A few weeks back, I took a whistle stop trip, across the globe, to Melbourne. Crazy as this might seem, my schedule was to leave Edinburgh and travel for 33 hours, land at 0600, stay up all day to try and minimise the effects of the travel, have a good night's sleep, get up the following day, work the day and then head to the airport and travel 30 hours home! Had things gone to plan, I would have been in Melbourne for a grand total of 40 hours and 20 minutes, book-ended by 63 hours of travel!
For the purposes of this tale, I won't get into the initial objections I raised about the level of travel and the carbon footprint, but needless to say, there were some lengthy conversations about both!
Strange as it may seem, the trip worked out quite well, from the point of view of jet lag, because I wasn't in Australia long enough for my body to really adjust to being there, so when I came home, I didn't feel as worn out as I'd expected. I was tired from having not slept well on planes, but I was in good enough shape to work the following day as normal and felt no worse for it.
The trip was excellent - a really enjoyable experience, all with the exception of one challenge. You see, the flight home was meant to leave at 22:20, but I did not leave the country on that flight. Instead I had to hang around the airport all night, have another flight booked and ultimately leave via a different route, 7 hours later than planned! Now that's ok - I don't mind a change to a plan and I understand that sometimes things don't go the way that you'd expected - but there were a few things which happened along the way that really irked me!
Of course, it's worth caveating that I was tired and a long way from home, and also conscious that the day after I was due to return was my daughter's birthday. A combination of these factors means that perhaps I was a little more sensitive to the challenges than I might have been under different circumstances. But nevertheless, a few little things have stuck in my head which illustrate a point I'd like to make about leadership.
The flight I was due to return home on was a British Airways booking, however, as is common with multi-part long-distance flights these days, the first two legs of the flight (Melbourne to Doha, Doha to London) were being provided by Qatar Airways. That's no problem - I've found that there's generally little to choose between airlines, particularly when you're flying on economy bookings. I arrived at Melbourne airport about 3 hours before my flight was due to leave and immediately joined the queue for the Qatar check-in desk. It was a long queue and it took about an hour and a half to get to the front. On getting to the front, I was called to one of the desks and a gentleman asked for my details and paperwork, which I provided. He tapped the details into the computer, pausing before uttering the words I really didn't want to hear - "Oh, there's a problem".
My heart sank and I paused while he did more tapping on his keyboard before asking him what seemed to be the issue. The gentleman explained to me that the second and third legs of the flight (Doha to London and London to Edinburgh) either seemed to have been cancelled or my bookings on them had been cancelled. Both of these outcomes seemed very unlikely but I had no means with which to verify them, so I asked what I needed to do, to get the situation rectified. He told me that he couldn't help me and that I needed to speak to British Airways. Not an ideal situation in an airport with no BA presence, as we approach the check-in desk closing time.
A challenge I'd had while in Australia had been that my mobile phone couldn't make or receive calls. That was no big deal, because I receive very few calls anyway and with Wifi available everywhere, most communications were done via the usual apps, but suddenly it created an issue. I couldn't call anyone at BA (nor did I happen to have a number, but I figured I could Google that) and time was running out. No problem, I thought - the gentleman at the desk has a phone and, presumably a number for BA, which I can use to call and get myself back on track. Wrong.
Despite having explained my situation, the gentleman refused to let me use his phone. Now I was about 15 mins away from the check-in desk closing, not being allowed on my flight hone and with no way of calling BA and the fact was, he didn't give a shit. It was 9pm, this was the last flight of the day via Qatar and if I had to guess based on overheard conversations with his colleagues, I'd say he was finishing up for the day as soon as the gate closed and was more interested in getting home than helping out.
An additional layer of complexity came from the fact that I hadn't booked my own flights. This had been done by a company I'm working with, so I had to get hold of my contact at that company, firstly hoping that they would read their email quickly and secondly hoping that they'd be able to contact BA and get the situation resolved, all within the next 15 mins! My first plan had been to ask to board the initial flight to Doha, email the company who booked my flights to explain what had happened and get them to resolve the issues with flights two and three while I was in the air, in order that by the time I landed, I'd have an email waiting and be ready to go for the remainder of the journey. Unfortunately, however, by not having a confirmed flight out of Doha, I'd have needed a Visa in order to arrive there, which of course I didn't have, so they wouldn't let me make this flight.
Anyway, long story short, the desk closed, the flight left and I wasn't on it. I exchanged emails with the company who had booked my flight and they'd been left on hold with BA, unable to understand what was happening. Ultimately, they were able to book me on another set of flights, this time with Emirates to Birmingham and then EasyJet and despite waiting 45 mins for my bags to appear and thus missing the closing of the check-in desk and having to sprint through the airport and take my hold baggage on as carry-on, throwing away several things unexpectedly, I made the final flight by the skin of my teeth and was able to wake up in my own bed and be there for my daughter's birthday!
The outcome wasn't a bad one. Nobody died and I made it home, but it raised some big questions. What would have happened if I'd not had the means to book a second set of flights home? What if I'd been entirely without a method of communications - if my phone had been lost, broken or stolen or if I hadn't had a phone at all? The chances are that, at best, I'd have been stuck in Melbourne airport overnight, maybe finding a sympathetic airport employee to help me contact BA, thus enabling me to fly home on their next flights. But by that point, it'd be the next day and I'd have missed Harper's birthday. Sometimes things go wrong, I absolutely accept that, but what really frustrates me is when that happens and nobody in the customer service chain seems to care.
When I got back to the UK, I contacted BA with a breakdown of the situation, asking for an explanation as to what had happened. When they finally got back to me, they advised that despite the fact that I was the passenger who had been inconvenienced, they were unable to discuss the matter with me, because it wasn't me who had made the booking. So here I am, several weeks after the incident, still with no better understanding as to why I wasn't able to get home as I'd planned.
Taking ownership when things go wrong is important. Helping people who are struggling is important - especially when they're using your product or service. These difficult situations are very often the places where reputations and relationships are made or broken. When I got home from a long trip, you can imagine how I felt about the various parties I'd interacted with. Emirates were the heroes, just for doing the very basics and getting me home. BA and Qatar were the villains, one for leaving me stranded and for their lack of comms and both for their lack of compassion and care. What could they have done to help? Firstly, not cancel the flights! Secondly, let me know if you've cancelled the flights or if there's a problem (despite having not made the booking, my email address was on the BA system as the party travelling, and I never heard a peep from them). And from Qatar's point of view? Show some compassion. Let me borrow your phone or tell me where I can find one. Give me the number. Call BA on my behalf. Do ANYTHING that makes it look like you care about helping a passenger, who has paid for a ticket, to get home.
It doesn't take much to separate yourself, in a crowded marketplace, as a company who cares about its customers. And in the same way, it doesn't take much in a busy and results-focused world, to show you really care about your people and separate yourself as a leader. Think about how you treat people, how you support then and how you help them when they really need you. And you'll be amazed at not only what they'll do for you in return but in the way that it'll make you feel to do so.