Peer-to-peer support helps AirAsia India take flight

The Airline realised that employees are more likely to open up about their problems to a peer than to a detached external force


Yes, 2020 has been all about change, but a handful of sectors have had to take a rebirth of sorts in the new normal. The airline industry is one of them. With a business that is all about face-to-face interaction with travelling customers, how does an organisation realign its entire workforce and processes to ever-changing guidelines in the face of persistent uncertainties, with a global pandemic raging? For AirAsia India, its peer-to-peer model saved the day. “It’s called the Certified AirAsia Trainer model or CAT,” informs Anjali Chatterjee, CHRO, AirAsia India, “which we started much before the lockdown and continue virtually today.”

An understanding ear

When it was first launched, the goal was to develop better practices for customer delight. “Although the cabin crew, ground staff and security have their SOPs in place, we were brainstorming newer ways to continue improving our Net Promoter Score,” recollects Chatterjee.

One of the major insights from the programme was that guidance by a source disconnected from the function’s real-time problems is most likely to fall on deaf ears. It is the employees themselves who know their ground realities best. “We realised early on that people tend to learn more from their colleagues than a consultant or HR professional sitting in an office,” explains Chatterjee.

Network of peer trainers

“We embarked on this journey, keeping it very simple and exceedingly aligned and customised to the business needs,” says Chatterjee. Employees, from within the function itself, are identified and trained under the ‘Train the Trainer’ programme. They then go on to train their peers. “We track customer feedback and the various problem cases emerging, based on which we co-create new modules with our CATs,” informs Chatterjee.

Anjali Chatterjee

“We realised early on that people tend to learn more from their colleagues than a consultant or HR professional sitting in an office.”

The peer trainers are identified based on their performance, potential and communication skills. “We work with the function heads and consider people who are already seen as very good performers with high potential. Also, those who have fairly good communication skills or a natural ability to work with people, train and influence them,” says Chatterjee. It’s a sustainable model that’s proven effective and something that AirAsia India “continues to focus on and we will soon go beyond training on customer-centric skills to other skills as well,” says Chatterjee.

Learning from the best

Chatterjee credits the Taj Group of Hotels for inspiring her to introduce the peer-to-peer model at AirAsia India. “It’s a model that they use and it’s been working well for them for many, many years,” says Chatterjee. “When I came to AirAsia India, I was coming from b2b. From a customer-centric perspective, I think the Taj Group of Hotels has the best customer satisfaction objectives. For me, the Group is an epitome of customer satisfaction,” she adds. It helped that the two organisations share a parent company. “We had lengthy workshops with them to understand the peer-to-peer training model and we then customised it a great deal to our business,” says the HR leader.

Pandemic pressures

Once the pandemic hit, it’s this established network of peer-to-peer trainers that helped manifest the flood of new guidelines gushing in. “Once COVID-19 was a part of our life and we knew that airlines were about to start functioning in a small way, our entire SOPs had changed,” recounts Chatterjee. “Everything was now hands-free. Every airline had to upgrade their SOPs to the tiniest detail.”

Now, with a majority of the worst behind us, hopefully, Chatterjee is proud to share that “when we started the first flight after two months on May 25, every operation function was ready with the new SOPs. That was a proud moment for us and we continue tracking customer comments and feedback.”

Smart peer support

The peer-to-peer model also helped effectively address the large-scale rampant anxieties. AirAsia India developed an AI-powered chatbot that regularly reached out to the workforce to check on their wellbeing. “We had data giving us an overview and insights into how the workforce was feeling at any given point of time,” says Chatterjee. Any case that needed escalation was then addressed with human intervention.

“We had a group of about 22 peer-to-peer counsellors who were trained on peer-to-peer counselling and each of them was given one person to work with,” informs Chatterjee. “In case of situations that needed deeper counselling where the peer-to-peer trainer is not trained for it, that was further escalated and we connected them to a professional counsellor,” she adds.

“It’s not humanly possible to keep an effective check on such large numbers on a daily basis, but we were able to do it by blending chatbots with the peer-to-peer model, which continues,” says Chatterjee. Thanks to this, we were able to identify a few employees who wanted to get back to their families and help them. “At the appropriate time, once something opened, we sent them back to their family,” says Chatterjee.

Again, employees are more likely to open up about their problems to a peer than to a detached external force. “We recognised that our peer-to-peer counsellors, though not fully trained, can at least be trained to understand basic anxieties, which is something that worked really well and showed that we care,” states Chatterjee. “This whole peer-to-peer model is going to become very big,” believes Chatterjee, indicating its bright future.