Do your customers hate you? If not, you probably don’t own an airline.
I’ve blogged before about airline service, mostly because as a frequent traveler I see a lot of it. But I also write about airline service because I believe it holds lessons for every business.
Airlines frequently disappoint or frustrate their customers, often for reasons that are beyond the control of front-line employees. Flight attendants and gate agents can’t predict weather delays or overbooked flights and they can’t do much about charges for checked bags and onboard food.With all that practice, airlines should be outstanding at communicating bad news to customers. They aren’t. This is how airline employees on three recent flights on the same airline handled the common issue of the flight being too full to store every passenger’s carry-on:
- (Flight attendant) Please help us fit as many carry-ons as possible into the overhead bins by stowing them with their wheels out. We hope you understand if we run out of room and have to gate check your bag. There will be no checked baggage fees if we do have to check your bag.
- (Flight attendant) Carry-ons must be stowed wheels-out. I am going to come through the cabin and if I find any bags improperly stowed I will take them off the plane and gate check them.
- (Gate agent) Please do not give me a hard time if I tell you I have to gate check your bag.
The first example is probably what most employers expect from their associates. The other two, not so much. Unless airlines are uniquely tone-deaf, they probably wouldn’t find condescension and rudeness acceptable, either. The lesson for airlines – and every business that cares about its customers – is to do a better job training associates in the fine art of conveying bad news.
Associate training should focus intensively on likely scenarios where “customer satisfaction” won’t mean giving customers what they want. Associates need to understand that sometimes the best way to satisfy customers is to treat them with respect, be transparent about the source of the problem and be proactive about minimizing its impact. That can make the difference between acceptance and resentment, good will and bad.
It seemed to me that the two hostile airline employees never got that message. Perhaps they thought they were “protecting” the company or perhaps they were um, winging it, but they clearly were not calling on an appropriate set of skills. My take on the flight attendant who got it right was that she was relying on solid training when she: explained the situation clearly, enlisted the customers’ assistance, asked for understanding and communicated a countervailing benefit.
This example shows how important it is to monitor how associates handle customer interactions. Airlines and other large companies should spend the money for mystery shoppers if they can’t provide dedicated personnel. Smaller businesses should at least solicit feedback, whether in person, by email or by using social media. And just asking for customer input can improve customer perceptions.
The Zavee takeaway:
- Businesses will inevitably frustrate or disappoint a customer from time to time. It’s vital to prepare associates for these situations so they can provide as good an experience as possible under the circumstances. They should never be taken by surprise.
- Effectively communicating bad news to customers isn’t an art, but it is a skill. It needs to be part of every associate’s training and performance review.
- Failure to monitor how associates interact with customers should be unacceptable in every business. In a small business it can be fatal.