The dust is settling on the Aer Lingus tickets fiasco and chief executive Dermot Mannion would like us to believe that “we are in a space where the passengers are satisfied with what we have done and that’s always the important point” (see Irish Times article). I’m wondering how they got it so wrong.

Anyone who works in business will know how much effort and money it takes to build a brand reputation and image that coveys genuine “customer care”. Aer Lingus have invested heavily in customer service as their differentiating factor:

How quickly can all that effort and money be thrown away and the investment thrown away.

The logic that was emanating from Aer Lingus prior to their climbdown ran something like this:

“We made a mistake… the people who booked these ridiculously cheap flights knew there was something up – €5 for goodness sake to fly business class to the US… we’re a PLC now (and we can’t afford to throw money away)… so we cancelled their tickets and invited them to rebook at the full price of €1,750 a pop.”

There a number of possible (wrong) assumptions that companies can make when they do business online:

Wrong Assumption No. 1 – “Because I can’t see the customer they aren’t real.” When you’re used to seeing customers face to face and dealing with all of their problems and complaints directly it must be a relief to now have them at arm’s length, or even better a premium-rate phonecall away. As this incident has shown online customers are very real and can make a very real point when necessary.

Wrong Assumption No. 2 – “Web customers are sneaky.” When you empower customers by giving them greater control over their choices, of course they are going to try harder to get a better deal. If you present a good deal it is going to be snapped up and word will spread fast. The imperative for business is to try harder to get the system right in the first place.

Wrong Assumption No. 3- “Contracts are not contracts online.” Sure, there are no signatures anymore online but the laws of contract haven’t changed – you make an offer, the offer is accepted and you take their money. If it looks like a contract, smells like a contract, in any court in the country it will probably be held up as a contract.

Wrong Assumption No. 4 – “Customers no longer come first”. I was quite shocked when I heard Aer Lingus’s head of corporate affairs use the fact that they are now a PLC to justify their actions; as if only public sector organisations and charities are compelled to look after customers. I think customers in the long run will have the last word on this one.

Bottom line is that the rules of customer service are NOT different when you do business via the web. If anything your poor customer decisions will be exposed even more quickly and widely, so be careful not to fall into what we might now term “the Aer Lingus trap.”