Let me count the ways the airline industry let me down
- Andy Boerger
This can be read as just another Tale from the Vault of Passenger Hell, of Murphy's Law wreaking havoc upon a traveler's itinerary. I think of it more as a fable, and one with a moral at the end that bears heeding. My credentials as a fabulist derive from having lived the last twenty years of my life in Japan, making occasional visits to my home country, the U.S., thus seeing in striking contrast the differences between these two countries regarding the concept of customer service. Or perhaps, in the case of the latter, what could more accurately be called 'customer disservice'.
The story begins in Philadelphia's airport, as I, along with my Japanese wife and our daughter, disembarked from a flight from Columbus, and learned that our connecting flight to New York had departed shortly before we arrived. Earlier, seated in our US Airways plane that was parked just outside its mooring gate under clear Ohio skies, we had prepared ourselves for this eventuality, as we listened to the pilot explain that bad weather conditions over Philly were delaying our takeoff. But we hadn't prepared ourselves for the (decidedly black) comedy of errors that this one missed flight would result in. Immediately after confirming from a flight screen that our plane was on its way to the Big Apple without us, I approached a woman in a US Airways uniform who was standing near the gate's entrance. Coolly and indifferently (an attitude which would repeat itself throughout our experience) she told us that all flights for the remainder of the day, to all New York airports, were filled, and that the earliest flight we could take was six a.m the following day. It was three in the afternoon, and we were not going to spend a dismal day of a too-short vacation (the tail-end of a longer trip to visit my family in Ohio) camped out in Philly's airport, or a nearby hotel. We would instead go by train to New York, but we wished to claim our luggage, which was checked in all the way to La Guardia. We wanted to pick up our two suitcases there, in Philly, so as to be sure we'd have them with us during our short time in New York, and make sure we had them for our plane back to Tokyo.
We were directed to Special Assistance, where a line of disgruntled would-be passengers from our Columbus flight was already forming. Again, we faced off against an unsympathetic airline representative. She confirmed that all flights for the day were full (we were later to learn that this wasn't true). What about our bags? She confirmed that they hadn't been placed on the New York flight. Did that mean they were still here, in the airport? Apparently. She sent us to Baggage Claims, in Terminal E, where the Columbus flight had disembarked. She grudgingly offered a little information about how to get to Philly's Amtrak station, after I told her of our plan to reach New York by rail. She sent us on our way without a smile, nor an apology. We had 'contracted' with her company to provide passage for us to New York City on that day, and they had failed to fulfill their obligation. They could, justifiably, blame weather conditions, but nevertheless we were still forced to find - and pay extra for - an alternate means by which to achieve our goal. In Japan either of the two women we had so far talked to would have been falling over themselves with displays of contrition.
The man and woman in Terminal E's Baggage Claim room instantly showed by their facial expressions and body language that they had no interest in helping us (in other words, in doing their jobs). Our bags weren't there. The man, the elder of the two, stood there shaking his head for a bit while the woman tried to, it seemed, wish us away from her. As we had nowhere to go, without our bags, we stayed, so the man finally took our baggage tags, scanned them, and informed us that our suitcases were in Terminal C. Naturally, it seemed to him, as that was where the New York flight we were supposed to be on had departed from. Well, it seemed less natural to us, not least because the person we had spoken to earlier at the Special Assistance counter had failed to mention that to us. Also, because that same person had clearly informed us that our bags were not placed on that plane. Were we to have assumed any of this? Were we supposed to have noted the terminal from which the plane we had just missed had departed from in order to trace our bags to there? Was that, in short, our job, or theirs? In Japan, such a question would be absurd. In the U.S., we were given the runaround, and made to feel like an inconvenience, to now several people whose job was presumably to have done all within their power to help us rescue our Vacation, Interrupted.
And on it went. It's a long walk from Terminal E to Terminal C in Philly's airport. Nevertheless, we were feeling somewhat upbeat as we made the trek. Our bags had been scanned; they had been traced. They were located in the place we were now walking toward, thus we would soon have them and begin making plans to get out of the airport and on towards the downtown Amtrak station. Murphy, and his eponymous Law, had other plans for us. We walked into Terminal C's baggage claim room, and were summarily whisked out of it by its two female attendants, to collect our bags from the man who stood outside among the numerous bags that waited there, like lost children, to be claimed by their owners. We saw about two dozen bags, but ours were not among them. They are here, we insisted. We were just told, by one of your coworkers in another terminal, that this is where they would be. The tall, unfriendly man gave us that all-too-familiar 'you are not my problem' look, and sent us back inside the glass encased room to take up the matter with the two women who had just sent us out of it. The larger of the two listened to just enough of my story to see that I was frustrated and on the verge of losing my temper, then leaned toward me with a stern look and said, 'Here's the deal.....'
Here's the deal? This woman - in that moment the face of an industry that had inconvenienced my family and I no end - was making it clear by her opening that she felt it was time to lay down the law with me? To put me in my place? Did no one train her that the people who come into a room like hers, looking for luggage that may be hopelessly lost or even stolen - who may lose precious hours of a vacation that they have saved for and carefully planned for - should not be talked down to as if they were troublesome children? The deal, she explained, was that our bags were most likely on their way to La Guardia. We could wait around for a good two hours or more to have that confirmed, but it would almost certainly be so. The woman at Special Assistance, who knew our situation in full, including our plans to pick up our bags and go to NY by train, had not told us this, nor tried to stop our bags from leaving Philly. Hence, we had no real choice but to, hopefully, rendezvous with our lost companions in New York. As she dismissed us, she didn't even thoughtfully suggest that we might try to arrange for them to be delivered to our hotel. She was able to accomplish her own personal goal of getting rid of us, so why should she have bothered?
Over we traipsed to the closest US Airways ticket counter we could find. My first words to the two ladies I encountered there were, "I will either speak to you or your supervisor, but I have a major complaint, and a problem that needs to be resolved." That declaration at last turned the switch. One of the ladies smiled - the first smile I had seen on anyone from either the airline or airport staff - and said, "why don't you tell us first, and we'll help you decide whether or not you need to speak to a supervisor". The two women, Suzanne and Charlene, turned out to be the two bright spots in this whole sordid ordeal. They listened patiently and sympathetically, and shook their heads in shame-faced disapproval of how their own colleagues, as well as the airport staff, had treated us thus far. Whereas getting information on ground routes to NYC had been like pulling teeth from the woman at the Special Assistance counter, Suzanne called Amtrak to check all the departure times for the remainder of the day, the time to reach our destination, and the cost. She assured us that she wasn't going to let us escape Philly's airport only to find ourselves stuck in its train station. She took us under her wing, and acted like a calm, caring professional who was willing to go an extra mile, and possibly do some better thinking for a family of lost, frustrated passengers who might not make the most rational choices on their own. While she did this, Charlene explained that our bags really couldn't be stopped in Philly without messing up the whole system, so long as they had already been tagged for La Guardia, but that we should have had that patiently explained to us earlier, saving us our fruitless tours of Baggage Claim rooms. She discovered that there had been, in fact, air options to New York that neither of the first two airline staff we spoke to had mentioned. "You would almost be there by now, if people had just done their jobs properly", she commiserated with us. She took down our hotel information and phone numbers in order to arrange for our bags to be delivered to our door. I could have hugged them both. Whether or not their behavior toward us was prodded by my mention of taking my complaint upwards, their demeanor, as well as the steps they took to lessen our burden, were exemplary. In short, they behaved in precisely the manner I have come to take for granted from Japanese service personnel.
Presumably, our story should end approximately here, on the happy note of us checking into our hotel on 57th Street, heading out for a late dinner, at last untroubled and able to fully enjoy our truncated vacation in my favorite city, confident that our suitcases would be delivered to our hotel as we slept in the next morning. Murphy the Merciless wasn't quite finished with us, however. Rising a little before nine, I called the woman at the front desk, who cheerfully informed me that our 'bag' had been delivered. "Bag" as in singular, not plural. Wondering if I had simply misheard, I asked her to confirm for me that there were indeed two bags waiting for us downstairs. On the verge of either tears or hysterical laughter (or both) I listened as she informed me that only one had come, and that she would have it sent up right away. US Airways had struck again. That day was supposed to be for MOMA (seeing Munch's 'The Scream' would almost certainly take on a punctuated resonance), Central Park, a walk among my old haunts on the Upper West Side, great pizza, and possibly a show. NOT trying to figure out how to rescue a suitcase from limbo before heading back toTokyo the very next day.
The porter from the hotel showed me a purple tag attached to the suitcase that had '1 of 2' written in marker on it. He explained that this clearly meant that the courier must have had two pieces of luggage in his van when he stopped at the hotel, but neglected to notice that and had failed to drop off the second. Were I a camel, that was the point where my back would have broken. But at least we were relieved to know that our other suitcase wasn't stolen/stuck in Philly/ stuck in La Guardia, or orbiting the earth at low altitude. Time for only one more instance of 'customer disservice'. What should have been a five minute phone call to US Airways' central baggage claim department - as I explained to the service rep what the tag on the delivered suitcase clearly indicated had happened - she chose instead to not listen to me. She insisted that her records showed us checking in only one bag in Columbus. That was ridiculous, I assured her, and added that every service rep we had talked to in Philly had scanned both tags, not to mention that the suitcase back in our possession had a courier tag with that '1 of 2' designation attached. She put me on hold. So I waited, and waited, and waited. Nearly twenty minutes later she came back on to tell me what I had just tried to tell her, that our suitcase was in a courier's van, getting to see more of New York than we were. She said that she would call back when she had spoken to the courier and could confirm delivery. She didn't. The suitcase arrived at the hotel about a half hour later, without the promised confirmation call. No note of apology came with the suitcase. In fact, the only two people who apologized for any of the airline's many mishaps were Suzanne and Charlene back in Philly. If this had happened in Japan the second suitcase would have been personally delivered to our doorstep by an airline rep, who would have also brought a gift to make up for the bad treatment. But who am I kidding? This wouldn't have happened in Japan.
I promised a 'moral' to this story, and here it is: 'customer disservice' is a dangerous path to skirt in an era when jobs are scarce. It is just plain bad policy, and completely unnecessary. I live in a country where customer service has been refined, almost like tea ceremony or flower arrangement, to an art. In Japan, we notice bad, not good, service, for how it sticks out like a sore thumb. People don't necessarily have to love their jobs - and let's face it, some jobs are not all that lovable - but they can receive training so as to perform them in ways which yield both greater self respect for the worker and a far better experience to those being served. What other purpose can a service-related position have than to make the experience of ones' customers go smoothly? If you behave as if your 'job' is to make customers go away from you as soon as possible, they will go away - and so, inevitably, will your job. This is particularly so in an era of rapid automation of service tasks. Most people would actually prefer to be served by a computer's monitor if they can be sure that the computer won't treat them rudely, brush them off, or tell them, haughtily, 'here's the deal....'. They won't prefer computers to a friendly smile and a cooperative attitude. Why would they? That's why even now, in Japan, you can always find someone - either on the phone or in a store - who will appear genuinely happy to perform their task well and provide you with a pleasant-as-possible experience, especially when things go wrong. Automation doesn't need to threaten jobs that are done well and are worth doing. But bad service will eliminate jobs in situations where people would rather deal with a machine than a bully.
Tips From How They Do It In Japan
- Adopt a Friendly Demeanor
Smile. Nod your head. Bow. Okay, you don't have to bow, but your facial expressions and body language need to show that you are there to help. Stern looks and aggressive, or overly passive, postures make the customer feel like they have to fight you to get what they want. Think about it: is that how you want them to feel? If so, you have the wrong job.
- Know the Flow
The procedures of your own department are most likely components of a larger, cross-departmental, process that leads to satisfied customers. It's important that you know the overall process and can share what you know with your customers when necessary. Think how much time, and how many fruitless trips to Baggage Claim rooms, I could have saved in the above scenario if the first person I talked to had explained to me that my bags were almost certainly headed on to New York.
The customer may not always be right, but often they do have important bits of information to share that will help resolve a situation in the most efficient manner. That can save time so that the customer can merrily go on their way and you can - you guessed it - serve the next customer who is waiting in line. Don't treat customers like dunces.
- Be A Guide
The customer you are serving may have to do something for the first time, and thus may feel a bit awkward and intimidated. But that's no reason to make them feel like a helpless clutz. Don't use the information gap against them. Your company has provided you with training so that you can pass on what you know, in a helpful and friendly manner. Patiently walk your customers through processes and be willing to repeat yourself if they don't get something the first time.
- Say You're Sorry
The Japanese may overdo it in this regard, but sometimes an apology is called for. Swallow your pride - it's not about you; you are apologizing on behalf of your company. An apology is a simple admission of a fact - you have inconvenienced your customer somehow - plus an indication that you regret this and wish to make up for it. Customers need, and want, to hear that.