• 21st June 2007 - By proteman

    I’ve been on the road this week. My customer service experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly – are the inspiration for this blog. Read on for my story and a reminder of some basic customer service lessons for any business competing for customers.

    The Good…

    Last Saturday, my husband and I flew from LAX to Chicago on United Airlines with our 10-month-old son. It was a 6 AM flight and we woke up at 3 AM. Surprisingly, everything went smoothly.

    The airport shuttle driver at Park Air Express was wide awake, friendly and helpful. We pulled into the parking garage and struggled to figure out the most convenient place to park – with about six bags, a stroller and a baby. Seeing us looking around, the lot attendant approached our car with a smile and asked if we needed help. He helped us into the shuttle, smiled and talked to our son as we loaded our bags, and got us to the airport right away. It was actually pleasant.

    The Bad…

    At the airport, we expected the usual long line at United’s check-in, but we were happy to see about 30 self-service kiosks open. Better yet, a United employee with a portable microphone was directing traffic.

    “What a great idea!” I said when I saw how quickly the line was moving. (One of my pet peeves is seeing open check-in kiosks at a busy airport and a long line of oblivious passengers waiting. I’ve often taken matters into my own hands and directed people to the open stations myself, since the airlines never seemed to care or notice.) I was so excited to see an airline being innovative and efficient (so early in the morning yet), I told my husband that I wanted to write a positive feedback letter to United.

    My love affair with the airline was short lived.

    We quickly realized why the line was moving so quickly. The United employee on the microphone was barking orders like a drill sergeant – albeit efficiently – to the harried passengers. No one dared disobey. Here are a few examples of what she blared over the microphone, for the whole room to hear:

    • When someone in line didn’t jump when she told them to move, she quipped, “HELLO?!” in an annoyed tone.

    • When another person wasnt moving fast enough, she demanded, “Did you HEAR me?!!

    • Another poor victim of Miss Biting Tongue was confused about which direction to go for the open kiosk. That passenger received a swift: “I said right! Go to the RIGHT!”

    • To top it off, she kept referring to the long line of waiting passengers as “people”. As in, “Keep it moving, people!”

    I’d like to say that was the worst of our LAX experience. But it went downhill from there.

    The Ugly…

    As anyone who travels with a baby, a laptop and carry-ons knows, checking through airport security can be a daunting task filled with obstacles. Think – take baby out of stroller, remove laptop from rolling case and padded sleeve, fold up clunky baby stroller, place stroller on conveyor belt (with baby in your arms), put laptop in its own bin, take shoes off and put them in a bin (again with baby in tow)…you get the picture. I’m not making excuses or complaining, just painting the picture of me at airport security at 5:00 am on a Saturday. (Did I mention the long line of people watching impatiently as my husband and I struggled?)

    Here comes the “ugly”:

    • As we approached the security gate, the agent yelled at the waiting line, “This is a metal detector. It detects METAL!” He wasn’t being funny. His tone and expression were saying, “You passengers are idiots and I’m smarter than you.”
    • We were carrying a sippy cup with water for our baby. The TSA website says that you’re allowed to bring supplies for your baby through security – and anyone with a baby knows you have to keep little ones hydrated. When we got to the front of the line, however, the agent told my husband that the sippy cup wasn’t allowed. Rather than argue or hold up the line, my husband offered to drink the little bit of water in the sippy. The agent said, “No – you’re not allowed to drink it.” (Huh?) My husband had to leave the line to empty the sippy cup into a water fountain (holding up the line of course).
    • In all of the commotion, I accidentally took out my driver’s license instead of my boarding passes to show the TSA agent. The boarding passes for my son and I were in my purse, which had just gone through the x-ray scanner. I felt embarassed – especially since I’ve often impatiently glared at fellow passengers who’ve held up security lines because they’ve forgotten boarding passes. I pleaded to the TSA agent, “I’m so sorry, I left my boarding passes in my purse.” Without even looking at me, he barked to the rest of the line, “BOARDING PASSES PEOPLE! We need your BOARDING PASSES!” I felt like a little kid being scolded.

    • I got my boarding passes and thought I was home free. My baby and I walked through the security gate. But alas, the humiliation didn’t end there. I didn’t realize that our stroller had gotten stuck on the conveyor belt and hadn’t gone through the scanning machine. The TSA agent scolded me: “Ma’am, go back. It’s not my job to push your items through the machine.” I took the walk of shame back through the x-ray machine, baby in tow, and pushed the stroller back on the conveyor belt. The woman behind be, in a sympathetic voice, whispered, “I’m sorry. I told the agent I was happy to do that for you. They wouldn’t let me.” (I’m sure she was whispering so she wouldn’t be heard and hung by the TSA for treason.)

    It was obvious that the TSA agent wanted to make me an example. “See this woman and her shame. Don’t be like her and hold up the line! If you don’t want to be publicly humiliated in front of a crowd of fellow passengers…follow my rules!”

    Now I admit, I wasn’t at my best in that security line. I fly several weeks a year for business, so I’m not a novice traveler. I know what to do at a security line. I was a bit frazzled, but certainly the TSA agent’s behavior didn’t make the line go any quicker – and didn’t help me be more efficient.

    The Lessons…


    If you’re a business that relies on customers (who doesn’t?), there are some basic but powerful customer service lessons in this tale.

    • If you’re a service provider, scolding or being sarcastic with frustrating customers may make you feel better – but at what cost? It doesn’t make customers move faster or respond the way you want them to. It just makes difficult situations worse.

    • I don’t have a choice of whether or not to deal with the TSA when I fly. I can’t take my business elsewhere just because an agent is obnoxious. But I do have a choice of which airport to use (we have two others within driving distance from my office). And I certainly have a choice of which airline to fly. I’ll think twice about LAX and United in the future.

    • Efficiency, safety and courtesy aren’t mutually exclusive. Customers do want efficiency and safety, when it comes to traveling, eating in a restaurant, buying business equipment or upgrading their company’s software. But we also want courteous, respectful service. Businesses that can do it all are the ones that will keep customers in the long run.
  • One Response to “Rude Efficiency Loses Customers”

    • Steve Roesler on June 30, 2007

      Phyllis,

      I had no problem visualizing each and every step along the way of your experience.

      After 30 years of about 60% air travel, which I used to consider a bonus and reward for being a global consultant, I have literally been re-working my business plan (albeit informal) to minimize or eliminate air travel.

      It is simply too miserable an undertaking. The only predictability involved is that something bad will happen.

      Hope you got back ok and that the sippy cup wasn’t too terrifying for the other passengers.

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