I got a text from my brother today. It had to do with his frustration about a flight, and specifically the lack of customer service he encountered.

It said:

Look for a headline tonight that reads “Frequent Flyer on Southwest takes over flight…so it actually takes off on time.” They will take me off in handcuffs, but my fellow business travelers will cheer me on.

Erik flies at least weekly, usually on the same airline, and he knows a thing or two about customer service. In fact, he is a business communications consultant that has trained companies in exactly that – customer service. He is also a very easy going guy. So when I get a text like this from him? I know something has gone wrong. Terribly wrong.

In this case his flight was delayed by more than 30 minutes. The reason is what makes it so maddening – what started as a slightly delayed arrival snowballed due to a gate agent who was overwhelmed by the number of passengers and a flight crew that was more interested in chatting to their customers than actually getting butts in seats and the plane in the air.

Airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, really all of the travel industry folks, seem to have forgotten that customer service is not simply a job title reserved for the people who answer the phone in call centers. Customer service comes into play every time a member of the organization comes into contact with a customer – potential, current, or former.

Too often it is assumed that once a hotel or an airline or a rental car agency has your money, they can dispense with the niceties or dispense with the necessities. This is nothing more than a failure to provide customer service.

This problem is compounded by the reality that most of us are not frequent flyers, are not road warriors, are not platinum club members. Though, in truth, being one of those rarefied few doesn’t guarantee that you will get great service either. But those of us who are leisure travelers, holiday travelers, twice a year visits to the folks travelers are pretty much kicked to the curb when it comes to customer service.

Take this flight my brother was on today. There were several customer service failures here. It is the beginning of the busiest travel season of the year and this flight had a single gate agent to deal with a full flight. A gate agent who was a bit timid (probably new to the game), a bit quiet, and so focused on the details of tickets that he or she couldn’t see the bigger picture of loading a 737 in a quick and efficient manner. Add to it a flight crew – who ideally should be working with that gate agent to get that plane filled up – who were being more obstructive than constructive. The cherry on top was most likely a captain who isn’t interested in that part of the job. He or she just wants to fly the darn plane.

Been there, experienced that. On both sides of that gate agent’s podium. My war stories are legion – from rude passengers to diva co-workers to maintenance guys who just didn’t communicate. All this while dealing with a gate filled with people who are already anxious, already impatient, already primed to be irritated at me. On the other side I have dealt with rude passengers… well, you get the picture.

So what do we do? What can we – as passengers, as guests, as customers – do to tip the scale in our favor? First off, let the offending entities know we’re irritated. Gone are the days when I meekly took a crappy room in a crappy part of a hotel because, well, who am I? Gone are the days when unnecessarily (or badly handled) delayed flights don’t generate an email, twitter message or phone call. Gone are the days when I get the run around from a car rental agency that wants to charge me for an upgrade because they don’t have the car I reserved (while giving a premium car at no extra charge to a pair of cute twenty something girls – yes, I’m looking at you Thrifty Car Rental).

The vast majority of us are not seasoned travelers. The vast majority of us are anxious travelers. And let’s face it, very few of us are willing to speak up for what we need in a strange city or worse, a foreign country.

The truth is we shouldn’t have to speak up. The truth is that if I am paying for a service, that service should be rendered courteously, on time and with minimum discomfort to me.

Take my brother’s flight today. A handful of people’s inability to render good customer service meant that about a dozen folks missed their connections, and the majority of those now face a travel day that has been extended by five or more hours. HOURS. Most of those people will grouse and grumble in low tones about how unfair it is, but not say anything outright because they don’t want to be one of those people.

Make no mistake – it is unfair. And I sincerely hope that at least one of them will point this out. That at least one will march up to a gate agent, insist on speaking to a supervisor or make an angry phone call and insist that someone get them to their destination now. And no, thank you, I don’t particularly want the $200 flight credit, the frequent flier miles, or whatever soporific you offer in hopes that I will just go away.

I am tired of reading about hotels that treat people poorly – overcharge, under serve, or otherwise ignore basic customer service – and then offer up free stays for the ‘next time.’ I’m still irritated at Alaska Airlines for charging me $25 to check a bag, only for me to find out that had I schlepped that bag to the gate, I could have checked it for free (and guess who I won’t be flying on this year?).  I’m still irritated at the hotel in Las Vegas (the Gold Coast, if anyone cares) that asked if I had a room preference, and when I said that I wanted a quiet room, decided the best place to put me was on the second floor directly over the spot where employees hung out to smoke cigarettes, talk and laugh – all night long.

But mostly I’m irritated that in none of those instances did I speak up. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to do that, we wouldn’t have to demand that we be treated with respect and courtesy. Right now, in the travel industry, that perfect world doesn’t exist. So we have to show them how it’s done. Speak up, do so with courtesy and respect, but demand that you get that returned. Let them know that it isn’t about the miles, the free stay, the free upgrade – it is about treating your customers as though you value them.

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