As a professional speaker, I spend a lot of time in airports. But lately I've been spending too much time in airports.
Because my clients are (How do I say this gracefully?) cost conscious, they usually request that I fly coach on the cheapest airline I can find, which means that most of the time I find myself on one particular airline (which shall not be mentioned by name, because, to be fair, many airlines share the problems I'm about to describe).
Until this year, I never had too many complaints with this airline. You get what you pay for, and I wasn't expecting luxury service. But something happened this year: Not a single flight I've taken has been on time. Within the last three months I've had the following experiences:
—A 3 p.m. flight was delayed until after midnight because the airline computers crashed, leaving thousands of passengers stranded nationwide. I was lucky because the flights after mine were all cancelled, and some people had to spend the night in the airport and sleep on their luggage.
—A 1 p.m. flight was delayed because the incoming flight was delayed. When the plane finally arrived after 4 p.m., thunderstorms at LaGuardia Airport in New York City (which you always get at LaGuardia in the summertime) held the plane on the ground until the storms passed and the air traffic controllers let in all the incoming flights that were low on fuel.
—A six-hour, 4 p.m. flight was delayed five hours. The weather was fine, and the incoming connecting flight was on time, but the crew was on an incoming flight that left its departure destination on time, but after our flight was scheduled to take off.
OK, I totally get that passenger safety comes first and that even the best airlines are reluctant to take off during a bad thunderstorm, a hurricane, a tsunami or a zombie apocalypse. As a business guru, I even understand that airline profit margins are being squeezed due to excessive competition and unionized workforces, and hey, you gotta make up the cost somewhere. But major predictable and avoidable delays on three out of three flights chosen at random? Can anyone say fundamental flaws in operations? Or incompetence?
I'm not looking to whine, complain or kvetch, although I really do wish they would print "NATIONALLY SYNDICATED NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST AND BLOGGER. WILL POST A YOUTUBE VIDEO OR WRITE ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE IF YOU GIVE HIM AN ULCER OR MAKE HIM LATE FOR HIS APPOINTMENT, WHICH WILL EMBARRASS (NAME OF AIRLINE)" on all my tickets in large, purple type.
During these delays, airline representatives at the gate gave us updates every 15 to 30 minutes, but no apology for the delay. When we finally boarded the plane, the cabin stewards welcomed us aboard, but did not apologize for the delay. On the flight that was stuck on the airport tarmac, the pilot gave us frequent updates and actually told us we would be among the first flights to take off, but he did not apologize.
We did get one apology. Just one. At the end of each flight, right after the plane landed, the chief flight attendant got on the intercom and said: "Welcome to (destination airport). We apologize for the delay at (departure airport). We know you have a choice in airlines, so thank you for flying (name of airline). We look forward to seeing you again soon."
That's it. The same exact language every time, word for word.
When I first heard these obviously canned statements, my first thought was: "Oh boy, these problems are so commonplace that rather than try to fix them, they have standardized employee procedures and training programs to deal with them. This airline has given up on customer service."
But then, after thinking a little more — I had plenty of time to think — I realized that this airline's practices are an excellent lesson for my readers.
Let's face it: Sometimes you don't always give your customers what they deserve. You overcommit. You aren't physically or mentally at your best. You let the nonsense get to you. Your computer is down. Your kid is sick. Whatever.
Of course, you should apologize humbly when you give bad service. (Arrogance and defensiveness never work.) You should give those customers a little something extra to show how much you value their patronage. All the books tell you that. But overdoing it when the you-know-what hits the fan is just as bad. Too much handwringing or breast beating and your customer will find a way to make you feel better...by taking advantage of your guilt and asking for discounts or free services, which will wipe out your profits.
When bad stuff happens, be contrite. Make your apology quick, sincere and unemotional. Then get on with business.
And, just like this particular airline, make sure your business is extremely competitive so your customers have nowhere else to go.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.
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