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The Art of Customer Service (and the perils of using airports)

Originally published Jan/Feb 2005

If you want to get into a discussion with someone at an airport, just offer one of your worst flying experiences. You’ll make an immediate (if temporary) friend, who no doubt will be more than happy to entertain you with an equally horrible experience. Here’s my “favorite.”

I was flying from Charlottesville on USAir. While standing at the ticket counter, I noticed a woman who was trying to check in with another agent. The agent looked at her picture ID, checked her watch, then told the woman that she couldn’t board the flight. Here’s the conversation, as I recall it:

Agent: “You can’t board now, it’s less than 30 minutes before scheduled departure.”

Customer: “What do you mean I can’t board now? I bought a ticket Š are you overbooked?”

Agent: “No, we’re not overbooked. But we have a new policy, see that sign?” (She pointed to a sign 20 feet away.) You have to be at the counter at least 30 minutes before departureŠ it’s now 29 minutes before departure.”

Customer (astonished): “What?!? I bought my ticket, I have to get on that flight!!”

Agent: “I’m sorry, but as I said, our policy now is that you have to be at the counter at least 30 minutes before the flight departs. It’s 29 minutes now. You can’t board the plane.” (No, I’m not making this up!)

Customer (starting to sob): “This is impossible. I have to get on the flight, I have to get to Denver! My mother is very ill, we just learned about it yesterday, I have to get out there to be with her!!”

At this point, I couldn’t restrain myself, so I butted in: “Excuse me, but it looks like your 30 minute policy applies to people who have luggage to check. Can this woman board the plane if she carries her luggage on board?”

Woman (sobbing heavily now): “I simply have to get on this plane! I can’t wait for another flight, I have to be with my sick mother Š”

Agent: “Just one moment” (and she walked away from the counter).

At this point I had to run for my flight, and never learned how it worked out. Perhaps the agent asked her supervisor to make an exception. Perhaps she asked her supervisor to tell the woman she couldn’t board the plane (after all, it was now about 28 minutes before departure!). Perhaps she just took a little time out.

It’s scenes like that which make frequent travelers roll their eyes and think to themselves, “Surely there’s justice in a world in which airlines that treat customers this way end up going bankrupt!” Why was the agent acting like a bureaucratic control freak? More important, what can we learn from this little episode?


An employee who acts like the USAir agent could be responding to a number of factors:

  • She was trained to never make an exception.
  • A number of customers had been venting their own frustrations at the agent, using abusive language, and she’d had enough.
  • She once made a similar exception, caught hell from her boss for doing so, and vowed never to go through that experience again.
  • She has one of the lowest paid, least appreciated jobs in the airline. Nobody asks for her input on decisions, she has no influence on her organization’s direction, and it feels good to have a little control every once in a while (like saying “No” to a customer).

Whatever the causes, this kind of behavior strikes most of us as bizarre, or worse. Being treated like the woman at the counter reminds customers that they usually have choices. Customers act on those choices, and organizations lose out. In the private sector, of course, that equals lost revenue. In public organizations, the cause and effect is less immediate. However, there will be a cost at some point ­ in public criticism (that can affect the budget), in customers taking out their rage on employees (that can drive employees to leave), in lost confidence from elected officials (that affects not only the budget, but also their support for senior management).

What to do? Managers and employees who work directly with customers can benefit from using three important trends in the customer service field: managing expectations, partnering with customers, and managing relationships.

1. Managing Expectations.

The distraught woman at the airport counter clearly was caught by surprise. Yes, there was a sign in the airport lobby. However, it is much too late to advertise the new “30 minute” policy at the point where people enter the airport. Organizations that manage customer expectations know that the time to set realistic expectations is up front, at the start of the interaction. Passengers should be told they need to be at the counter 30 minutes early, when they first purchase their tickets.

Managing customer expectations helps create a win/win situation. When organizations let customers know what they can expect ­ in terms of timeliness, service options available, quantity and quality of the product, etc. ­ they make it far more likely that customers will have realistic expectations. That, in turn, means that (most) customers will treat the employees reasonably. Disney wrote the book on managing expectations. Go to a Disney park, and when there’s a long line for one of the attractions, there will be a sign indicating how long you’ll wait. P. S.: you never wait as long as the sign indicates. If there’s a surprise, it’s on the positive side.

2. Partnering with customers.

This is a fascinating trend, one I’ve written about in earlier columns. Organizations partner with their customers when they allow customers to do some of the work that the organization formerly did for them. Examples are everywhere: we pump our own gas, get our own money at ATMs, sometimes check ourselves out of supermarkets and libraries, and even cook our own steaks at one restaurant chain! When organizations give customers the opportunity to do some of the work themselves (without dumping work on them), customers usually like having the option. This, after all, is what buying online is all about. The trend toward self service gives us convenience, sometimes lower costs, and control. It also saves the organization money (fewer employees are needed).

In my airport story, the agent might have saved the customer considerable grief by quietly directing her to a self—service machine, where she could have gotten her own ticket without visibly violating the 30 minute rule.

3. Managing relationships.

Notice certain TV and radio commercials these days; they are telling us that we’re not only in a high tech age, we’re also in an era of managing relationships. When the firm of McGuireWoods airs a radio ad, it ends with this tag line: “McGuireWoods; relationships that drive results.” If that’s all you heard, you wouldn’t know that it is a prestigious old line law firm. Several insurance companies use TV commercials that emphasize the agent’s knowledge and concern for the insured individual and family (one even shows a teary eyed insurance agent making a toast at the wedding of his client’s daughter!).

&ellip; Managing relationships is critical for most businesses and almost all government agencies. Government doesn’t usually have the luxury of choosing its customers, it often makes policies and rules that upset some people, and it never pleases everyone. What it can do, indeed what it must do, is ensure that its employees treat constituents with respect, give them accurate information, show concern when they can’t meet the customer’s demands in the way the customer wants, and look for creative alternatives to do so.

As Staunton City Manager Bob Stripling, has put it, “The longer I work in this business, the more I’m convinced that it’s fundamentally about managing relationships.” Ultimately, that’s the nature of our work. And that is precisely what the USAir agent failed to do.

In next several columns we’ll look at these customer service trends in more depth.

Order a copy of Russ Linden’s Working Across Boundaries

Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .