Recently, I traveled to Charlotte to assist a club with interviews for a position we were working to help them fill. The trip began with all the trappings of what makes travel for work enjoyable—staying at my new favorite hotel brand, AC Hotel, with beautiful views of the sunrise over the Spectrum Center and a relaxing cup of coffee in the hotel restaurant before heading out the door to help a club find their next shining star. My journey home was less than ideal and reminded me of the perils that come with travel for work—inexplicably delayed and ultimately cancelled flights, and gate agents scolding passengers for innocently (and reasonably) asking for more information about their flight status. In the end, my colleague and I made it home the next morning, but not after being awake for more than 23 hours and having plenty of time to think about how the situation could have been handled much, much differently.
During training or coaching, I often say, “know your audience” when serving a customer, talking with a peer or manager, and certainly when faced with a service recovery situation. Understanding where your customer is coming from is crucial; especially in a highly stressful situation. In this case, the airline gate was filled with frustrated travelers from all walks of life who had been enduring delay notifications for eight hours at 30-minute intervals with no further explanations. If this has ever happened to you, it is sheer torture! During the torturous hours, I met a man trying to reach his dying mother who had already made herculean efforts to reach her before she left this world; a young family with three small, hungry and tired children; two unaccompanied minors; and a woman in a wheelchair who was left unattended. Amongst us in the group were many business travelers like me, who with one major travel delay would experience a cascading series of multiple days of delays and not to mention missed time with our families that is so precious when you are a frequent traveler.
Throughout the ordeal, I was trying to reach the airline (to no response across multiple channels) to rearrange my plans for the next day’s ticket from another city; as most experienced travelers were. As you can imagine, the stress levels in the terminal were seriously elevated and my personal frustration with a poorly trained gate agent and obviously poor management had reached an all-time high. The gate agents were given no tools to calm the group down nor was the group afforded the opportunity to make alternate plans to keep their lives and work moving forward.
Borrowing an acronym I was taught in my hotel days, I offered through a Twitter DM to the airline that perhaps they could use the acronym LEARN to help handle situations before they spin out of control. This final message to them is one I sent out of sheer desperation to help them be better along with a thank you for the poor service example I will use forever in my seminars and training programs.
In any service recovery scenario and especially during high-stress situations, such as the instance of delayed and cancelled flights, both passengers and crew are in crisis mode. It’s important in the hospitality industry that you first listen to the customer. Hear what the problem is and work from that. When a situation does not go in favor of the customer, emotions tend to take over, and it’s even more critical that the employee truly listens and processes the concern rather than reacting to their frustration.
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Try to understand what the difficulty in question has caused for your customer and make the customer feel at ease that you are doing whatever you can within your power to make the situation better. Understanding how a customer feels or what they are thinking is critical to resolution. If you are in service, I pose these questions to you:
How would you feel if your mother was left unattended in a wheelchair?
If your teenagers were sitting at the gate for eight hours and you couldn’t pick them up or had to arrange a hotel for them from afar?
How desperate would you be trying to be with your dying mother in her final moments?
How upset would you be if your young children could not be fed or put to bed?
Here’s an idea - Using the delayed and cancelled flight scenario, upon listening to a passenger’s concern about missing their chance to spend time with an ailing family member, a gate agent could have put themselves in that passenger’s shoes and suggested or even provided other means for that passenger to reach their final destination; even if it meant more work for the gate agent or a lost ticket sale to the airline to help secure transportation. Empathy is a key factor in delivering excellent customer service and gaining loyal long-term customers.
A simple apology for the inconvenience the situation has caused goes a long way in solving a problem. Many times, customers simply want to hear that an employee is sorry that a situation occurred in the first place, showing they understand how it has affected the customer. A paying customer should never feel as though it is their fault that something negative occurred. While in reality “the customer is always right” may not be factually true, but they are always the customer, which does make their perception right. Arguing with them in any form is never good service and you will always lose in the end.
Back to our flight scenario, I witnessed a gate agent berating the entire group and singling out one passenger for asking what was happening with the flight. She yelled into the microphone, “Look! It’s not my fault. Ya’ll VOLUNTEERED to fly our airline. I don’t know anything!!! And no, I don’t know the gate number of the next flight either. I don’t know what to tell you.” To which, the entire group reminded her that we didn’t in fact, volunteer, but paid for our tickets. While it was not the gate agent’s fault that the flight was cancelled, it was her job to apologize and take ownership of the situation by offering relevant information and viable solutions for passengers to consider in order to help them reach their destination or at least find some way to be comfortable in the meantime.
All employees should feel empowered to make the right decision when it comes to turning a negative situation into a positive one. If special treatments and accommodations that require manager oversight need to be made in order to rectify a situation, make sure to keep the customer informed during each step of the process—a customer does not want to be strung along hearing that an employee is checking with management when the situation is one that can be solved by the employee. In the situation at hand, a bottle of water and bag of chips could’ve helped or maybe a few blankets offered to those who ended up sleeping in the airport.
This one is a biggie. It’s crucial that employees notify management of customer service issues that arise to ensure that the issues become learning opportunities rather than repeat mistakes. It’s also management’s duty to step in when something goes awry—an employee never should be left stranded, especially when tensions are high. In our flight example, the gate agents had no managers or supervisors in the terminal with them to help alleviate some of the stress, and provide guidance and solutions from a big-picture perspective. Management had effectively left its staff on an island to be put at the mercy of passengers who were facing serious travel delays and major life interruptions. While I was angry at the situation and dumbfounded by the gate agent’s actions, I also felt bad for her for two reasons: 1) she did not have the temperament or personality to work in a customer facing position to begin with, and 2) she clearly had received little to no training on situations like this.
The glorious thing about what I do for a living; helping organizations prepare for the next generation of employees, members, and customers, is that when unpleasant customer service incidents arise, it gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on how I can be a better trainer for delivering outstanding customer service, and it makes for fantastic material for me to use in upcoming presentations! And I did use it, just this past Monday - and it may be the centerpiece of a keynote speech I’ve been asked to deliver next year overseas. In case you are wondering, no, I won’t be flying that airline overseas! And finally, to the airline who sparked this blog post, if you would like to talk about your own training, I am always here to provide feedback so that you can continuously strive to improve.
Whitney Reid Pennell, president of the RCS Hospitality Group (formerly Reid Consulting Services) is a celebrated management consultant, educator and speaker. RCS, the creators of the Food and Beverage Boot Camp™, specialize in operations consulting, strategic planning, food and beverage management, and training programs.
For more information, phone (623) 322-0773; or visit the RCS website at www.consultingrcs.com.