Just be nice: Providing good customer service

How WestJet won the phone-service war.

When Calgary-based WestJet launched in 1996, executive vice-president Don Bell spent a lot of time in the airline’s call centre fielding questions and booking flights for customers. It didn’t take him long to realize the key to dealing with customers is simple: be nice. “You get back what you dish out,” Bell says.

That’s not exactly revelatory, so how did WestJet manage to provide the best customer service of any Canadian airline in our survey? It has to do with how it ensures its call-centre representatives are nice every time they answer one of the 5.1 million calls received every year. That’s not easy in a job that can be monotonous, where customers themselves don’t always keep their cool.

Bell, the architect of WestJet’s customer-service plan, says a successful strategy starts with the call-centre facility itself. WestJet doubled the air circulation capacity required when constructing the centre in Calgary, to ensure a healthy workspace for its 450 agents. (Another 25 work from home.) It placed offices in the middle of the building, allowing the call-centre agents the luxury of natural light from the windows. The lunchroom also has the best real estate in the building, Bell says, and looks out onto the Rocky Mountains.

Bell says one reason other call centres don’t perform well is because managers fail to realize that employees only do what’s expected of them. Provide them with rewards, and they’ll work harder. That’s why WestJet implemented both a profit-sharing program for its employees and an incentive program for its call-centre agents. The company spent about $500,000 on a sophisticated system that allows an internal department to randomly monitor and rate the quality of calls. Each agent has up to 10 calls monitored a month and receives a report detailing what went right and wrong with each call. They are graded for friendliness, knowledge and the ability to take control of the call. Agents who perform poorly receive individual training, while those who consistently score high marks can earn up to an additional $8 an hour. WestJet finds there’s a direct correlation between customer service and sales: “The higher the customer service rating for our calls, the more people buy from us,” Bell says.

WestJet also allows its reps some authority to make decisions about waiving fees and rescheduling people on its flights. Not only does bypassing a manager on certain issues speed up the decision-making process, but it also makes the reps feel more important. “Everybody has a brain and everybody can think,” Bell says. Perhaps that’s why the turnover rate for WestJet’s agents is 12-15% annually, well below the national average of 23%. An additional 12-15% leave for better-paying jobs within the organization, such as in accounting or marketing.

Barbara Bradbury, vice-president of major accounts at Toronto-based AnswerPlus, says WestJet scored particularly high marks for how it dealt with hold times. While WestJet, ironically, had one of the longest hold times of any airline surveyed (more than four minutes, although the company says its average time is less than two), the caller is informed of how long the wait will be. Not only that, but WestJet also informed its customers about boarding procedures while on hold, thereby using the time effectively. Music and trite messages such as “Your call is important to us” just don’t cut it anymore, Bradbury says. “When you hear that all the time, you stop believing it. It lacks sincerity,” she explains.

WestJet, however, is a relatively large company with plenty of capital to devote to its call centre. Calm Air, a smaller carrier that operates flights in Manitoba and Nunavut, tied with WestJet in our survey for having no hold time and a helpful, knowledgeable operator. When a problem arose (the airline didn’t fly to the selected destination), Calm Air’s rep suggested an alternate route with a different airline, whereas a lesser customer service rep would have ended the call without offering help. That’s a sign the rep had the customer’s best interests in mind, Bradbury says–something the customer will probably remember.

Ultimately, customer-service success for a company of any size comes down to treating employees with respect. “If we take care of our people,” Bell says, “then they’ll take care of our customers.”