March 21, 2017
By Dave Avran
MANY people find social media the best way to get in touch with brands for a quick response and direct access. As always, with the good you get the bad too, and social media is not always about happy comments and grateful customers.
At times, customers reach out to a brand’s social media channels to express concerns or complaints. Responding quickly and with care is essential. The quicker you reply, the more likely your customers will feel that they are important to you.
Last month Peter Gabriel Tan, an advocate for the rights of the disabled, demanded an apology from Malaysia Airlines for not accommodating his special requests and misplacing his customised wheelchair, among other things. Tan sustained a spinal cord injury at the age of 18 when he dived into a swimming pool.
Tan wrote a strongly-worded “Open letter to the CEO of Malaysia Airlines”, which was published by the Borneo Post on a Sunday. He wrote of how he was unable to board his Malaysia Airlines flight until all the other passengers had boarded as his request for an aisle chair to get into the aircraft was not heeded.
He stated that when the travel agent booked the tickets, Malaysia Airlines was informed he was a wheelchair user and required an aisle chair to get into the aircraft. The aisle chair is a device designed to transport a traveller who cannot walk to his seat on an airplane.
During the check-in at KLIA, Tan again informed the counter staff of his need and that he would check in his wheelchair at the boarding gate and wanted it at the arrival gate after the plane landed. He was given an assurance that everything was taken care of and his wheelchair was duly tagged.
Tan was leaving for Bangkok to attend the Prince Mahidol Award Conference 2017, where he was invited to speak about the plight of people with vulnerabilities. His wheelchair was tagged a second time and he was allowed to board first but there was no aisle chair. He was made to wait 15 minutes outside the aircraft while the other passengers boarded until an aisle chair was available.
Tan’s woes didn’t end there as the arm-rest for his seat was faulty and couldn’t be lifted despite repeated attempts by the cabin crew. Tan has tetraplegia and had great difficulty transferring to the seat and vice versa when the flight landed at Bangkok.
Tan voiced his concern on the unpreparedness of Malaysia Airlines staff in handling passengers in wheelchairs, elaborating on the dangers of carrying a passenger inside the aircraft in the absence of a proper aisle chair. Carrying a passenger within the narrow confines of an aircraft is hazardous as a trip or a misstep could send both the carriers and him tumbling down and cause severe injuries.
Unfortunately things did not get any better after the flight landed at Suvarnabumi Airport in Bangkok. Tan was made to wait for more than one hour inside the aircraft before he could disembark. An aisle chair was unavailable and his wheelchair had been sent to the luggage carousel despite it sporting two tags indicating for it to be delivered to the aircraft.
Tan uses a highly customised wheelchair with a fitted cushion and has difficulty in using the standard airport wheelchair because the non-detachable arm-rest makes it difficult for him to transfer. Using a regular wheelchair would cause postural problems and was ill-fitted for him to position his legs and feet properly.
Tan said the aisle chair eventually arrived, but his request to bring the customised wheelchair was repeatedly denied by the ground staff, despite earlier assurances from the cabin crew that it would be made available to him at the departure lounge.
Tan claims the cabin crew telling him that his wheelchair would be brought to the departure lounge was merely to get him off the aircraft, and questioned if this was the standard practice of Malaysia Airlines when it comes to treating disabled passengers.
His forced use of the regular wheelchair from the arrival gate all the way through immigration and the baggage carousel caused him to suffer from a severe backache because his posture was not properly supported.
Tan later found out that not a single one of his requests was noted in the flight manifest, despite him having taken pains to inform all the staff who dealt with his needs during the entire chain of booking and checking-in.
Tell me whether this is tolerable by your standards or not, Tan ended his letter to MAS CEO Peter Bellew. For good measure, he fired off a tweet to Bellew as well. One day later Tan was invited to meet with Bellew to discuss safety concerns for the disabled.
“On behalf of the Malaysia Airlines family I humbly apologise. That was no way to treat another human being. Your journey was terrible,” said Bellew in an email addressed to Tan.
I personally will now review the safety of how we speed these exits from our aircraft, adding that he can “say sorry all day”, but it won’t help Tan. A more constructive approach I think would be to meet with you in person and members of national organisations that represent people with mobility challenges.
Bellew requested to meet with Tan either at Tan’s home or to organise a meeting in Kuala Lumpur. We are adopting right now a Golden Rule … Treat other people as you wish to be treated yourself,” said Bellew.
“Mr Tan, I promise you I will work hard to get that Golden Rule in operation throughout Malaysia Airlines. Hopefully we can work together to use the Golden Rule to create a new and better way for our disabled customers to see that the journey itself is the reward”.
Tan duly shared Bellew’s email on his facebook page, which led to the media and online portals picking it up, and netizens praising Bellew’s prompt response. Bellew should be commended for acknowledging the series of blunders and taking decisive steps to rectify the problem. More importantly, Bellew responded like a true human being, and personally pledged to rectify the problem.
For most companies, social media provides a platform to engage positively with customers and prospects. But, as in the offline world, no matter how great your brand is, mistakes happen and customers get upset and complain.
Whether you take the straightforward approach or respond with a sincere apology and a promise to look for a proper solution, the one thing you cannot do is put your head in the sand and hope the issue will magically disappear.