What do your Walking Billboards Say?

My job puts me puts me on the road a good bit.  Well, actually, at times, it also places me in the air.  I’m one of those frequent fliers.  And like any good business traveler, I have my favorite airports, car rental companies and airlines.

A recent business trip put a spotlight on one of the biggest challenges facing business today: how to deliver what we promise.  Unfortunately, on this day this business didn’t really deliver.  Here’s the scene:

It’s a common view as you board a plane.  Airlines advertise their best slogans and offerings on small billboards in the jet bridge. On this day the billboard read, “Everyone has attitude.  Ours is a good one.”  Sounds great, right?  That billboard told me to expect a pleasant experience.  I did. However the guy across the aisle from me wasn’t so lucky.

This particular flight was completely full and was running late (in fact, weather that day had caused delays to most flights).  It was after 7pm on a Friday night and everyone just wanted to get home (passengers and crew).

As passengers stowed their luggage in the overhead compartment, there was clearly no room for everyone’s baggage to fit.  The flight attendant stopped at our seats and questioned a bag that was pushed into the bin.  He asked who the bag belonged to.  When a gentleman claimed it, the attendant told him it would have to be checked because it could not fit properly in the bin. [here’s where it gets interesting]

Passenger: “I was able to make the bag fit.”
Attendant: “No sir, it doesn’t fit.”
Passenger: “But the compartment is closed.”
Attendant: “No sir, it was forced and this bag could damage the latch.”
Passenger: “But the door closed.  It always fits.”
Attendant: “This aircraft is older and the bag may damage the latch.”
Passenger: “But the door closed.”
Attendant: “Sir, do you think this is the first time I’ve been on this aircraft? We have to check it. This conversation is over.”

[Insert awkward silence and gaze from everyone within range of this interaction.]

Wow.  Aside from the facts of the matter, in less than 2 minutes, the brand promise this airline boasts was broken…with an audience…and with definite consequences.

Let’s face it. Everyone has a bad day and in reality, no one is perfect.  But that’s the interesting point. Customer service doesn’t require perfection. It demands empathy and cordiality.

So what can we learn from this little experience?

#1  The service element of your business always has an “open” sign in the window.
Every interaction with customers counts – even those when you are tired, when frustrating circumstances arise and when you and customer disagree.

#2 If your business promises an experience, you must have safeguards in place to ensure you can make good on the promise.
These safeguards extend beyond training (although that’s a good start to communicate the standards). Do you have an environment where co-workers or peers can keep service at its best? How often do we pause the business and talk about those weird scenarios that can occur and strategies for managing them successfully?

#3 There is a delicate balance in taking one step too far with a customer.
This flight attendant fell into this trap. His explanation that the aircraft was older was appropriate.  Repeating it twice was okay. It was that sarcastic quip he said (“do you think this is the first time I’ve been on this aircraft”) that went too far.  And that’s the statement everyone will remember.  The emotion of the moment got the best of him.

I’ll fly this airline again.  They are good. But what a great reminder of the power one person can have in making or breaking a customer’s experience.  Here’s hoping the passenger I told you about got his bag when we arrived at his destination.  And I wonder how many people he told about his flight experience?  Hmmm….that’s one billboard he made read differently next time.

3 thoughts on “What do your Walking Billboards Say?

  1. I work in the customer service industry, as well as in marketing and PR .. And I travel quite a bit .. I can empathize with all sides here, but you really are always “on stage” when in these situations, and this was an unfortunate (and unacceptable) response.
    After hearing that reply, as an eneasy plane passenger anyway, i would immediately have to wonder, if the aircraft is so old so as to have faulty locks, what other parts and pieces can’t take what is given to them?
    Certainly not the intended experience promised, right? A rude, fearful flight ..

    1. Thanks for your comments Amy. So true. It’s those “emotion/fatique/frustration” moments that typically take somone over the edge. Good insight on the age of the aircraft too. Was definitely good to get back on the ground after that experience. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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