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Thirty years at the service of customers
Florence Désert has celebrated her 30th year at Air France. In a career that has seen this practical, action-oriented woman work in B2C, B2B, sales, stopovers, customer service centres and cargo, the customer has always been the focus of her attention. It’s thus natural that, since July 2015, she has been Air France’s Chief Customer Experience Officer. The post consists in positioning the customer at the heart of the company’s concerns and infusing a customer-centric culture throughout the organization, ensuring that all Air France’s divisions seamlessly deliver the same quality of customer experience.
Over the past thirty years the way customers engage with the company has been transformed. Digitalization has radically changed their behaviour. When Florence headed up Air France’s customer service centres in the early 2000s, its 1,200 customer service agents handled 12 million calls a year. A few years later, thanks to the development of the internet, that number had dropped to 7 million. By then, the foundations of Air France’s service culture were already in place: even if the approach at the time was more quantitative than it is today, Air France, by not using scripts in its customer service centres, ensured that the quality of interaction with the customer remained a central focus.
The British Experience: Air France Cargo, a technology-intensive service with a human face
Offered an opportunity to assume new responsibilities abroad, Florence became an expatriate in London. Heading up the cargo sales management team, she represented Air France-KLM-MartinAir, positioned as a challenger in the market. Cargo is a pure logistics business and, at Florence’s end, it consisted in filling an airliner’s cargo holds with commercial goods. In this business, everyone, no matter what their function in the organization, is in contact with the customer. Florence took up her post just before the Lehman Brothers crisis, and thus in the very difficult economic environment that prevailed then. Competition was ferocious in the face of the local top guns, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, the American companies in their biggest European market, and the aggressively expanding Gulf companies. Of course, overcapacity was great: for example, over 360 weekly flights were scheduled on UK to New York routes, and over 160 for Dubai and onward to Asia. In such a buyer’s market, customers were able to drive prices down even as they demanded higher levels of service.
Air France-KLM-MartinAir decided to differentiate itself from the competition by cultivating personalized relations with its customers. As a market challenger, it did not have the resources to invite its customers for a stay on a tropical island, as Virgin’s CEO Richard Branson could do, so Florence played the “customer closeness” card differently. She did not lavish her attentions only on the higher ups in the customer’s organization, but also on those who actually place the orders and could, for example, organize pub quizzes (of which the British are so fond). The idea was to reach the customer’s entire decision-making chain: “Think of Air France KLM, whether you are a purchasing manager, a local cargo manager or a reservation agent”. Florence’s strategy for succeeding in this tough environment was to raise her team’s game when it came to customer relations, making them more professional. She focused on two aspects:
- Customer closeness (availability) and proactivity. Even Florence, the market manager, took calls from key accounts at all hours. With each new process (the arrival of e-technology, for example), the team closely accompanied customers. When a problem arose, Florence would, as far as possible, anticipate its consequences and alert her customers.
- Hyper responsiveness. In order not to lose an opportunity, one had to be capable of answering an inquiry or issuing a quote in less than an hour, despite the complexity of certain matters. One had to be inventive in organizing a solution and very agile in its execution.
The strategy paid off. In business terms, Florence’s teams maintained the company’s market share in a very grim economic environment. In terms of service culture, Air France KLM distinguished itself from the competition by being the player with a human touch: having a global offer but a local approach. Indeed, presence, closeness to customers and responsiveness were what made it strong in those economically depressed times.
The lesson: “Simple is beautiful”
Britain’s pragmatic service culture has had a lasting influence on Florence. She brought back to France two new professional practices, at once simple and effective. The first is that of not waiting conscientiously until a full answer to an inquiry is available, but rather responding immediately, indicating that the request has been received and that all parties concerned, both internal and external, are working on it. The second is not to waste time elaborating rules and procedures for the 2% of customers who may be ill-intentioned, but rather to reimburse them without haggling, as the British do. This works out better in terms of time, cost and customer satisfaction.
By way of conclusion, a motto: “There’s nobility in service”
This is a conviction Florence holds firmly, like a personal motto: there’s nobility in service. Successful performance depends on a service culture, which in turn depends on teamwork, creativity and an intelligent grasp of situations.
In terms of education and training in teamwork, the British are better equipped!
A couple of French strengths, according to Florence:
- “The French are capable of excellence in service, even of being the best in their field, especially in exceptional or crisis situations. Routine, however, bores them, and can make their performance irregular over the medium term.”
- “When service ‘à la française’ is good, it is often a rather unique experience, and therefore more difficult to replicate.”
A couple of British strengths, according to Florence:
- “Their culture of politeness and cordial relations is an asset in services… it’s fertile ground for a service culture.”
- “They are economically intelligent, they immediately understand the impact of service quality on the bottom line.”