“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider to our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.”
As one of the most impactful figures of the 20th century, Gandhi redefined leadership for the modern era. Rather than exercising authority through traditional symbols of power such as crowns, uniforms, and medals, Gandhi transformed himself into a symbol of hope, change, and progress through his extraordinary service to others.
He taught the world that true success, whether it be political, economic, or personal, is earned by serving others with integrity, humility, and accountability. His immense influence, which is still felt around the world today, sprang from the profound relationship he forged with his people, rooted in the understanding that they were the essence of his purpose. In return, they gave him their undying loyalty.
The above quote is often attributed to Gandhi and illustrates how his example of servant leadership should be applied to all aspects of our lives, but most importantly to how we do business.
In business, our success must be measured in more than dollars and cents, but also in how we serve the people upon whom our success is built. For the businessman or woman, the customer must be the essence of their purpose. Only through serving our customers can we fulfill our purpose and earn our success.
While such logic should seem obvious, we are all routinely subjected to the frustrations of doing business with entities that lack a culture of service. One industry in which the contrast is most apparent between service-oriented organizations and those that put their priorities elsewhere is the airlines.
As a frequent flyer for both business and pleasure, I routinely travel to different parts of the world on several major Asian and Middle Eastern airlines where a genuine culture of service prevails. At every point along my journey, from check-in to boarding, from dinner service to disembarkation, the crews on these airlines demonstrate an authentic attitude of service and politeness that puts their customers first and makes travel as pleasurable as possible, even when there is an unexpected disruption.
This culture of service has earned the Asian airline industry a worldwide reputation for excellence. I hold top-tier status on several major airlines and am always impressed at the extra attention to detail and comfort for preferred customers in carriers like Singapore Airlines. In a recent survey ranking the best airlines in the world based on customer service, comfort, and cleanliness, Asian carriers held the top four spots while not a single US airline even cracked the top ten.
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For several decades now, US carriers have steadily eroded their once high standards of comfort and service, opting instead to cram as many customers as possible onto smaller planes, eliminating food and beverage services, charging excessive baggage fees, canceling flights, stranding passengers, and creating an openly hostile environment for both passengers and crew.
The American industry’s practice of putting customers last boiled over in December 2022 when Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights stranding hundreds of thousands of customers over the Christmas holidays without their luggage, a place to stay, food to eat, or a refund of their fares. The company’s poor treatment of its customers was so egregious it even triggered the US Department of Transportation to launch an investigation into its operations.
Despite their lack of service culture, surprisingly US carriers continue to turn a profit, leaving them little incentive to improve their customer service. Though they may currently enjoy financial success, it is hollow and untenable. Simply Google: “US airline horror stories” to find a plethora of examples of the rapidly growing antipathy of travelers toward an industry that abuses their trust and takes their loyalty for granted.
While Qantas airlines earned the number 5 spot on the list of best airlines I referenced earlier, my recent experience with the company causes me concern that the American attitude toward customer service is spreading across the Pacific.
My wife and I were on holiday in Sydney in December. We had booked and paid for business class seats on a Qantas flight from Sydney to Melbourne almost three months before our travel date. Upon check-in, much to our shock, the staff very rudely told us that due to another flight’s cancellation, our flight was now overbooked and as a result, we were now downgraded to coach! The crew offered no apologies and made no effort to rectify the situation in any way. It was only after we stood our ground and pointed out that our reservation had been made three months in advance and refused to back down, they miraculously found one available in business class. Since we had plans in Melbourne that could not be moved, we had no choice but to take the flight. What’s even more surprising is that Qantas offered no compensation or refund for the fare difference.
I couldn’t help but think of the time Singapore Airlines missed the delivery of our bags and when they delivered it to our hotel a day later, they sent us a lovely note of apology and a gift voucher for the inconvenience. What a stark difference in experience!
Even after my lawyers wrote to Qantas, expressing our dissatisfaction with how they handled the situation and requested a completely reasonable refund of the difference in price between what we paid for and what we were ultimately provided, our complaint was rudely dismissed.
As a frequent flyer, I understand events out of an airline’s control can cause an unavoidable need to reassign passengers. Like most customers, I am willing to work with the crew to find a solution acceptable to all parties. But Qantas’ complete disregard for the distress and dissatisfaction they caused, their rude and hostile attitude toward those they are supposed to serve, and their lack of urgency or effort to provide any remedy demonstrate that, for this business, the customer is clearly not the essence of their purpose.
If Qantas continues to ignore the people upon whom their business is built, if they fail to restore a culture of service, if they forget that the customer must be their purpose, I am certain the once proud flag carrier of Australia will soon disappear from the list of the best airlines in the world.
Like the American carriers, they will become resented and despised. Profitable, but not successful. It is my hope that Qantas, and all businesses, remember what Gandhi taught us: true success is earned by serving others with integrity, humility, and accountability. Only by putting people first can we create a culture of service that enriches customers and our businesses.
About the Author
Vijay Eswaran is the founder and executive chairman of the QI Group of Companies, a conglomerate headquartered in Hong Kong that has diverse interests in education, retail, direct selling, luxury, and hospitality.