Further Growing Pains at Turkish Airlines: Customer Relations

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As highlighted in my last blog post, Turkish Airlines’ attempts to become one of the world’s biggest airlines has led to significant challenges in the support activities of the company. While the topic of my last post was the ground services at Istanbul airport, the focus of my analysis here is the weak and poorly organized customer relations department of THY.

For frequent travellers, reliable, responsive and caring customer relations is one of the most components of renewed loyalty. Frequent flyers develop a sense of entitlement given the investment in travel time and money they make to fly with their chosen carrier. While the casual, infrequent traveller may rarely need to contact customer relations, the relationship between frequent flyers and their airline typically implies much higher frequency of communication and complexity of requests directed at customer relations – especially when things go wrong.

One of the most influential websites for frequent flyers is FlyerTalk. In fact it is so influential that many airlines CRM departments have joined and participate in discussions about passenger experiences even fielding questions. I did a quick search on THY customer relations and found some of these gems:

John _T, July 13, 2014: “I spent about 3 hours today, including the 20 minute wait times for each call (including a hang-up which was infuriating), and now have not resolved any of my issues. What kind of an international airline would make their customers waste this much time in just trying to establish contact? What kind of an airline, in the year 2014, would rely on online feedback forms, fax, and other antiquated conduits for resolution of important issues.”

vivamuci April 9, 2013: “I am also top tier with other airlines. With the elite call centers of LH, AA or even the new UA ,one can escalate such a matter in a friendly tone very quickly to a supervisor to get a solution. Whoever is responsible for the customer service and the training of those people should be replaced. No one in this company gives you the same answer to the very same question. They spend millions on advertising trying to win clients. Throwing Gold Cards at everyone that sends in a photoshoped [sic] status card of another frequent flyer program, yet they don’t care to provide a consistent (basic) customer service to its most frequent fliers. Retraining those clueless service agents at the airlines home base, Istanbul, also doesn’t seem to be a very important point on the agenda. Needless to say, I haven’t heard back from them.”

Neverflyturkishairlines July 16, 2009: “Your colleagues were right. Writing to Turkish Airlines Customer service is a waste of time. So far in my case a waste of 7 months, with regular e-mails. I have even had the Star Alliance people contact them on my behalf. They just don’t reply.”

This is a serious problem for any airline with global ambitions. While the inflight service may be award winning (THY frequently parades it Skytrax awards in this category), if the experience around the inflight service is poor, the company will struggle to keep customers – especially the high maintenance, frequent flyers that it has coveted by offering status matching from competitors such as AF/KLM and LH.

Based on my own experience of flying THY this year (around 60000 miles clocked up), the problem is a really fundamental one that cannot be easily resolved by making cosmetic changes to the way customers are handled. Clearly senior management at the airline has focused heavily on inflight product building brand equity through the unquestionably professional and friendly cabin crew; outstanding catering from DO&CO Turkish and offering perks such as free WIFI on long-haul flights and for premium customers a very comfortable business class seat.

This will only take the airline so far (pardon the pun). The fact remains that THY faces stiff and well financed competition from the Persian Gulf countries who have equally compelling value propositions inflight (especially Qatar Airways who appear to be in the direct crosshairs of THY). Should QR, EY or Etihad continue to strengthen their on ground experience and customer relations functions, Turkish could be left far behind.

At the same time, their European competitors (LH, LX, BA etc) have become much more efficient in managing customer relations and have IT systems and processes that may make the interface between customer and airline somewhat impersonal but one which works.

Time is running out for Turkish Airlines. They need to radically and fundamentally up their game in the support services. Based on current evidence, the prognosis is not good.

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