Customer Service Case Study – Lufthansa

A frustrating thing happened to me on my way home from Romania on March 9th…

…I had been working with my client smrtStudio Global Inc / smrtPhone in Brasov all week. I was pleased as the time with smrtPhone had gone very well. These are all friendly and professional people and very customer focussed. Flying home from Bucharest to Edinburgh I had to get a connecting flight at Frankfurt. The problem arose when the Lufthansa flight was an hour-and-half late leaving Bucharest.

It became clear that I would struggle to get the connecting flight and I drew this to the attention of the Flight Attendant who agreed it was touch and go. Before we landed she told me the gate I had to get to at Frankfurt and said I should ‘hurry’. She did nothing to allow me to exit this aircraft first and I was stuck half-way.

I exited at Frankfurt and rushed to the new gate. If any of you have been to Frankfurt airport you know how big it is. After about 10-15 minutes I was still rushing to the new gate, wearing my backpack with 3 bottles of superb Romanian wine that I had bought duty free at Bucharest airport. More about the wine later.

After about 15 minutes, panting and sweating, I received this text:

“You are rebooked on flight LH962 FRA-EDI 10Mar 10:40. Please accept our apologies. You will receive your new boarding pass soon.”

So I stopped. What do I do now?  I’m in a foreign airport on the international departure side. I received no other communication from Lufthansa. I walked around and couldn’t find any Lufthansa representatives, so I asked a policeman! Obviously.

He suggested I go through passport control and look for a Lufthansa rep on the outside. So I did this, stopping to look for my checked-in bag at the baggage carousel. I had heard nothing else from the airline so I didn’t know whether I should pick my bag up or whether they had sent it on. I waited 15 minutes and it didn’t arrive, so I walked out without it.

After some searching and asking for directions, I approached 2 separate Lufthansa reps, neither of whom could help me and directed me elsewhere, not sure where. So I went to the departure desk,  approached 2 assistants behind the counter and tried to explain my situation. One of them put her hand up and said something like “No! you have to join the queue”. 

I again tried to explain my situation and that I wasn’t looking for departures, but she kept her hand in the air and pointed to the queue.

So I joined the departures queue, even though I wasn’t going anywhere. In the 10 minutes I was in the queue the 2 assistants behind the counter that I had spoken to served only 1 client between them, so one of them at least could have listened to me.

Then I am called to another desk where there was a man at the front and a woman sitting behind him. I explained my situation, and their reaction was mixed. The man showed a level of concern, but the woman’s body language suggested I was an annoyance. Was she the man’s boss or was she in training? Not sure. But she did seem to have an air of being in charge.  

They really didn’t seem to be bothered about my situation. I was asking questions like “Where do I spend the night” and “What should I do about my bag?” 

Their attitude was terrible and didn’t  take any ownership for my situation. Those of you that know me know that I can be a bit of a hothead, but I managed to stay calm. (No really I did!) At one stage I did slightly raise my voice and say, “why has this become my problem, when it should be your problem?”

They told me my bag would be sent on to Edinburgh. 

I then asked what I should do with the 3 bottles of wine in my backpack, as I doubted whether I would get through security with the liquids the next day. Their response:

“You can either go and buy another bag and we can check it in, or you can post it to yourself”. 

They then gave me a voucher for an airport hotel, a bus to the hotel and dinner €18, no alcohol. I responded by saying “I guess I’ve got 3 bottles of wine I can drink!” They didn’t seem to find that funny.

I said I was very unhappy with Lufthansa’s approach to the situation including the total lack of communication and the poor attitude of all of the staff, with nobody being prepared to take responsibility for my situation.

Their response surprised me:

“You must not take any photographs of us.” They both said it once and the woman repeated it.

I said “Who said anything about taking photos? Why would I want to take your photos?”

They said, “You just can’t.”


To be fair, the man was trying his best, but the woman was one of the sternest I have ever seen, and looked at me as if I was a lower form of life.

So I left and headed to the hotel. Reflecting on the episode, I was surprised that Lufthansa didn’t have a better recovery policy. I’ll discuss this below. 

But that’s not all!

When I got to the hotel I told  them my story. With regard to the wine in my backpack the manager asked, “Is it duty free and is the bag sealed?” My answer was yes and yes. 

He then told me that as long as the duty-free bag was still sealed, they would allow me to take it through security and onto the flight. Why didn’t the Lufthansa people know this?

All of my personal items were in my checked-in bag, including all toiletries and even my jacket. Given that I was doing so much running around I didn’t miss my jacket, but it would have been nice to clean my teeth before bed. The nice manager allowed me to charge my phone in his office as my chargers were all in my checked-in bag also.

The hotel was fine and all I could have asked for I guess.

The next morning I got my flight and got home safely. Interestingly, the flight boarded on time but was over 20 minutes late leaving Frankfurt. They announced that the flight was full and they needed our help, but the flight wasn’t full, there was an empty seat next to me and one in the row in front. Not sure about the rest of the cabin, but it wasn’t full. That was a lie.

When I arrived back at Edinburgh I was amazed that my bag appeared on the carousel. Lufthansa had shattered my confidence in them so much I was sure it wouldn’t be there.

What can we learn from this?

Information is all-important!

Communicate with your customers! My impression when I got the text about my flight was  ‘Go look after yourself, we’ve done our bit.’  

I didn’t know where I would stay the night, whether I should collect my checked-in bag, should I go through passport control, or how to contact Lufthansa to find any of this out.

What if I had been old and infirm? My good friend and client Jordan Fleming, the CEO of smrtPhone says I am old and infirm, but I like to think I’m not…yet!

Accurate information is all-important!

I was ready to dump the aforementioned wine. Was it reasonable for me to expect the Lufthansa staff to know that I could take it through security the next day? Yes I think it was reasonable.

Good advice is even more important!

Having landed in Frankfurt late I was never going to get my connecting flight. The advice given to me was that I should ‘hurry’ to catch it. Given the size of Frankfurt airport this was an unreasonable expectation and the Flight Attendant should have known this. I’m not Usain Bolt, but even he would have struggled.

Being nice is nice too!

As I said sometimes things go wrong in business and mistakes can be unavoidable and that’s fine. But how you behave as a business in these situations is all-important.

I interacted with 6 Lufthansa people, 1 of which was just ok (the guy at the final desk) 1 was poor and 4 were totally atrocious.

If the people I interacted with had been helpful, and dare I say it, nice, I would have forgiven and forgotten everything else. And I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

What’s the upshot?

I think with Lufthansa it might go a bit further than this. I reflected on the ‘no photos’ instruction and what might be behind it. They told me this after I said that I wished to complain, then they gave me a PO Box in Frankfurt to write to.

My conclusion is that when they heard the word ‘complaint’ they didn’t want to be identified as having a part in this. I never had any intention of taking their photo, I just wanted to find somewhere to sleep!

Seems to me Lufthansa may have a fear culture, one which I’ve seen in a corporate in Scotland. When you have a fear culture, I believe people are afraid of making mistakes, and there is a culture of non-learning.

I can’t believe that the Lufthansa Board and Senior Managers sit around a table and say “We’re going to keep our customers in the dark, and feed them non-existent or inaccurate information.’

There is a terrific book, written in 1987 but still in print, titled ‘Moments of Truth’ written by Jan Carlzon the President of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in which he states:

“Leaders should be aware of how far non-verbal communication can go in illustrating the style that others in the organisation should follow. And, in so doing, the leader will be helping create the very image that the organisation presents to its customers.”

In summary:

  • What image is Lufthansa trying to portray? Surely not the image I experienced. What image does your business portray?
  • Attitude communicated verbally & posturally is all-important.
  • Make sure your people give out accurate information.
  • What contingency plans do you have in place for your customers?
  • How well do you communicate with them? How accurate is your advice?
  • How nice are you to your customers? As my Mum used to say, “Being nice to people doesn’t cost you anything.”

Being courteous and respectful doesn’t cost anything either, but I was shown very little of it.

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Brendan Walsh