First Impressions – how an airport can demonstrate the importance of creating the right ones!

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I am writing this blog post late into the night on the 30th April 2014. For a while I have intended writing a post that uses an airport as the analogy for getting the start and the end of the customer journey absolutely bang on. My experience this evening has meant that I must write that post NOW!

Before I get into the detail of what has stimulated me to write this NOW, allow me to explain what gave me the inspiration in the first place. Last year I had the pleasure if chairing a Customer Experience conference in Dubai. One of the speakers was the Head of Customer Experience for Dubai Airports. The fact they have a Head of Customer Experience is a good sign. If you have ever been to the airport in Dubai, you will know that they take their airport rather seriously.

Dubai airport is unlike any I have ever seen. Some would describe it as overly opulent – the baggage hall is enormous with magnificent columns with gold shimmering against thousands of mirrors. There are employees everywhere with clearly identifiable uniforms on hand to help you if you need guidance. It is quite an experience just seeing the sheer scale of the operation. Like most things in Dubai, the airport could be perceived as being another ‘show of wealth’, yet having listened to someone who works for the airport, there is a far more important and significant reason behind it.

Sheikh Mohammed is a national leader who is passionate about his country. Sheikh Mohammed has an ambition to bring more people into his land to experience it and enjoy it. What is amazing is that he has a clear understanding of the concept of the customer journey – he recognises that the first impression a new visitor to the UAE will have is of his airport. That is why he has invested so much money in creating the most amazing airport experience he can. If guests (yes guests) to his country have a fabulous first impression…..and last impression, then they are more likely to return.

Let me now fast forward to today – 19:15 this evening to be precise. When my flight from Budapest landed at London Gatwick, little did I know how far removed from Sheikh Mohammed’s vision my experience arriving back in the UK would be. As I walked from the gate to border control, I started to sense something was up. In all my years travelling to and from the UK, I have never witnessed a queue for passport control quite like it. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were snaking around the airport building. Everyone looked rather bewildered. ‘What is happening?’ I could hear English speakers asking. Many foreign languages could be heard – I hate to think what they were saying about the country they were trying to enter.

As the queues got longer, I got more frustrated. As I started to Tweet and post on Facebook, I discovered for myself that there was a computer problem. Yet for the 50 minutes I battled through the queue, I heard not one announcement, and not one member of staff from either Gatwick Airport or the border force bothered to make themselves visible to help or advise passengers. As I started to get closer to the desks, I noticed a number of them that were not even manned by a member of staff.

It was a huge shambolic mess – passengers were pushing in, unclear as to where the queue was actually supposed to start. Credit should be given to the thousands of customers who quietly and diligently stood in line. I personally did not witness a raised word despite the shambles – there was almost a sad acceptance that this happens in the UK – and that is sad! The experience was not made any better by finally arriving at a desk. As my passport was taken out of my hand, I was not greeted by an apology, or even an acknowledgement of the wait. Instead, I was told that ‘this is not my fault, it’s the system’ – I kid you not. David Walliams’s Little Britain character is alive and well and working for the Home Office in the UK. I do not hold these hard working people responsible for the failure of a computer system. I do not hold them responsible for there clearly being no contingency plan in place. However I do expect that they should be able to empathise with the people they are serving. Who knows how far some of the passengers had travelled – to be greeted by chaos.  An apology and some empathy would not go amiss. The first impression that these valuable tourists had this evening is completely unacceptable – you would not have guessed that we live in a supposedly developed country.

Interestingly, I have just received a text message from Easyjet – the airline who transported me to Gatwick – the text states:

“We would like to apologise for any delay you may have experienced or are experiencing through the immigration process upon your arrival. Although this delay is out of our control we understand it is not a nice way to end your journey and we would like to thank you for your patience and understanding while UKBA rectify any faults they are experiencing”

Very empathetic – and a great lesson on how to communicate with customers for the two organisations who should be apologising – the UK Border Authority who caused the problem, and Gatwick Airport for completely failing to support passengers in their airport!

Passengers tonight will have paid more than just having to stand aimlessly in a queue. Some will have missed trains to onward destinations. Some will have been unable to travel further into London as a result of the Tube strike – who is going to compensate them for that? No one.

So ask yourself this – would this have happened in Dubai airport? Maybe it is an unfair question, but I doubt very much that it would have been handled in the same way. I can guarantee that there would have been plenty of people on hand to help, support and look after valuable guests. The customer journey is what makes the customer experience – if it starts and ends well, the customer is very likely to retain positive memories about it. I can only hope that the UK learns from what happened today – whilst computer systems may be out of the control of humans, the behaviour of people is not. One thing I can confirm – I shall not be using Gatwick Airport again.

To read the news articles about the ‘computer glitch’, please follow these links:


By |2015-04-13T13:21:39+00:00April 30th, 2014|Customer Journeys, People, Travel|13 Comments


  1. Laurie Earl May 1, 2014 at 4:29 am - Reply

    Hi Ian, I read your blogs with interest each time but this one was of particular value to me in two ways. First of all I live in the UAE and often travel through Dubai but secondly I work in Aviation. Often people forget to give the positives and concentrate on condemning the negatives yet complements are a great way of the provider knowing that what they are doing is having an effect. In the UAE, HH Sheik Mohammed inspires people and supports them so that the culture follows his direction and you can see how successful it is. I too travelled through LHR recently (and often do) and each time it never ceases to frustrate me. As a Kiwi I have to go through the
    Alien’ queue, despite the fact that Australia and NZ are part of the British commonwealth and despite the fact that I have an e-passport (In NZ Brits can use their e-passport in our system). This queue is invariably huge and, you’re right, everyone accepts that you’re going to be there a long time and nobody makes any attempt to give you information or make you particularly welcome in the country. In fact if you start questioning you can guarantee you’ll be there a lot longer and be met with hostility. It is very difficult to find a smiling or friendly face.
    I am at a Global Leaders conference in a week on airports and ATM in Dubai and I will, if I may show the committee your comments on the success of Dubai airport on customer service.

    • ijgolding May 1, 2014 at 6:13 am - Reply

      Thank you so much Laurie for your open, honest and hard hitting response to this embarrassing story. You hit the nail on the head while confirming my comments about the UAE. I would be delighted for you to share this with colleagues – if the UK will not learn from this sorry episode, I am sure others will. Thanks also for continuing to follow my posts!

  2. Darren Newman May 1, 2014 at 7:59 am - Reply

    Not all ‘guests’ of the UAE are treated so well. The forced labour of migrant workers from Southern Asia who have no right to organise or strike is the flip side of the coin

    • ijgolding May 1, 2014 at 8:01 am - Reply

      Fair point Darren that should be shared in the interests of balance.

  3. Nick May 1, 2014 at 8:17 am - Reply

    I am always disappointed when I return to the UK by the attitude of boarder control staff. They are always miserable and, quite often rude. One man at Gatwick managed to be rude to me and the three people I was traveling with. When my friend complained to him that he was being rude the UKBA worker became very angry and began shouting abuse at my friend as he walked away. I should say that the friend in question is not the sort of man who would make anybody feel threatened, he’s always polite to people and was, at the time, a senior manager at Gatwick airport!

    Almost every other country I’ve visited has had boarder staff who can do their jobs both efficiently and with the sort of normal good manners and respect for their customers that we should all expect. Personally, I think that the problem here in the UK is that organisations like UKBA have a them and us attitude. They view everybody as a potential illegal immigrant, terrorist or troublemaker and forget that the overwhelming majority of people are none of these.

  4. ferniglab May 1, 2014 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Must be the new airport in Dubai or not the one used when transferring! Your Gatwick experience mirrors one I had a Dulles this winter, though in a sense that was worse, because the “problem” was predictable (several transatlantic flights late and arriving simultaneously).
    The issue I think is simply one of politics: borders are under the control of the Home office or similar. No one under the Home Office has ever gone to jail for breaking the law, even manslaughter. When an organisation considers itself above the law, the arrogance is pushed all the way down the ranks.

  5. mdowson May 1, 2014 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Ian, I saw this in Gatwick last night, I am sorry (for you) but happy for me to say I was arriving from the Channel Islands and so missed the chaos. I agree with your analysis that more empathy is needed – the lack of empathy from UKBA is not unique to the UK though many find the US immigration equally if not more unempathic. At the end of the day however – It is unnecessary.

    I do think it is interesting though Ian, that you state you will never use Gatwick again… you will, I would stake money on it, because at some point you will have to, if for example you wish (as I did) to go Guernsey, from London – and this raises an interesting point – in certain industries with certain services how do we raise our voices? The media certainly helps – but there can often be a lack of accountability – I’m not sure there is in this instance – the government agencies have shown an increased willingness to be responsive to service design issues and in fact the public sector is one of the largest consumers of service design issues.

    Actually Gatwick is clearly responsive – did you note the superbly enhanced security process that is now in place at Gatwick – there was a feedback flipchart at the end of it and people were saying hugely positive things and thanking Gatwick for the improvements.

    One huge glitch does bring out the worst or best in an organisation but it also provides them an opportunity to see that worst and improve. Given what they’ve done with Security screening – given the ‘voice’ that experience now gets in the media – I am more hopeful that UKBA and Gatwick will address this in the future.

    I think it can be too easy for us as CX commentators to fixate on a negative and damn an organisation – as consultants to these industries we also need to show empathy for what causes them to behave and act in these ways – and therefore where the route to improvement lies… we have to hope that it’ s possible to improve – otherwise the world will not be a better place and… as consultants to these industries, with a shared mission to make our experience of the world better – we will won’t be in a position to help.

    • ijgolding May 1, 2014 at 5:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks for tasking the time to provide such a detailed response Martin. Just to clarify – my blogging approach is to report the facts as I come across them – sometimes the facts are positive, sometimes negative. In all cases I attempt to put my personal experiences into the context of Customer Experience Management. I, like you, very much hope that the organisations involved learn from what happened yesterday. I did not fly out of Gatwick so cannot comment on the security process – it would be great to see them applying the same principles to the recovery of broken processes. Yesterday highlighted one big broken process, and there was no contingency in place to deal with it – now they know, they have the perfect opportunity to fix it.

      • mdowson May 3, 2014 at 10:37 am - Reply

        Ian you are absolutely right – your blogging approach is valued because of exactly the position of simply exposing the truth of the experience without ‘excusing’ or ‘explaining’ it away – not my intention to sound critical of your approach (which in hindsight it did) – intention was more to express an interest in discussing solutions (was an ‘AND’ type comment). Much blogging respekt to you sirra 🙂

    • Laurie Earl May 2, 2014 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      I think you have hit the nail on the head when you say we have no choice. If we wish to fly to UK we have to go through (in my case) LHR. What I experience as a Kiwi (and my Aussie husband) is not an isolated case but happens every time we travel there – huge queues, surly border staff and no apology, ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude. If we could say to them (as we can with products or services) that we won’t use them again then only then do we have the power of veto. The UK border control need to get their act together because this is the first impression of the country that visitors get and can taint their whole experience.

      • mdowson May 3, 2014 at 10:46 am - Reply

        And attitude is exactly the problem isn’t it – I do feel that Border Agencies feel there is a disconnect between treating people in a human way and ‘spotting the badduns’ such that at an individual interaction level it all feels quite uncomfortable.

        If someone gave me a choice between national security OR a pleasant/average but at least human experience at the border – I would choose national security. I’m just not sure it’s an either/or. If someone in security can convince me that you need to make people slightly uncomfortable in order to spot the badduns – ok – maybe you do.

        However – 100s of people waiting in a queue – they deserve a simple courtesy of an update and apology – there is no way that should have been hard to do. Even if they put a ‘nice person’ just after the queue to stand there and simply say sorry so the surly border guards could carry on being, well, surly 😉

        It is an attitude through an organisation that stops it thinking about these things, makes it prioritise process and policy over the experience of the humans they are impacting.

        I would imagine a best practice survey of border agency practices and security quality would yield some interesting results worthy of discussion – anyone heard of any?

  6. […] If organisations recognise feedback and insight as an opportunity, they will see that social media is a wonderful, unsolicited source of customer feedback. Whether it is happy or unhappy reading, it is a vital component that combined with other sources of insight, can really help you to determine what, where and how you need to improve your customer experience. Social media can also act as your ‘early warning mechanism’ – last week I was caught up immigration issues at Gatwick caused by a failure in the Border Force Computer system – the experience was awful. However, if the organisations involved had been monitoring social media channels more closely, they would have been better able to respond to the Chaos that ensued – you can read about the story here –…. […]

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