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4/15/2010
07:33 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Global CIO: WestJet's IT Nightmare And The Power Of Customers

Just before upgrading its sweeping reservations system, the airline decided to keep customers in the dark.

Quiz time: You're about to go live with an upgrade of a massive application that's your primary point of contact with all of your customers. While you desperately want the upgrade to go perfectly, you are all too aware that, given the imperfect natures of both software and human beings, lots of things could go wrong. So what approach should you take to give yourself the best chance for an optimal outcome?

A) Tell your customers ahead of time so they'll at least be aware of the big chore you're undertaking and its possible repercussions on service;

B) Tighten up on inventory during and immediately after the cutover to lessen the opportunity for customer problems;

C) Consider putting in place a temporary backup system and some extra staffing in case problems occur; or,

D) Don't tell customers anything out of concern that competitors will find out and exploit your cutover period with a big sale.

Yeah, yeah, I know, hindsight is always 20-20, but we're not talking about some little app here that manages your internal conference-room scheduling—we're talking about the systems with which your customers engage intimately and urgently. What's the right plan?

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It turns out that faced with just that type of situation, Canada's second-largest airline, WestJet, went with option D: think first and foremost about your competitors, and leave your customers to fend for themselves. And the result was a customer-frustration nightmare from which WestJet itself says will take six months to recover.

As reported in a Wall Street Journal story headlined Two Paths To Software Upgrade:

A big challenge was the overnight transition of 840,000 files—transactions of customers who already had purchased flights—from WestJet's old reservations server in Calgary to Sabre's servers in Tulsa, Okla. It didn't go well, says Bob Cummings, WestJet's executive vice president of marketing and sales, because the migration required WestJet agents to go through complex steps to process the data.

Making matters worse, WestJet didn't reduce the number of passengers on the flights operating after the cutover, nor did it tell customers of its upgrade plans until the day of the switch. "We didn't want to telegraph dates so a competitor would put on a big fare sale," Mr. Cummings says.

While the Journal article doesn't mention WestJet's CIO, the whole situation offers a perfect example of why CIOs must be as tightly focused as any other executive on business outcomes, customer experience, and brand reputation. This scenario sounds like an outcome driven by a deeply siloed organization: the head of marketing and sales was obsessed with what competitors might do in the very short term, instead of what customers would surely experience in the short term and how that bad experience would hurt the company deeply in the longer term!

(For more articles on CIOs' rapidly changing roles, please be sure to check out our "Recommended Reading" at the bottom of this column.)

Does WestJet have a head of customer experience? Customer service? Chief customer officer? Was the CIO given the opportunity to explain that going live with enterprise-software upgrades is a lot more complicated than just firing up Facebook on your PC? And that customers would almost certainly run into problems during the cutover and shortly thereafter?

Hey—I'm all for studying competitors closely and denying them every possible opportunity. But it seems like the line on such vigilance needs to be drawn way short of any actions that would create lousy customer experience, because the surest way to help your competitors is to give your customers the impression that you don't really care about them.

Here's some perspective from the Journal article, which also relates the story of how JetBlue, like WestJet, upgraded to a new reservations system from Sabre Holdings Corp. JetBlue, however, had the advantage of undergoing its upgrade after WestJet had done so, and WestJet graciously allowed JetBlue to learn from its mistakes:

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