Posts Tagged ‘Flight Attendant’

Airline Service and the Art of Communicating Bad News

by on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

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.

Creative Commons via

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:

  1. (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.
  2. (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.
  3. (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.

A New Aviation-Internet Creation

by on Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Remember Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger? He’s the US Airways pilot who landed a fully loaded jet in the Hudson River in January 2009 with only minor injuries to the 155 people on board. His skill and heroism brought him well-deserved fame, but the quick actions of smartphone-enabled witnesses brought his actions to light nearly in real time, as they posted photos to Twitter almost before the plane stopped moving. This event didn’t just catapult Capt. Sullenberger into the public eye. It also changed the perception of Twitter from a forum for narcissistic ramblings to a mainstream social media tool.

Emergency Slide (via NASA)

Now the airlines have given us another social media star, Steven Slater. Mr. Slater is the JetBlue flight attendant who got into an altercation with a passenger as his flight approached the gate at JFK, then grabbed his bags, grabbed a beer and fled down the plane’s emergency chute. In addition to extensive coverage by local media in New York, Mr. Slater’s own Facebook page has more than 25,000 friends and growing at the rate of several thousand friends per hour. Other Facebook users have started their own pages about the incident, including one called “Free Steven Slater”. On Twitter, the event is reported to be the number one trending topic in New York and several other cities

Will Mr. Slater’s instant celebrity, which is owed in no small part to social media, make him, as some suggest, “an online folk hero”? That depends, I think, on whether Mr. Slater’s actions tap into something authentic about how we feel about employers, airlines or both. The urge to tell your boss to “take this job and shove it” is timeless, but people rarely act on the sentiment. (Although this resignation by storyboard is pretty classic). The combination of tighter security, increased baggage fees and, perhaps, fuller planes has led to either customer service failures on the part of the airlines or more abuse from passengers, depending on who is asked.

Perhaps, then, it is timely to remind businesses of every size how valuable social media can be as a customer service channel. With all the buzz that this event has created, there is no good reason for JetBlue, no stranger to social media, to have stayed largely quiet about it. Whether to reassure passengers about their safety (and the airline’s hiring standards) or even to laugh it off, JetBlue should be much more engaged with its customers.

The Zavee takeaway:

  • Of course he shouldn’t have done it, but the getaway slide is pretty impressive.
  • JetBlue is doing no favors to itself or its customers by yielding the social media (and conventional media) environment so completely to Mr. Slater.
  • There is a difference between being a folk hero and a real one, even online, and most people know which is which.

Update (8/11/10): TechCrunch confirms that the “resignation by dry erase board” is a hoax.