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When service goes wrong

The scene is familiar. A group of passengers is milling around the airport boarding gate awaiting word on the status of their delayed flight. 

It is said that your customers measure you, not by how they are treated when things go smoothly, but by how they are treated when problems with your product or service arise.  It is in these moments that the customer decides who they will flatter with their future business. 

We were looking forward to our holiday as we boarded the airplane. We were delighted to find that the 767 had been equipped with new, more comfortable seats. The usual boarding and safety drills ensued.

Then came the announcement from the cockpit. The co-pilot had not arrived. 

Federal Aviation guidelines prohibit a pilot from flying alone. Calls had been made to the co-pilot’s home. He could not be located. This was uncharacteristic. The staff was concerned for his safety. 

We waited. 

It was later we learned that the co-pilot had called in three days earlier to book the day off. Someone had failed to replace him on the schedule.  It was Los Angeles on New Year’s Day. We surmised the co-pilot was at the Rose Bowl.

We disembarked.

Three hours later we re-boarded the flight. We were finally on our way. We asked several crew members “what happened?” 

Following are the responses. Imagine you are a senior leader in this organization.  Two of your company’s values are honesty and customer service.  How does the customer experience measure up?

 

Flight attendant with cabin crew

1. “A new crew had to be called in. We’re doing the best we can.”

2. “I know exactly what happened. We had to take a 35% pay cut and everybody is calling in sick in protest. I was called at 11:00 a.m. to be here for a 2:00 p.m. flight. I’ve worked every holiday this year”.

3. “On behalf of all of us at the airline, I apologize for this unbelievable situation. We know this is an inconvenience for you. I’ve worked for this airline for 24 years and have never seen a scheduling oversight like this. We are embarrassed and appreciate your patience.  We will get you to your destination as soon as possible”. 

All three responses passed the honesty test. However, handling customer communications during a difficult time requires more than just an honest answer. It also requires:

  • Discretion. While you must be 100 percent truthful (customers do not tolerate dishonesty) you do not have to be 100 percent open. Your principal tactical challenge as a leader is to determine how open you should be and train your staff in discretion. The reputation of the organization is entrusted to the individuals who communicate with your customers.
  • Expressing compassion. While challenging, it is important to address the issue from the viewpoint of the customer - not your company and not yourself. That is the viewpoint they will be listening from.

Three honest answers. The differences related to discretion and compassion. Response (1) was impersonal and defensive. (2) revealed troubling morale issues. Only (3) began to address the issue from the customer’s viewpoint. 

Customer service is high on the list of key differentiators and competitive advantage for organizations—including this airline.

Sadly, this uncommon skill is too often left to chance. The good news is the skills of good customer communication are learned and can be taught.

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