Can't get no satisfaction: Customer service makes business sense


So I’m a little late getting my wife’s 85-year-old uncle to the airport. We arrive at the ticketing area, only to find a huge, serpentine line 30 or 40 people deep. I’m not happy. Uncle Roy’s taking it all in stride—a relative term, since he only walks with the assistance of a cane. But he’s gamely keeping up.

My anxiety is partially abated by the knowledge that he has already checked in online, so all we need to do at this point is check his bag. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Think again.

After about 20 minutes in line, we finally reach the front, where we patiently wait for one of the overworked attendants to call us over to the understaffed counter. Here’s where the fun really starts.

As her previous customer walks away from the counter, the attendant calls out “bag check only” and beckons in the general direction of the front of the crowd. I promptly step up with Uncle Roy—and his bag—to be greeted with, not a smile and “hello,” but instead, a somewhat disdainful…I can only call it a sneer…and “I’m sorry, sir, but this station is only for those who’ve checked in online and only need to check bags.”

“Great, that’s us,” I respond, since that perfectly describes our situation. Silly me.

Without batting an eye, she counters, “The line for that is over there,” pointing to another queue, virtually indistinguishable from the first in all aspects, except that it originates at the opposite end of the counter from where my line started. Let me be clear on this: There are two winding lines, neither of which is identified in any way, both of which terminate at the front of the long “service”—and I use the term loosely—counter. No one is out front, guiding people to the appropriate line, nor is there any signage to that effect, and the counter itself is not segregated in any way.

So you can imagine why at first I chuckle a bit, and with my most disarming smile, say, “You’re kidding, right?” Instead of answering, she looks at me blankly and says, “I’m sorry, sir.” Now it’s sinking in that she’s serious.

“You mean to tell me that after waiting through this first line, we now need to go wait another 20 minutes in that line?”

As an answer, she simply repeats, “I’m sorry, sir.”

I stare at her, dumbfounded, for a few beats. Then, when it’s obvious she’s not going to change her position, I shepherd my octogenarian uncle over to the end of the other line. A few fellow travelers sympathetically roll their eyes at me as we take our place in line.

Fifteen minutes later, we have Uncle Roy’s bag checked (by a different attendant) and he’s on his way through the security checkpoint. I wave at him through the glass and we go our separate ways.

I have no idea how the rest of his experience went, nor do I care at this point. The damage is done. One narrow-minded, un-empowered, disengaged attendant has ensured that I will never use that airline again.

Sure, I could have written a letter or an e-mail to the CEO, whose assistant would have routed it to Customer Service (probably without the CEO ever even seeing it), who might have sent a form letter with an apology, which might have been accompanied by some sort of token recompense, like a travel voucher or a coupon for free drinks on my next flight.

But I didn’t want to go though the trouble. I felt like I was “done,” like I was Peter Finch in Network (for those of you born in the last few decades, a great movie satire about the ratings-hungry TV industry in the ’70s). I was “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore!”
So instead of writing a letter, I have simply chosen to “vote with my wallet.”

But why should you care? You probably have numerous stories like this…or even better. Well, as you can imagine, I think this story has some bearing on our industry. As we fight battles over windows, 3D conversions and premium pricing, we might be well advised to look at the airline industry for a few lessons, especially as it relates to how we treat our guests.

Because their satisfaction matters; it impacts the bottom line. Want proof? Well, for one thing, let’s look at the airlines themselves. Is it any coincidence, do you think, that the two highest-rated airlines in a recent USA Today customer-satisfaction analysis (Southwest and Jet Blue) are also two of the most profitable airlines in the business?

What about the airline of my story, you ask? Well, without naming names, this large Atlanta-based carrier is at the bottom of the list, with the most passenger complaints per 100,000 passengers and the worst record for on-time arrivals, denied boardings and mishandled bags.

Their stock has also consistently underperformed the S&P 500 for the past several years. Southwest, on the other hand, pretty much matched or beat the index for the same period and has posted a net profit for the past 37 consecutive quarters.

Is it a coincidence that both JetBlue and Southwest describe themselves as “customer-service companies that just happen to fly planes?” I think not.

Author and customer-service guru Tom Peters once said in a presentation that customers don’t mind paying a lot of money for a product (theatre concessions? 3D upcharges?) if they feel they’re getting something for it. Maybe that “something” can be as simple as a friendly employee who engages with the guest. I know in my case that would have made all the difference that fateful morning at the airport.

We can put all the bells and whistles on our theatres that we want, but the customer-service experience will largely be determined by the quality of theatre managers and staff. To put a twist on an old political slogan, “It’s the people, stupid.”

After all, aren’t we really customer-service companies that just happen to show movies?

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes your comments at