The company for which I work is known for guest service. Perhaps for this reason, I notice how other companies treat their guests. And, I read with admiration, amusement, and alarm the stories that others print. Yet, until this past weekend, I had not felt compelled to contribute to the canon.
My change of heart started at the end of a spectacular, whirlwind, and wearying two-week mini-van trip through France. Six of our group boarded a major British carrier’s (I’ll call them British Carrier) flight in Toulouse for a quick trip to Heathrow, then a longer flight to DFW. Once aboard, the captain announced that we would be delayed by 3.5 hours due to a snowstorm at Heathrow. This was not new information, and a conscious choice was made to board the passengers. Understandable once the captain explained that if an earlier departure window opened, we would be able to leave immediately. One and a half hours later a window did open, and we departed.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature dumped more snow on Heathrow, closing the airport. Our flight was diverted to Bournemouth, “Gateway to the South of England”. This was discouraging, but unavoidable. What quickly became apparent was that British Carrier had no contingency plan for such an event. We waited for close to two hours while the captain gave conflicting versions of how British Carrier would handle the situation. Or, not handle the situation, as one of the options was for us to “make our own way” to Heathrow. Though Heathrow had reopened, taking off again seemed out of the question. Eventually, two motorcoaches arrived, we disembarked, navigated customs, and collected our luggage. Boarding the two coaches, we trekked an hour and forty-five minutes to Heathrow. The idea of making our connection had long disappeared. We were not certain if our tickets had been rebooked. And, Heathrow was crowded if not chaotic.
All of our misfortunes to this point were just that. British Carrier had made necessary decisions based upon changing circumstances, and had managed to get everyone to Heathrow. What commenced at Heathrow was a case study for the hospitality industry. Our tickets from Toulouse to Heathrow were on British Carrier and we had been diverted by the airline, so we went to their desk to rebook our tickets. We were told that since our flight from Heathrow to DFW was on a major American airline (I’ll call them Major American), and we had missed that connection, that we would need to see a Major American representative to rebook the missed connection.
We slogged across the terminal to Major American’s sales desk. After a wait, we explained our situation. The two agents turned to one another, ignoring the customers standing in front of them. Agent #1, “I can’t believe this. Why do they keep sending people to us?” Agent #2, “I know. This isn’t our job. Don’t they know that they are supposed to take care of this.” A few more minutes of commiserating about their plight ended with one of the agents turning to us,…”We are taking names of all the people that British Carrier is sending to us so that we can prove they are wrong on this. Can I get your names? You need to go to British Carrier to rebook and issue your tickets since they caused this.” We did manage to find out that two of our party had tickets rebooked on a 5:15 flight to JFK, but that the tickets had not been issued. If the tickets were not issued in time for the flight, the two travelers might be stuck at Heathrow.
We slogged back across the terminal to British Carrier’s desk where a huge queue had formed. The line at British Carrier would never allow us to make the 5:15 flight. I decided to invest a considerable sum by calling Major American’s US service desk. I employed newly learned skills of empowerment by explaining the situation, finishing with “I have faith that you can resolve this for us, and I appreciate any assistance you can give.” Lennox didn’t let us down. He violated company policy twice. First, he rebooked our tickets when British Carrier should have done so. Second, he rebooked not only my ticket but took a relay call for my travel companions to rebook theirs as well. The third slog across the terminal commenced so that we could get the rebooked tickets issued. Time was critical.
Back at the Major American sales desk, another lengthy queue had formed. I spotted a pleasant-looking red-haired chap with a Major American badge. Once more explaining our situation, I added the critical timing element. “Do we need to stand in that line to get tickets issued, or is there another option?” He barely hesitated, and only to decide how, not whether, to proceed. “Let me have your old tickets.” He took them to the back office. He returned, and told us that he had called the gate to hold the 5:15 JFK flight. He escorted us to the side, where a harried but uncommonly cheerful agent immediately went to work. Once the tickets were issued, the red-haired gent led us to the empty First Class check-in (though we were economy class passengers), waited until assured that we were checked in, and gave us directions for the shortest route through security. Only then did I notice that our rescuer was Major American’s Security Supervisor. We made the flight; tired and ragged, but happy to be headed home. Our adventurous homecoming ended some 30 hours after it began when a flight from LaGuardia landed at DFW.
Realizing that each of us in the hospitality industry can improve our guest satisfaction abilities, I took away a few lessons from this adventure:
1. Be prepared. Not having a contingency plan can be more costly to reputation than the initial problem. Snowstorms cannot be controlled, but reactions to them can.
2. Be decisive. This gives the impression that you are in control, even when you aren’t. Guests are reassured by believing that you are competent to handle the situation.
3. Take responsibility. Don’t cast blame, even when justified. Guests don’t care who is at fault. They care about getting the problem fixed.
4. Maintain composure. Don’t reveal internal issues to customers. These issues are not their problem. They have enough of their own. Instead, maintain a cheerful disposition, no matter how harried you are.
5. Know when to violate the rules. Rules are in place for a reason, but violating them is sometimes necessary for the greater good. (This does not apply to those situations where violating the rules creates illegality.)
6. Understand that guest service is everyone’s job. Just because an action is not within your job description, does not mean that you can’t accomplish significant results.
7. Be assertive with hospitality. Pointing works, shepherding works better.
8. Communicate. Let guests know what you have done, are doing, and will do to get their problem resolved.
9. Follow through. Complete the experience by ascertaining that the problem is resolved.
10. Never expect recognition, but realize that sometimes your efforts will be recognized. I would like to thank a major American airline’s employees: David the Security Supervisor and Rachel the Customer Service Representative at Heathrow, and Lennox, the Reservations Agent at the telephone service desk, for cheerful, proactive, customer-oriented problem-solving. You exhibit principles that everyone in the hospitality industry can benefit from learning.