Last week I flew up to New York to experience a Dolby Atmos home theater demonstration. (You can read all about my Atmos experience here.) As planned, the trip was going to be a quick up and back so I would miss as little time away from “installer day job” as possible. This meant I would be only be in New York for all of 17 hours; arriving at midnight and leaving at 5:00 p.m. the same day.
One of the challenges of living in a small city like Myrtle Beach is that you only have so many chances to catch flights in and out to make all of your connections. Due to some weather issues, my departing flight was delayed about 45 minutes, meaning that making my connection on to La Guardia was going to be a 50/50 proposition at best. And since that was the last flight to New York of the day and the Dolby meeting started at 8:30 the next morning, it was literally my only chance of making the meeting. And I really didn’t want to fly up to Charlotte just to be stranded at the airport.
I explained my situation to the ground crew in Myrtle Beach, and they were incredibly accommodating. Like, amazingly so. First they looked at any other possible ways of getting me to New York that night. No luck. Then the woman checking me in moved me up to First Class, seat 1A, so I could be the first one off the plane. She also retagged my bag with a First Class priority handling tag. The captain overheard my plight and said not to gate check the bag but rather to stow it in his locker on the plane so I wouldn’t have to wait at all. (My wife used to work for an airline and said this offer of largesse from the captain is practically unheard of.) He also said he felt like he could make up time in the air, and he would do his best to get me to the next flight.
During the flight—and my two scotch and First Class chip basket dinner—the captain sent back word about the status of my connecting flight and our expected arrival time at the gate. When we landed and started taxi-ing, the captain called ahead to the gate and let them know that I was headed over. This was all incredibly top-notch service that left a massively good impression. I truly felt like these people were going out of their way to do everything they could to help me. Not your typical airline story.
As I was running through CLT to hopefully make it in time to meet my plane to La Guardia—a run connecting not quite the airport’s two most extreme points from E30 to C16 but which felt like a lunatic race in which no one else around you knows there is something major at stake and that walking slowly right in front of you or impeding your progress with a roller bag was totally sporting—I thought how great a truly “connected life” via “smart phone” would be if the airline could somehow see where I was via my cell phone’s GPS and then actually care enough to do something for me…
The Sciacca E30 to C16 race route.
Fortunately, I made my plane, recovered from the mini-heart attack with is a post two-scotch airport mini-marathon sprint in business attire toting a rolling bag and made the Dolby event and, as an added bonus, got to visit the NewBay Media offices in New York and have lunch with some of my favorite Resi and SCN editors. It was all quite huzzah-worthy, I assure you.
Coming back, however, was where things went awry…
Apparently there was some air traffic control or other vague “totally not our fault” delay that was slowing outbound flights. Knowing that I had another very tight window for my connector home—and preferring not to have to do any more airport parkour, I went up and explained my situation to the desk agent and asked if I could be re-booked on a different flight—one that arrived an hour sooner, happened to be at the gate literally right next to where we were standing, and that was boarding at that moment. He took a look at my ticket and dismissively said that I would be fine, that there was nothing he could do, and called up the next person.
Sitting 75 minutes on the runway was the total nail-in-the-coffin of my chances of making my flight home, but I asked one of the flight attendants if he thought there was anything I could do. He looked at my ticket and the time of my next flight and started chuckling (!) and said he didn’t think I’d be able to make my flight but could see about rebooking once we were on the ground. (Protip: Laughing at your customer’s problem is usually NOT the best way to win friends and influence people.)
Since we arrived at 8:56 and my connecting flight left at 8:55, I was pretty much not on it. I went up to the airline’s service desk and asked if there was anything they could do for me. Maybe help with lodging and a meal voucher? Again, a disdainful look at my ticket, a couple of clicks on the keyboard, and then a disinterested dismissal of this not being their fault or responsibility; there’s nothing they can do, feel free to fill out a form, sorry/not sorry.
I have flown on this airline for years and at this point I’ve racked up more than 200,000 miles with them, but what I remember now is not how much the first flight crew helped me out, but rather being stuck in a city away from home on my dime and them not caring.
Customer relationships are fragile, and they need nurturing and ultimately they are only as good as the last encounter. And the bigger the company, the more chances there are for one person to ruin a relationship that you have spent years building. For us, maybe it’s one of our installers having a bad day.
Even when things happen outside our control—a shipping delay, a broken product, some construction snafu, etc.—showing empathy, compassion, and understanding can go a long way toward letting your customers know that you appreciate them and understand what is important to them.
Also, empowering your employees to be proactive in making a difference and providing or at least suggesting a solution if possible can go a long way to resolving issues. Maybe it means offering a loaner receiver, TV, or Blu-ray player.
What would it have cost the airline to give me a $10 meal voucher? I’m guessing probably less than $10. But it’s a small token of, “Man, I’m really sorry this happened. Here’s something to help you grab something to eat while you’re stuck in the airport…”
We’re in the service business. And if you don’t provide great service to your customers, believe me, they’ll look for someone else who will.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.