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Rob Fyfe: The value of unfiltered feedback

Divina Paredes | Oct. 11, 2013
Former Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe talks about ways to foster a customer-centric culture - from answering the most difficult customer complaints, to working the night shift to get first-hand account of what is happening in the organisation.

In his nearly seven years as CEO of Air New Zealand, Rob Fyfe made sure he answered each email personally, even the most difficult customer complaints.

Some of the emails were "colourful", says Fyfe, but he remembers one particular comment from a customer who complained about how his flights were always delayed.

"You service is lower than a snake's scrotum," the customer wrote.

Fyfe says he may not be that familiar with snakes' anatomy, but the sentiments of the email were still clear. He apologised to the sender and explained the delay was due to a system that was critical to flight safety and the pilot certainly did make the right decision in this instance. He also stated that the airline has the best on-time performance in the region, with close to 90 percent of flights taking off within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure time.

The sender offered him two bottles of his best French Bordeaux for a wager that his next two flights will be delayed. Fyfe matched it with six bottles of the wine the airline serves in business class.

Fyfe won the wager, and when the sender asked him how enjoyed the wine, the CEO said he would like to share it with all of those responsible for ensuring the planes left on time but it would be like "having communion".

Instead he offered to auction it off for Koru Care, a charity that organises trips for seriously ill and disabled children. In response, the customer sent more bottles of Grange to be auctioned off for the charity.

The lesson from this?

"Don't shy away from a complaint; engage with the complainant, figure out what the problem is and how you can restore their confidence," says Fyfe, who related this incident at the recent CIO Leaders' Luncheon in Auckland, sponsored by Fronde.

Fyfe says he included this experience in his weekly email to Air New Zealand's 11,000 staff.

He says he shared such stories with the airline employees because he wanted these to become a reference point and a guide for what people did throughout the organisation.

At the CIO luncheon, Fyfe also talks about the value of getting first-hand account on what is happening in various business units.

Once a month, Fyfe would ask an employee to come and spend the day with him to see what his job was about. "Those experiences allowed people to see the trade-offs we have to make, the toughest of decisions," says Fyfe. He says they always chose people who they were confident will go back and share that experience with their colleagues.

Fyfe also worked in different areas of the business, including being a flight attendant and a baggage handler. He once worked the night shift at the Nelson hangar, donning overalls and helping to change brakes and tires. "Within an hour, they were interacting with you like you were one of them," says Fyfe. "You're no longer CEO, and you build long-term relationships."


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