Whitnee Hawthorne, has been ‘piloting’ her way through a career in the travel industry and customer service at breakneck speed and even now is just taxiing down the runway at her next big opportunity as SVP of Travel Experience for TripActions.
Her career has taken her on a wild ride of roles as diverse as partnership management, customer experience and even special projects aimed at creating ‘airports of the future’ for travellers. All of them have one common thread: they focused on making things even better for the customer.
Her experience over the past 24 months has been a lesson in extremes. Airlines were shutting down and the travel industry came to a stop; yet customer service was ramping up!
Keep reading to find out what she learnt…
Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is to do nothing at all…
“When Covid hit, customer service didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know when people would be able to travel again; and they didn’t know how the company would support them. Yet - and here’s the incredible part - even whilst going through their own uncertainties, frontline teams and their leaders were working harder than ever to support customers in a way that we’ve never had to before,” says Whitney.
She goes on:
“Within the travel industry, there are times when you just can’t predict or control a situation; in other words, ‘weather happens’...and of course, Covid!”
Whitnee believes that some of the very best customer service she’s ever observed happens when you can’t do anything at all for your customer. “Being powerless is awful, but at that moment, the simple act of empathy and acknowledgement is invaluable. Communicating you’ve done all you can; making them feel seen and understood and focussing on how to move forward can mean the world to someone in an uncomfortable situation…”
Which brings us to Whitnee’s next point…
You can lay a solid foundation for loyalty, even when you aren’t providing a service!
Companies don’t exist without customers. During Covid, it was really difficult for airlines to provide customers with a service (people were not flying) - but what these companies could do was provide the type of customer service experience that was an easy build for customer loyalty.
“We focused on growing a base of return customers who love our product through providing exceptional service because at the end of the day, your company exists because of them, so make sure you focus on the type of investments that create value for them. Exceptional service is a great start.”
We consistently underestimate what great customer service actually involves…
And providing that service is more complex than it sounds…
“When I was in IT, everyone was really impressed, but when I transitioned to customer support, people were like ‘um yeah’, as if they thought anyone could do the job - they just didn’t understand how complex this is,”
“You have real people doing the job, not robots. And these people are interacting with more people. Think of all the ‘ingredients’ we have to mix before we can even open the doors or phones to customers: 24/7, 365 days a year, multiple languages, multiple locations… and then add the people factor. For those outside of the service industry, it can be easy to over simplify and under-estimate just how hard this strange magic can be! And it is magic, when you get it right…”
Flying in the face of those who dismiss it as simple, Whitnee adds that the evolution of the industry into a rigorous, metrics-driven operation is founded.
It’s OK to not be OK…
In addition to a focus on metrics, Whitnee also believes in the power of recognising our own humanity.
Far from showing weakness, vulnerability is a crucial leadership quality for success in today’s business environment.
“I was asking my team to do more than they had ever done before. And at the same time I was doing more than I had ever done before - and a lot of the decisions that had to be made were very stressful. So share that - don’t pretend that you’re not going through it as well. Communicating ‘I'm a person and I'm digging in and I'm going through this too’ is a powerful way of modelling vulnerability.”
Covid taught us the importance of being honest about where we’re at; encouraging others to do the same.
Listening is important; but so is taking action…
Crucially, taking action is also a powerful way of caring.
“Frontline teams are the face of a company; and they have the biggest impact on what customers think of your brand. We’ve tapped into this by truly listening to what our frontline people need, and taking action to support them,” says Whitnee.
She shares how JetBlue kept their team’s welfare at the forefront and avoided burnout.
“A lot of tough decisions had to be made about how much overtime we could ask people to take on. I started out making them with the leadership team, but quickly realised that we were missing the point - which was to give people choice around what worked for them. Presenting two or three options to our teams, based on what the company and our customers’ need, and then asking them which they think works best is far more powerful. We always actioned the option that the majority of the workforce chose. One of the best examples of this was requiring our people to do overtime; but giving everyone waivers to opt when they needed to in order to maintain a healthy work/life balance.”
Whitnee’s parting thoughts?
“The most important and interesting thing that happened during Covid was the doubling down on how important customer support is and how important it is for the people who are showing up for our customers to be their best selves. Companies who do all they can to support them are the smart ones - and they will be the ones whose customers get the very best from them…”