Lessons in customer service from airlines

Most likely you read the title of this and are already thinking: this is not going to end well. Airlines and customer service are like cheese and peanut butter: they don’t go together.

Sadly, you’re right.

Yesterday I was checking in to my Alaskan Air flight (which would be delayed by over 3 hours) when a woman at the check-in counter next to me exploded at the ticket agent. Later she repeated the process at security.

The problem was simple: one of her and her husband’s bags was overweight, and Alaskan was charging her $25 extra. Unfortunately, they informed her at the gate … sending her back out through security to pay at the check-in counter. Even more unfortunately, they had not told her at the gate that she would need to pay more … so she left her purse with her husband at the gate.

So having already gone through security once, she face the prospect of not only going through again to get her purse, but also a third time after coming back and paying the $25.

Naturally, this was a major inconvenience, and made her run a real risk of missing her flight. She crumpled under the pressure, and was not a pleasant woman to deal with for the ticketing agents, I’m sure. (Or for the TSA inspectors, as I saw later in security.) Not cool – understandable, surely, but not the best behavior.

However, consider the airline’s long-term interests here.

They’ve got their cold hard hands on an extra $25 today, but is that woman EVER going to fly Alaskan Air ever again? Not if she has even the slightest sniff of another option. Alaskan better hope that they’re in some kind of monopoly situation in the destinations she needs, because even if she has to pay more, she will actively avoid them in the future. And she will undoubtedly tell her friends, at length and in detail … probably making them slightly less inclined to choose Alaskan as well. Plus, now I’m telling you, and this record will stay in Google’s cache for … forever(ish).

Here’s the deal.

The ticketing agents aren’t bad people. They probably get the fact that asking a client to go through airport security three times is asking a lot. And they probably get the fact that this is perhaps not the best client retention strategy the marketing wonks at Alaskan have ever dreamed up.

But their hands are tied.

Because it’s a company policy, and policies are meant to be enforced across the board. They had no flexibility, no choice in the matter. They were forced to apply it to her.

What’s the better alternative?

Companies should train and trust their employees to do the right thing for the company in the unique circumstances they’re in. Waiving this $25 fee would have paid rich dividends in brand perception, customer loyalty, and eventually profit. It would have treated the customer like anyone working for the airline would like to be treated.

And, it would have not made the Alaskan employees upset with a customer and angry at their own company for forcing them to foolishly enforce this rule. All it takes is a little trust, and a little training, and a little follow-up.

If you can’t trust people to do their jobs, why have them at all?