I had an opportunity to speak at a conference late last year. The weather was wonderful, the people were receptive and engaging, and the conference was excellently run and sponsored. Everything went really well until the plane ride home.
When I got to the airport and checked in with the ticket agent, she told me that all was in order and that I should proceed to the gate. Once I arrived at the gate, the gate agent said to me, “You know that to carry on your bag will cost you $100 here and another $100 to get on the plane in Denver to make your connecting flight to Salt Lake City.” When I asked why the fees, she snapped back, “Because you used a travel agent. If you had gone on our website and bought your own ticket, it would have cost you less. These travel agencies take money out of our pocket, so you pay.” I was quite shocked by her response, so I called my travel agent right then and asked how she had purchased my ticket. She told me that she had gone on the airline website and purchased the ticket. So, I asked the gate agent if she was willing to talk to my travel agent, she responded, “NO!”
With time running out, I dashed back through security, but not without telling the TSA supervisor what was going on. When I arrived at the ticket counter, I told the ticket agent what had happened upstairs. She abruptly responded with, “Well they don’t know what they are talking about up there. If you want to take your bag with you, it will cost you $150 for both flights, or you can check it with me to your final destination for $25.” When I told her about the inconsistency between her story and what I was told upstairs, she yelled, “I am the authority here, so what do you want to do?” I was shocked at how I was being treated. Nevertheless, I paid the fee, checked my bag, dashed upstairs, and was ushered back through security by the TSA supervisor who recognized me.
I was able to board my flight with only about a minute to spare. As I sat there waiting to take off, I noticed the airline’s slogan plastered on the walls of the plane: “More Choice, More Perks, More Savings.” I didn’t think much about it until the drink cart came by and they wanted me to pay for a soft drink and snack. That’s when I decided that their airline slogan should have been: “More Hassle, More Rudeness, and Less Money for You.” Needless to say, I haven’t flown with this airline since.
When it comes to excellent customer service, we should all realize that engaging in fake talk will guarantee that you will sabotage your results, create disrespect, erode any semblance of a relationship, and seriously impact your pocketbook. Here are a few tips for creating excellent customer service through holding REAL Conversations:
1. Get your story straight. There is nothing more frustrating than being told a number of different stories from different people. Such behavior creates confusion and frustration of not knowing who to trust or what will happen next. When people feel taken advantage of they will not continue to do business with you.
2. Don’t blame others. People want the truth, not excuses or the diversion of blaming someone else for a problem. If there are problems in a process or procedure, then own the problem and find answers or plausible explanations for people. That means that whenever possible, you take responsibility to find answers and explain the reasoning for any actions that you take.
3. Apologize. When things don’t go as planned, apologize for the inconvenience. A sincere apology acts as an affirmation that you have heard and understood the person’s perspective and that you are sorry for any misunderstanding. It also helps defuse any tension that may be present.
4. Be respectful. If you provide a product or service of any kind, there is a likelihood that at some time or another, you will have the opportunity to help someone who is irrational or very upset. If this is the case, there is never an excuse for you to treat someone disrespectfully in word or in action. My frustration in the situation above was heightened by the disrespect and the negative emotional response of both the gate agent and the ticket agent. They were supposed to help me get to my flight in a hassle-free and economically satisfying manner. They did neither.
5. Don’t take others’ behavior personally. If a customer is disrespectful, you cannot become emotional with them. You must remain calm, acknowledge their feelings, and try to understand them by asking questions.
6. Create value for the individual. When things don’t go as planned, do your best to create some value for the individual that you are serving. For example, the gate agent could have said something like, “We have a new policy of charging a gate fee for unchecked luggage. I am sorry that neither you nor your travel agent knew about the fee. I will waive the fee this time. Please know that going forward if you purchase your tickets online on our website, there will be no baggage fee. However, if you purchase your tickets from a travel agent there will be a fee of $100 per segment you fly.” If the ticket agent couldn’t have waived the baggage fee, perhaps she could have offered to gate-check my bag to the final destination for only $25 dollars.
7. Anticipate challenges. When I first started working as a river rafting guide, I spent time thinking about the challenges that could arise and decided ahead of time how and what I would do to handle those problems. When you go the extra mile to care for people, not only will they remember what you did for them, but they will tell others about the great service that they received, and they will keep coming back.
8. Communicate continuously and repeatedly. Do you realize that most of the time people don’t entirely understand a message until they have heard that message seven times? When processes and procedures change, it is important to tell people repeatedly what is changing and why. It was obvious that these two airline agents did not understand entirely what was expected of them with the change in checked baggage fees. When I finally returned to the airport gate just before the plane boarded, I called my travel agent and told her what had happened. She was aghast because she also didn’t understand the new baggage policies. Obviously there was a lack of communication on the part of this airline.
Before I got off the phone with my agent, she vowed that she would do her best not to sell any more seats with this provider if she could avoid it. As for myself, I told her, “I guess the bigger question for me will be, 'When I arrive in Salt Lake City this afternoon will my bag be there?'” For me those results would be the final straw. Unfortunately, when I arrived, my bags were nowhere to be found. Taking a moment to think about how you speak and deal with your customers will help you serve them more effectively. Holding REAL Conversation rather than engaging in fake talk will benefit you and the customer for many years to come.
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