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Relearning the value of customer service

As a lot of you folks know I recently went to the Troux Worldwide Conference. I’m was very excited to get down there. As usual there was a lot of great speakers, a lot to learn, and plenty of other reasons to just be excited about getting down there. It probably were going to be a lot more exciting had I got there on time. Unfortunately, I got to spend a little bit more time on planes than I paid for. I got a little extra for my money, if you will.

So it started to go awry when I went from DC to circling Atlanta, to South Carolina, and back to Atlanta in time to miss my connecting flight and every other flight to Austin. On the upside, I did get a chance to learn that attitude is everything. Now this isn’t a new lesson for me. I’ve learned this a few different times but it was really amazing the transformation in myself the other day. I had one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve ever had as I went through trying to get things sorted out with AirTran. Only to have my entire night turned around by possibly one of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen on a customer service representative in the face of a lot of adversity at Southwest.

So unfortunately for me I’d booked a flight that had the first leg on AirTran and the second leg was on Southwest. I came to find out this means that in reality, no one is accountable for getting me from point A to my final destination, they are only responsible for their leg. That’s not something that your told when the situation arises. So as I sat on the AirTran flight and we were finally coming in, I asked the flight attendant if they had any information about connecting flights. I was using the onboard internet, which is absolutely fabulous, and I wasn’t able to see if the flight had actually taken off. My connecting flight looked like it was just delayed. They said that they don’t have that information on the place, which would have been incredibly useful because I had to make the next flight. I was going to have to do quite the airport crisscross but I didn’t know that yet because I didn’t know what gate I had to get to. They said don’t worry there will be a uniformed service rep at the gate area when we disembark and I could ask them. So I did that and I was told that I would only know whether the flight was there or not when I got there. It would seem that there would be better information than that available to someone who actually worked for the airline but I feel lucky that I was actually able to get the lady to break contact with whatever she was reading instead of talking to the people who had just spent an extra several hours on a plane. Many of whom probably needed to get to whatever there next destination was.

So I charged thought the airport which was good for me because I hadn’t actually gotten any exercise yesterday. I got a quick run in, actually a weighted run in, because I had my laptop with me and a lot of my stuff. So I was good, there was the upside there. Anyways, I arrived sweating in my sweater at the gate and found out that I had no chance to make that plane because it had departed well before I had actually touched down. That would have been nice to know before I ran the whole way.

In the process of all this my wife had actually found a flight on Delta that I could possibly get on. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether or not there were tickets available for that flight. Maybe I should have taken that as the note that there weren’t seats available, but it still would have been nice getting on the Delta app or online to see that the flight was sold out. So I called into the help desk and actually sat in the 45 minute line to get to the front of customer service before I got through to the help desk or the reservation desk only to find out that there were no flights available.

The poor folks at the Atlanta airport, no one was having a good night there. They actually had about two hundred people, just a sea of people sitting in front of them. I have to say they actually did a pretty good job, given how many people they had, but as it turned out there wasn’t any room on the flight for me. So I turned around and went back across the airport, got back in the AirTran airlines queue, sat through the line, and finally got up to the front. Unfortunately, I was told that while they knew that they had marketed the flight and sold it to me, it’s technically a Southwest flight. So they told me to go sit in their queue to get this resolved. I got a kind of backhand wave in the general direction of my left indicating where Southwest was and the kind of blank stare past me that said, “I’m over you and on to the next problem.” So I left and at this point I’m steamed.

I’ve spent a lot of time in airplanes and customer service queues and not had a very positive experience. I cruise down to southwest and I am ready to have the showdown of the century, but my plans were foiled because I learned yet again that attitude really is everything. I’m sitting behind three people in front of me who really needed to get where they’re going and I see the customer service lady absolutely killing herself trying get them there. She’s on multiple phones, she’s got this big smile on her face, and she’s clearly going out of her way to make sure that they get where they need to go. When she finally got it and she said to the people, “Go! Run! You’re going to be able to get on this flight!” These people who had clearly had a similar experience to mine and they just went charging off and they looked so happy. So I get up there and again she’s got this big smile and was like, “What can I help you with you? You look like you’ve had a rough day.” She was just very disarming and there was just no way to be mad at her.

She really just peeled back all the angry in just a few seconds because it was so clear that if there was anything she could do, she was going to help. So I explained my situation and she actually kind of thought outside the box and suggested that if I really need to be there tomorrow, she could get me to San Antonio. From there I could get a car and drive a few hours. While I appreciated her thought, I ended up not doing it because it would have ended up with me driving from 3 AM to 6 AM in the morning and it’s just not safe and not something I wanted to do. So I told her thanks but no thanks and she got me on a great flight for the morning, gave me some advice for finding the hotel right next to the airport, and set me on my way. In literally in five minutes she had changed my entire attitude about my experience and it was really great.

I know that Southwest Airlines recruits for that type of personality, or at least read the business case in school about it and I’d never experienced anything like that. One where I’ve had such a positive turnaround just on the basis of how someone interacts with me. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I mean she wasn’t any more empowered to help than anyone else was. In reality, all she did was say you’re stuck going out tomorrow just like everyone else had told me, but it was the way she said it that made all the difference in the world. She gave me the sense that she really wanted to help me. I was prepared to be angry and to have this horrible experience and I didn’t have it. This was largely in part because of the way she approached me. The smile from the start, the way she engaged the conversation it was really a powerful thing. It completely disarmed me and it gave me a positive sense for that company, despite the fact that they weren’t able to satisfy my immediate means.

I think it’s just an incredibly important illustration of how your direct customer interactions are and how important attitude is interacting with people. It changed the way I perceived all the airlines I interacted with and in the case of Southwest, it created an incredibly strong feeling that they’d tried to help me as best as they could even if they weren’t able to. I don’t know if it will influence my buying decisions a year from now because you know things fade but right now, if I had to travel somewhere next week and there was a way to get there via southwest, I’d use it. So I don’t know how durable it’ll be but right now I really feel good about my interaction with that company. I know one of the most powerful things someone can do is solve your problem but if you can’t solve somebody’s problem the way they want, interaction is really important. So again it was just a great illustration of that. I’m curious to hear other peoples experiences whether they be good or bad when it comes to customer service.

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