A Quality Perspective From a Recent Flying Experience

This article originally appeared on the FCR blog on May 4, 2017. Click here to read the original.

The airline industry is an interesting customer service study. On one side, United Airlines has come under a lot of scrutiny lately (for good reason), becoming a popular topic among my blogger friends. On the other side, we love singing the praises of Jetblue and Southwest — also for good reason.

I recently flew on one of the major airlines and observed many opportunities for improvement (a phrase we like to use in contact centers). So many in fact that I started taking notes on my phone. Without naming names, let’s go through my notes and talk about these opportunities. By the way, these align with the things we expect from our colleagues at FCR on every customer interaction.

Be sure to smile and offer a warm greeting at the beginning of the interaction.

Upon entering the aircraft, a couple flight attendants were present but there was no greeting, eye contact, and certainly no smile. I love the quote from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, where he says, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts.” A greeting isn’t simply an item to check off a list of things to do at the beginning of each interaction. It sets the tone for everything that follows. It’s essential to get this right.

Be sure all communication is professional.

Though the flight attendant didn’t greet me, she did comment to a colleague about the slow boarding process. She said, “Wow, people are still asleep today. They’re taking their sweet time.” There’s no time where comments like this are ever appropriate in front of customers. It only serves to cast a negative light on you, your brand, and can cause customers to be unsettled and stressed.

Disneyland refers to their employees as cast members and their customers as guests. Any time cast members are around guests they are in character. This is a terrific guideline for anyone in a customer facing role.

Align all communication with the brand voice.

This particular airline has a terrific safety video. It’s upbeat, engaging, and expertly produced. The only problem is that the flight crew didn’t seem amused. They certainly played their part, which didn’t involve any speaking lines, but their faces and demeanor didn’t match what was happening on screen. Personally, I’d rather have the flight crew do the speaking instead of the video and love it when they make it a little quirky and fun. Regardless, customer service communication should always be consistent with marketing and all other customer facing communication.

Watch out for those stop words.

Do you have a list of stop words in your organization that you should stop saying to customers? If not, you should. The word “unfortunately” is on our list. In this case, we landed and the flight crew announced,“Unfortunately, there’s an aircraft at our gate so it will be about ten minutes.” I’m kind of a nerd about my stop words list so I cringed. Instead of saying that, here’s my creative alternative: “Great news! We landed safely and we’re early — so early in fact that there’s a plane at our gate. They should take off soon and we’ll pull up to the gate in about 10 minutes so you can get on with the rest of your day.” Doesn’t that sounds more positive and engaging?

Set accurate and appropriate expectations and empower employees to share insights.

My flight home was delayed the first time by an hour and a half. As I waited it was delayed again and you could almost hear the collective groan in the waiting area. In this case, the reason our flight was delayed was that the pilot was on another flight that was delayed. The thing the airline did well here was to continue to give us status updates so we weren’t left wondering.

One thing we encourage in our quality process is to think about these things that are impacting the customer experience that front line employees have little to no control over. They should be empowered to share insights with others in the organization who can do something to make it better.

Empathy is essential.

There were a couple opportunities for empathy in this experience. After the second delay, the airline staff provided snacks to everyone waiting for the flight. People loved the gesture and loved the little bags of M&Ms even more. I couldn’t help but notice that one lady (who I later found out flew first class) was not happy with the gesture. She spoke her piece, clearly wanting more, and I watched as the employee behind the counter said something to the effect of, “Look, we provided snacks. There’s not really much else we can do about the delay.”

This was a difficult spot for all parties involved and even a small gesture of compensation might not be enough to mitigate the inconvenience caused. This is never easy for customer service professionals, but it’s best to err on the side of empathy, acknowledging that you understand how difficult this is and that you’re right there with the customer.

Empathy again

The good news is that we finally boarded the plane around midnight, which meant we’d arrive home around 1:30am. Ouch. As we were heading toward the runway, the pilot announced, “Hi folks, there’s quite a line waiting to take off. We’re waiting on a taxi to the runway. If we don’t take off in 10 minutes, we’re looking at a time out because we’ve worked too many hours today.” Again, there was a collective groan from the folks on the plane at the thought of the flight being canceled.

After a three hour delay that was caused by the airline, to deliver that kind of news almost without feeling is disturbing. Again, this is a great opportunity to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. What if she had instead said, “Hi Folks, I’m really sorry about this delay. There’s a bit of a line here on the runway, but we’re doing our best to get you home. We’ll keep you posted.” If you have bad news or potential bad news, be very careful about false alarms to customers. Until then, keep the customer updated.


There were definitely some challenges with my recent air travel experience and I’ve shared my ideas on how this particular airline can improve their experience based on our quality guidelines at FCR. If you’re an individual customer service professional, you can do many of these things right now to improve the experience for your customers. If you’re a customer service leader, you have the opportunity to improve your customer experience on a greater level by ingraining this into your customer service culture.

I have a bit of recommended reading to leave you with. First, Jeff Toister, author of The Service Culture Handbook offers a great perspective on how airlines can improve their culture. Jenny Dempsey has a great story from Southwest illustrating how a great experience is a part of their culture.

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