SAA rots from the head


Welcome to my blog, where I’ll be sharing a few thoughts regarding the customer experience and companies’ ability or inability to deliver it.

I’ll open with a look at our national airline. The title of Bob Garratt’s book, “The Fish Rots From the Head”, is so applicable in this instance. Hurray, hopefully with Khaya Ngqula out of the way SAA might be able to rebuild itself into an airline that CAN compete globally. Hopefully, as passengers, we may be subjected to an appropriate level of ‘consistent’ service that builds some form of loyalty to the brand. 

I don’t know Ngqula! He had 3 or 4 opportunities to get to know me as a paying passenger, if he so chose. I had stood in a check-in queue with him at Heathrow a couple of times and had sat across the aisle from him on a Cape Town/Johannesburg flight. What surprised me was the obvious unwillingness/lack of interest in engaging with anything that resembles a ‘passenger’.

My impression of him as a ‘mediocre manager’ rather than a ‘leader of people’ had already been formed by the time I flew on the same plane as him from Cape Town. What I found so incredible on this particular flight (2pm departure time) was his total disregard of both passengers and staff, unless he had a hidden and clandestine method of communicating and motivating staff. In addition, 2pm remains part of the working day. I would assume, considering his position, that he should have been leading by example rather than sitting back enjoying the world-class cuisine served on our domestic flights. It’s a well known fact that Richard Branson, of Virgin fame, moves around his aircraft engaging passengers and gathering feedback that can be put to good use. Heaven forbid Mr Ngqula should have played such a demeaning role and engaged with passengers in an attempt to gather feedback and ‘learn’ of peoples’ expectations and wishes.Much easier, I guess, to employ consultants (at significant cost0 to do this dirty work! 

SAA has regularly stated, in various forms, that it’s goal is to provide superior customer service and customer experience. It strives to inspire customers with African hospitality in every detail, every time. It recognises that ‘commitment’ to passengers is key to the brand and SAA strives to get it right, first time, every time.

The fact of the matter is simple.  To instil meaningful customer management principles represents a fundamental change for any organisation. To benefit from these changes the executive must be on the field, playing the game. They cannot observe this change from the sidelines. Initiatives supporting this change must be firmly rooted in the organisational goals and must be supported by specific success metrics.

There was no way SAA was going to consistently improve in the area of customer experience with Nqgula at the helm. (I say consistently because I have enjoyed some wonderful experiences on some international SAA flights; BUT, you can never get onto a flight comfortable and confident that the experience will be repeated. It is so random! It is totally dependent on the crew!) He just wasn’t the guy that was capable of operationalising a business to compete in the area of customer experience. He just wasn’t the guy to ‘roll up his sleeves’ and lead by example. He is just another example of mediocre management. And, the only good thing about mediocrity is the fact that you’re ALWAYS at your best.


4 Responses

  1. Sad, but true.

    Sad that too many South African organisations in their haste to transform by revolution rather than evolution have appointed anyone who could talk a good fight – rather than pause, take a breath, and evaluate a little more thoroughly before handing out the big cheques.

    But in this case the problem could be that the rot starts even further up than just the nominal “head” – after all the board appointed him, and the same board (it may have been a different one, measured by looking at the names on the roll at the time, but it was still the same board in terms of ethos, culture and attitude) – the same board appointed Coleman Andrews and what a disaster *he* turned out to be. A R10m per month disaster that went on for 22 months…

    Admittedly the goals behind the two appointments were not the same. I hardly think that matters, though – both were supposed to be brilliant strategists who could turn the company around and make all sorts of magic start to happen again, and both turned out to be fat cats with their own agendas, totally unconcerned about either passengers or the people who worked for the company.

    Good riddance. Let’s see who next gets the hotseat and what type of firecracker she or he turns out to be – or starts to light under employees’ backsides!

  2. Nice, blog Doug, and could not agree more with your sentiments. However, as a passenger who has made more than 1000 flights on SAA, most of them local rather than international, I have to say that I don’t believe there’s much hope left. Your analogy of rotting fish is spot on – but now the rot has spread to every corner of the organisation, and everyone can smell the terrible stench.

    If your reservation gets messed up, you can probably get over it. If the flight is delayed or cancelled, you’ll get stressed but it will go away. If the crew are indifferent, you can add it to the list of hundreds of other bad service stories.

    But my worry is that I’m going to die on their planes! You see, in spite of the incredible commitment of the technical guys, once in a while they too will get angry with the sheer arrogance and incompetence of their leaders. It may only be for five minutes, but that’s when they will neglect to do something really important, or check something that is crucial to the safety of the flight. God forbid that it happens, but I’ve watched enough National Geographic air disaster programmes to conclude that 90% of air accidents are caused by human error.

    The best thing that SAA and our overly-generous government can do is shut it all down, sell the planes to the highest bidder, and let a decent bunch of people take over the routes.

    SAA has cost us – you and me as taxpayers – in excess of R15 billion over the past seven years or so. It’s time for SAA to die now instead of being bailed out again. I can’t afford it anymore.

  3. This pic on a mates blog says it all:
    “…The idea that you have to make an official sign to ask people not to behave like boorish idiots is depressing enough, but even more telling is SAA’s tacit admission that travelling is an awful, awful experience, kind of like being in a cattle truck on its way to the abattoir, but without the merciful promise of an eventual electric shock to the forehead…”


  4. Excellent pice! Thanks to you, Doug, for naming and shaming! we need someone candid enough to expose these “mediocre Managers” so that we are all held accountable for the disservice we are doing to the people we lead and the organizations we represent!! gone are the days when Managers had the final say in everything, now the Customer’s voice holds more weight than ever!

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