business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Author Pat Conroy once said the greatest gift a writer can have is a dysfunctional family. The greatest gift for someone like me, who writes about customer service, is quite different. I’m fortunate to be a frequent flyer.

Traveling the skies these days isn’t fun, but it is simply amazing the difference that individuals can make in the experience. Take two simple incidents from just the past week.

The first came on Delta Airlines in Atlanta. (Yes, all roads pass through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport…including the routes to hell.) For a host of reasons, my flight was delayed a mere 150 minutes. When we finally boarded, the flight attendant, as if she arrived from another planet, used the intercom to urge us to take our seats quickly “to ensure an on-time departure.”

The reaction through the plane wasn’t pretty. We’re nearly three hours late and NOW they are concerned with an on time take off. It was incredible, but an uncaring employee managed to make a bad situation even worse.

Three days later I was catching a United flight for Chicago out of a small Midwestern city. Thanks to changeable weather our flight was on, then off, then on, then off. Every time we started boarding, the process stopped one minute later.

Our gate attendant was enjoying the moment as little as we were. So he grabbed his microphone and told us a joke about air traffic control in Chicago. He nearly got a standing ovation.

In truth, there was very little difference between the two experiences. In both cases, my fellow passengers and I were inconvenienced and very unhappy. In both cases our plans were thrown askew. But in one case, we flew thinking that our Delta flight attendant didn’t have a clue why we were so upset. In the other, we left applauding a gate agent for United. Which is hardly a regular occurrence.

So ask yourself about your employees and how they talk to shoppers. The simple truth is that frequently we have to tell people something they don’t want to hear. Sometimes a product is out of stock. Sometimes there are food safety issues. Sometimes…well, = anything can happen.

The question is, do we let our people use their best judgment and recognize why a shopper may be upset. (Okay, maybe jokes aren’t always the way to go, but there are plenty of other ways to tell the truth.) Or do we give them a card to read and watch them tell a planeload of people who are long delayed that somehow it is now their fault. Sadly, I’m betting we do the latter way too often.

Our people can only be as good as we let them. Believe me, United Airlines rarely bowls me over with customer service. But one young man gave me reason to rethink that position. (Or course, he also asked me not to name the location for fear that United would scold him for the very harmless joke … so maybe things haven’t gotten better.) It’s worth thinking about.

One more thing…

Words can cause problems in many forms, especially in writing. Recently I was taken aback by a beautiful sign in a Whole Foods that listed five compelling reasons why shoppers should buy locally grown produce. There was just one very big problem: The store was in suburban New York and the produce above the sign came from California, Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

I guess local is a relative term. Argentina is closer than, say, Mars.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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