As professionals, we’re all proud of our communications skills, and the value of the work that we do to help clients achieve their business objectives. In fact, we sometimes say that our campaigns are mission critical to our clients’ success. However, the reality is that if we mis-communicate or if our procedures fail for some reason, nobody dies. Although our work is important, the consequences of bad communications compared to, say, flying a jet airplane are much less severe. So, as part of our recent Bite Hong Kong away day, we set out to find out what we can learn from the aviation industry about excellent communications, and how some of that industry’s rigorous standards can be applied to helping Bite improve our practices and performance.
Cathay Pacific’s Airbus Fleet Training Captain Guy Malpas came to talk to us about communications protocols and the very particular ways that pilots communicate with their crews, air traffic control, and the inflight service teams. Guy is not just a pilot, but also the person in charge of training other pilots on flying the Airbus A330 and 340 and so was more than up to the task of instructing our ground-bound client service teams.
Here are some of my takeaways from Guy’s remarks:
• Language is of the utmost importance in the cockpit. Pilots generally don’t meet the rest of their crew for that day until an hour or an hour and half before flight time, and usually they have not flown together or even met before. Therefore, they cannot rely on working relationships or mutual understanding in order to be effective; everything must be crisply and precisely communicated. Once in the cockpit, they communicate via VHF radio, which unlike a cell phone conversation, does not allow them to speak over each other; any attempt to speak at the same time can cut out the transmission. And as they travel internationally, they need to communicate in English with people who have different accents and different cultural norms.
Implication for Bite: We have the advantage of close working relationships with our team, but especially when we are working with new clients or people in other offices, we should make an extra effort to be precise and complete – even a bit formal –in our verbal interactions in order to keep projects on track and to avoid misunderstandings.
• Pilots use an extremely well defined, consistent and narrow group of terms to communicate. Each expression has a very particular meaning, and must always be used as specified to avoid confusion. For example, “Roger” means “Received all of the last transmission” and “Cleared” means “Authorized to proceed under the conditions specified.” “Going around” means “Executing a missed approach.” And there is a rigid protocol for communications. Instructions are to be acknowledged and repeated, and if you don’t understand, use the message “Say again.” In fact, the crew have scripts which they memorize, almost like actors in a play, and if their jobs change or are promoted, they are given a new script. And when letters are involved, instead of saying “A, B, C” they use the phonetic alphabet “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” http://www.osric.com/chris/phonetic.html to avoid misunderstandings.
Implication for Bite: While at Bite we encourage personal expression and value creativity, we should save most of our creativity for brainstorming sessions and creative marketing. The everyday operation of campaigns, agreeing terms, and managing projects with clients can be handled more smoothly with clear protocols and very specific use of language. It’s good practice for each team member and department to share and explain what the process and key terminology is in their discipline (e.g. Search) to the other Biters they work with for maximum efficiency and accuracy in program development and execution. Repeat back instructions and agreed next steps, and seek confirmation before proceeding.
• Communications become even more important when things start to drift off plan or go wrong. The “black box” tapes from air disasters are full of examples of miscommunication that wastes crucial seconds, such as the difference between “We’ve lost 4 engines” and “We’ve lost Engine 4.” When you are three minutes away from dropping 33,000 feet, there is no time for uncertainty.
Implications for Bite: When situations change or become complex, that’s not the time to be figuring how we work together or how to communicate. At Bite, we already have a robust set of protocols including defined service offerings, pricing, project planning software, work in progress sheets, activity report templates, time sheets, databases, and financial functions. However, they are nowhere near as robust as an airline’s on which the on-time performance and indeed safety of the passengers depends. As we move further into the integrated marketing area, we will have larger teams, more elements to campaigns, and more technology. Our quality standards will depend on our ability to manage this complexity effectively with good protocols and communication.
If you are interested to learn more, see the Airbus Flight operations Briefing Note below: