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Flying Lessons Vasudha Deming

On aver­age, I cross the thresh­old of an air­plane about twice a month. Because I believe strongly that one's expe­ri­ences as a cus­tomer inform his or her abil­ity to pro­vide good cus­tomer ser­vice, I'm always on the look­out for what­ever lessons I can glean from my travel routine.

So, my recent trav­els have rein­forced the impor­tance of the fol­low­ing five prac­tices, all of which I intend to empha­size in my own cus­tomer ser­vice and man­age­ment train­ing sessions.

Let me say at the out­set that I am gen­uinely grate­ful for the care and pro­fes­sion­al­ism with which I am safely (and often punc­tu­ally) deliv­ered to my des­ti­na­tion. Knock wood.

Les­son 1: Give peo­ple a com­pelling rea­son to pay atten­tion to the fun­da­men­tals. As soon as the flight atten­dant holds up a seat belt in order to demon­strate how to fas­ten it, the pas­sen­gers tune out. And why shouldn't they? They've known for years how to click these two pieces of metal together—and they get it right pretty much every sin­gle time.

But what if the flight atten­dant instead showed a pic­ture (bet­ter yet a video) of what hap­pens dur­ing tur­bu­lence to those pas­sen­gers who don't keep their seat­belts fas­tened? Hav­ing seen these hor­ri­fy­ing images myself, I'll bet that the air­line would quickly reach 100 per­cent compliance.

Les­son 2: Hold employ­ees account­able for doing what they were trained to do. Because I rack up a lot of fre­quent flyer miles, I usu­ally get one of those cov­eted seats in the emer­gency exit row. To show grat­i­tude for this perk and respect for the hard-working flight atten­dants, I always pay atten­tion to their safety brief­ings and I even read the lam­i­nated pro­ce­dure cards held in the seat­back pocket. Not so, it seems, my fel­low passengers …

 I was recently on a flight where an elderly cou­ple couldn't man­age to lift their carry-on bags into the over­head bin. The flight atten­dant rightly and gen­tly pointed out that if they didn't have the strength to lift the small bags, they prob­a­bly shouldn't be in the emer­gency exit row where they might be called upon to remove the door.

 "It's alright," the female pas­sen­ger said, "My hus­band is a retired pilot." When the flight atten­dant again protested, the woman's hus­band said, "We'll be just fine," and took his seat next to his wife. I was infu­ri­ated! This flight atten­dant was absolutely cor­rect, but was too timid to take con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and defend her judg­ment. And what about the retired pilot—shouldn't he know better?

 Note to self: Next time this hap­pens, vocif­er­ously defend the flight atten­dant so that I and my fel­low pas­sen­gers have a rea­son­able chance of get­ting out in an emergency.

Les­son 3: When you edu­cate peo­ple with impor­tant infor­ma­tion, test their com­pre­hen­sion and recall. As I men­tioned, I now know how to open an air­plane door and I know what to do with it once it's off the hinges. Yet I often feel that I'm the only one of the emer­gency row pas­sen­gers who can claim that knowledge.

 I appre­ci­ate the check for will­ing­ness ("Are you will­ing to assist in case of emer­gency?") but I also know that will­ing­ness alone is not enough (in an emer­gency or oth­er­wise). I sug­gest pas­sen­gers be given a brief ver­bal test at the end of the flight attendant's brief­ing. What is the point of empow­er­ing peo­ple with the knowl­edge to save lives if they're read­ing a mag­a­zine when said empow­er­ment occurs?

Les­son 4: Man­age the dis­tract­ing behav­ior of indi­vid­u­als before they can ruin the expe­ri­ence of the group. A col­league was on a plane recently, wait­ing for take-off, when a young child became agi­tated and refused to stay in his seat. He actu­ally got up and ran down the aisle of the airplane—flight atten­dants and par­ents seem­ingly help­less to stop him. How can that be? A young child can't be phys­i­cally restrained by three adults for a few min­utes?! (Full dis­clo­sure: I am not a parent.)

After some delay and con­ver­sa­tion between the cabin and the cock­pit, the pilot took the plane back to the gate and directed the fam­ily to get off the air­plane. As a result of the inci­dent, my col­league missed her con­nect­ing flight and, sub­se­quently, her grand-daughter's birth­day party which had been the pri­mary pur­pose for her trip.

I do not know how many other peo­ple on that plane were affected and incon­ve­nienced, but days later I hap­pened to be on a plane myself and was seated next to an air­line employee who had been on the flight with the unruly child. He con­firmed the tale, but had no good expla­na­tion for why the sit­u­a­tion had to end the way it did. He too felt that the flight atten­dant would have been within her rights to be more force­ful in restrain­ing the child.

Les­son 5: Learn as you go. Literally.

Wish­ing you safe–and instructive–journeys.

Vasudha leads the Per­for­mance Solu­tions Team at Impact Learn­ing Sys­tems, reg­u­larly work­ing with lead­ing com­pa­nies to improve per­for­mance of their customer-facing ser­vice, sup­port, and sales teams. She is a lead devel­oper of Impact's suite of train­ing courses and has authored four books, includ­ing the pop­u­lar Big Book of Cus­tomer Ser­vice Train­ing Games, all pub­lished by McGraw-Hill.
5 Flying Lessons
Vasudha Deming
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