Would You Clean Up The Mess Of Your Customer?

1368189244_largeThis past Saturday, August 30th, I took a flight from Pennsylvania to California, via US Airways. I had a window seat in the last row of the airplane, closest to the restrooms. In the aisle seat of my row, sat a man with an obvious back problem, as he kept wincing and squirming around in his seat. Throughout the flight, he continued to ask the stewardess for full cans of soda.  But, he never actually drank the soda. He was taking the cans of soda and putting them behind his back, for lumbar support. After the third can was placed behind his lower back, he seemed to sit calmly, resting better during the flight.

The stewardess, catching on to what was happening, approached him.

“Sir, what are you doing with those cans of soda I gave you?”

“I put them behind my back for support. I have some back pain and these help. Didn’t bring my pillow.”

“Well sir, if those cans explode because you are leaning against them, guess who cleans them up? I do, sir. I do.”

“I’m sorry–do you have a pillow I can put behind my back perhaps?”

“Sir, don’t you have a jacket or something you can use?”

“No, I don’t. I didn’t come prepared.”

“Well, pillows are for first class only. I can try to find you one.”


“I said try–there’s probably none available. And, in the meantime, I need the cans back.”

He hands over the cans and then looks uncomfortable again.

Okay–so he didn’t come prepared for the long flight. Bad move, sir. But, did the stewardess need to treat him his way?

She didn’t end up finding a pillow and didn’t come back to tell him–just left him hanging. He didn’t bother to approach either.

From an employee perspective, I can see how cleaning up spilled cans of soda on an airplane seat wouldn’t be fun. Preventing that is ideal. But clearly this guy was in some pain. Getting a pillow or even an unused blanket to curl up to use would have been helpful.

So, I ask you to ponder on these three questions:

  • When your customers don’t come prepared, how do you react?
  • Do you just focus on the mess that they may/have made or do you try to accommodate, despite the obvious?
  • Would you still clean up your customer’s messes or do you say they are S.O.L.?



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  • This is really shocking. These cans of soda might cost the airline 20 cents apiece. If I’m doing the math right, US Airways potentially sacrificed a customer for 60 cents worth of soda. Wow! Great story, Jenny.

    • Thanks Jeremy! Yeah, it really is shocking. The lady was more concerned about those cans of soda and something that didn’t even happen (cans exploding) than anything else.

  • Great story, Jenny.
    Like so many customer experience failures, the core issue here was the flight attendant not focusing on the customer issue (back pain on the flight) and instead jumping to her not wanting to clear up a mess (with unspecified risk of happening by the way).
    It’s also rather sad that, for someone in pain, a flight attendant would consider not offering a solution because of the class of their ticket.

    “I need the cans back”? What for?! Even if that were true, I would rather have phrased this as, “let’s see if we can find something better than soda cans to help your problem”

    Woeful experience, but very informative -thanks for posting.

    • Rick,

      Thanks so much for reading and for your comment on my post! It is sad how they handled this. I like your rephrasing of what they said–it shows that you’re empowered to find something to help and the focus is on the customer.

  • At the end of many of the flights that I take (I am a fan of Southwest Air) the flight attendant says, “We know you have a choice and we appreciate you flying Southwest.” The attendant on your US Air flight obviously forgot that he has a choice, or didn’t care about this guy’s business. Prepared or unprepared he was treated like mishandled bags. If your customer is in a bad place, help him solve his problem. I always tell my team be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Great post Jenny.

    • Exactly–they have a choice! Perhaps the stewardess is just trained to focus on cleaning up messes and not to pay attention the customer’s needs. I love how you phrase it too–“be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.” Well said, Doug! Thanks for sharing your comments!

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