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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.

"I could pick up the phone to anywhere in the organisation and talk to these people that I'd worked alongside for a day," he says. He would ask them about how the people felt about an issue or "what the vibe is" in that part of the organisation.

"You get really genuine unfiltered feedback... that was incredibly valuable."

Focus on people
"My leadership philosophy over the last three decades has been an unwavering belief that business success is essentially all about people," says Fyfe, who was CEO at the airline from 2005 to 2012, and had also been its CIO. He is executive chairman at Icebreaker and is on the board of Antarctica New Zealand.

"In my experience a highly motivated community of people working cohesively towards a common goal with a shared sense of purpose... will almost always outperform an opposition focused primarily on the bottom line, on financial ratios, and technical superiority," he says.

"We were never going to be able to create a competitive advantage through purely managing the financial metrics. We just didn't have the scale, and the airline business is a scale business.

"By trying to understand better who our customers were and how we could offer a better and more compelling service to our customers [we could] actually win by attracting more customers to fly on an airline and ensure we had fuller aircraft rather than trying to win through having a lower cost base, or some other miraculous way [of increasing] our revenue."

Following a survey of some 1000 customers, the airline distilled characteristics of New Zealand that they would like to bring on board. "If we can bring that personality to life inside Air New Zealand, then we can start to make the airline an added value rather than a barrier that you have to pass through before you get to start enjoying your holiday." The airline sought to bring that "personality" through everything in the business, from the IT team, to what goes on board with the aircraft, engineering and baggage handlers.

While the concept might not sound like a big breakthrough, he says, the airline industry was traditionally about planes, not people.

"Everyone spends their time figuring out which planes to fly, where to fly the planes, how much to charge for a seat. The heroes in the airline industry are the people that deal with the planes — the pilots, the engineers, [they hold] the 'sexy jobs'."

So it is actually turning the business around when Air New Zealand says the airline "is about people, not planes".

This makes the airline heroes "different", he says, and they now include the flight attendants and staff at the check-in counter.


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