slick efficiency, it has lost the intense corporate traveller who likes to see his miles add up and the occasional comfort of an upgrade that helps him stay loyal. Less frequent travellers have nursed grudges and are now using the roughing up of a passenger as the peg to hang less electrifying tales.
The ‘name and shame’ outburst has unleashed a flood of stories that range from missing flights while standing in Indigo check-in lines to purely extortionate practices on ticket changes and more.
So, what did Indigo do wrong and what does it need to do to find its way back to being seen as a ‘achchi company’ that cares for its passengers?
Actually, a lot.
But first a few lessons in handling crises. First, you are never going to win these battles. So, fess up, keep it simple, keep it direct and keep it short. Don’t mix your messages and don’t add to the issues you have to deal with. Second, does your top man really bring much value to fronting the crisis until the contours of the crisis the company faces is clear? While most would be inclined to laud such forthrightness, the mixed messages ended up in a blowback that left the one man in the company with some credibility retreating from the field in a hurry. Third, in today’s day when public feedback comes thick and fast, hold your horses till you know the full lay of land and then launch into decisive action to address both real and perceived wrongs. And do it unequivocally.
But the larger issues that Indigo has to deal with are of a far deeper nature.
First, it needs to understand that reputations of companies with a large daily customer interface rests in the hands of the staff on the ground – right down to the last man on contract wearing the company’s uniform. Therefore, inculcating empathy for the customer is the most important value and one that has to be built as a culture in the company. Strangely enough, I have found that the airline that enjoys a bad name in customer handling – the national carrier – is often the most efficient in dealing with customer crises. And I have many instances as evidence despite being a highly infrequent traveller of the said airline. But its employees feel empowered to make a difference to a customer in distress and accommodate them while other airlines typically look the other way because they are answerable to board room driven profitability culture.
Second, for customers to feel empathy, the airline must in some way have a special place in the hearts of its regulars. The short-lived Sahara airline had a fan following for its little box of confectionaries. Jet Airways still hands out free hot meals which, trust me, still makes a difference while most airlines are dishing out processed food brought to life with hot water. Indigo has little going for it except the smug announcement of on time arrival – as and when it does happen. There are no handshakes, no real connects and, yes, its community of regulars go unacknowledged and unheralded.
Third, random acts of kindness help in any business. Just that little bit of delight spreads good cheer. Indigo needs to ask itself not only if it gave back anything to its fliers, does it even know who its regular patrons are? If the airline believes that the only relationship its customers have with it is a cheaper ticket and an ontime flight, it shouldn’t have a problem with the bad press around its little PR disasters.
Communication lessons from the Indigo fiasco
Jaideep Shergill, co-founder, Pitchfork Partners
The shocking video of IndiGo ground staff beating up a passenger reminded me of the video of United Airlines personnel forcefully offloading a passenger and assaulting him similarly. It was scary, it put a cloud over the brand and it shaved off substantial share value. In Indigo’s case, shares of Interglobe Aviation, the airline’s operator, fell 5.3% after news of the assault – its biggest intra-day loss in a couple of months.
No one was surprised when consumers and the media tore into IndiGo. The anger was most amplified on social media through angry posts, memes and images of taglines that other airlines could adopt. Hashtags such as #indigoons and #boycottindigo trended for prolonged periods even as unconfirmed
reports of many passengers reconsidering their bookings made the rounds. The humiliation was unprecedented for a brand that was otherwise well loved, and known for clockwork operations and services.
Other airlines had a field day. Here’s an ad issued by Air India.
And here’s another post that became popular, though Jet Airways denied it had issued the image.
Here’s an example of the kind of consumer posts that became popular.
Like United, IndiGo’s response was weak and only worsened the situation.
First of all, the incident is said to have occurred on 15 October while the video showing ground staff slamming the passenger to the ground and throttling him went viral only weeks later. Why wait so long! IndiGo should have proactively gone public, apologised and focused on what it was doing to make up for the disaster.
Instead, it chose to stay silent, hoping to brush the issue under the carpet. Making it worse, it sacked the whistleblower, though it later claimed he was part of the assault.
In the end, it was forced to issue a grovelling apology and is now facing a Central Government inquiry.
IndiGo is one of India’s most popular airlines with some reports crediting it with 40 per cent of market share. With great success comes great responsibility. IndiGo urgently needs to show how it is ensuring such incidents don’t recur. An idea: a company-wide programme to train staff in managing passengers better. While this may already be in place for cabin crew, it’s needed for others that interact with passengers – ground staff, bus drivers, etc. The CEO can make a statement by being the first attendee of such a programme.
An audit of customer service practices would also help, and the apology needs to be followed up with a code of conduct drilled into the minds of staff. IndiGo could make a public pledge to adhere to this code.
Lastly, I believe the CEO needs to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty –take a few flights and talk to passengers, understand their ire and reassure them he is doing something about it. The great success of Richard Branson is at least partly due to his affinity to dive right in among customers. There’s a lesson to be learnt there.
Indigo is not a bad airline. On the contrary, Indigo has always enjoyed a squeaky clean reputation of being ‘nice’ and ‘efficient’, as I said before. This one incident cannot become the only yardstick to measure the goodness of the Indigo brand name. But, all the negativity that poured out over the last few days signals that all is not well. As Supriyo put it, Indigo needs to ask itself not only if it ever gave back anything to its fliers? Or does it even know who its regular patrons are? If the airline believes that the only relationship its customers have with it is a cheaper ticket and an on-time flight, it shouldn’t have a problem with the bad press around its PR disaster. Jaideep adds for good measure that in Indigo’s case, shares of Interglobe Aviation, the airline’s owner, fell 5.3% after news of the customer assault – its biggest intra-day loss in a couple of months. So, PR disasters can be devastating at many levels.
I actually feel bad for Indigo. As I have said before, they are not a bad airline. But they do need to develop more customer intimacy and empathy. The starched, no-nonsense approach may have served them well so far, but perhaps needs a serious re-visit post this incident of the past few weeks.
(Sandeep Goyal loves controversies. They make for a healthy debate. Sandeep’s blog in Campaign India is a forum for open-discussions and a free-and-frank airing of views and opinions.)