Spoiler Alert: TSA Fails in Customer Service

For anyone who has spent the last few weeks living under a rock and not reading or watching the news, it may come as a surprise to hear that the TSA has caused something of a controversy with its introduction of new machines, so-called backscatter units, that give the operator a full and intimate view of what passengers look like underneath their clothing. Apart from the obvious boon this creates for the cosmetic surgery industry, the move has created a whirlwind of protest with people claiming it breaches individuals rights to privacy and respect.

I’m wisely going to steer clear of the privacy issues surrounding the devices and instead focus on another issue, one that will hardly surprise regular readers of this blog: I want to look at the whole customer service aspect of this screening squall. I wrote last week (quite coincidentally) about the desire of  airline passengers to have choice in their seating arrangements. It seems to me that the TSA situation is another example where choice (in this case the choices security agencies make that will impact travelers) is wrongly executed.

Interestingly enough, a recent article on HBR discussed the process used at Shanghai’s Pudong airport for screening passengers. As the writer recounts it:

As a colleague and I entered the terminal, we noted each of our bags being swabbed and tested for explosives. Normal enough. But then we saw that, unlike in other airports where the typical process is to select randomly some portion of bags, here every single bag of every passenger was being swabbed and tested.

Sounds costly and time-prohibitive, doesn’t it? It wasn’t, and here’s why. Unlike the one-by-one testing done in the USA, the testing at Pudong is done in batches of about 20 passengers at a time. The bags of all passengers in a group are swabbed as they proceed past a checkpoint to a cordoned-off area. As that group of passengers waits, all their bags are subjected to a single test. The process takes only a few seconds, then that batch is released.

What a useful service innovation. From the airport’s perspective, it satisfies a need for greater vigilance, even while keeping costs and passenger inconveniences in check. From the customer’s perspective, it meets my desire for efficiency in the screening processes and for reassurance that the flight will be safe.

A simple example, but one which raises some points about service delivery. As pointed out in HBR, process change need not be expensive or difficult to implement, sometimes the simplest changes in service delivery can cause the best results. Secondly, service delivery changes should, ideally, find a way of solving pain-points for both parties in a transaction. In other words, any change to service delivery that is solely intended to save time, money or effort for the delivery provider is unlikely to fulfill the needs of the customer.

In the HBR article we’re given some sage advice on how to innovate our service delivery system. Looking at the process of service delivery we’re asked to assess:

  • What makes it time-consuming or inconvenient?
  • What makes it problematic or challenging?
  • What makes it ineffective or compromises the quality of its output?

Swinging back to the TSA example, it’s fair to say that security is always going to be something of a disruption to travellers, but I wonder if the TSA really spent time looking at their systems and thought about the three step process detailed above – on so many levels their system fails. Commentators have stated that the system is ineffective; it slows travellers transit times and creates real issues around civil liberties.

I haven’t got the answer yet to the TSA issues with scanners, but I do contend that looking at the issue through the lens of customer service delivery might give them some insights into just where they went wrong and how to improve the process.