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.