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If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that JetBlue airlines left passengers stranded in a plane on the runway for seven hours without food, water, or working restrooms. Passengers were livid and even the pilot seemed ready to mutiny. This incident reminded me of a situation I experienced and wrote about in my book, You CAN Teach a Pig to Sing. The problem in both cases could be traced back to the leaders of the organization.

Here is what happened in Kansas City a few years ago:

It was a sweltering day in America’s Heartland. The official temperature registered 98 degrees. Inside our plane, still sitting at the gate in the Kansas City airport long after our departure time, the heat was equally stifling and breathing was difficult.

The stout man seated next to me kept mopping his brow. He took a swipe and within moments, beads of sweat reappeared, rolling down his round cheeks or off the end of his nose. His handkerchief, moist and soggy, bore silent witness to his misery.

Aggravated by the conditions, he railed at the flight attendant, “Why are we being forced to sit in this hotbox with no air? I’m sweatin’ like a pig!”

“Sir, the air is on.” Her response was curt.

“Well, it doesn’t feel like it. Why don’t you ask the captain if it’s working?” Her icy tone could have cooled a sauna.

“Why don’t you send him back here,” he snapped.

She squeezed past people standing in the aisle, and disappeared into the cockpit. Minutes later she reappeared, and told the man, “The captain and first officer are both too busy, sir; no one can come back here to talk with you.”

“This is the airline of choice for 40 of my sales reps,” he boomed.

“What do you want me to do about it, sir?”

“I don’t know. I just want to know why we’ve been sitting here for 35 minutes with no air.”

“There’s nothing I can do about it.” Once again she turned abruptly and headed back toward the First Class cabin.

Ten minutes later, the captain announced, “Sorry for the delay, folks. We’ve been waiting for some passengers and their baggage. They’re on their way, and we should be leaving shortly.” He didn’t mention the heat and stuffiness or the fact that we’d been sitting in a virtual oven for more than 45 minutes. Why had no one explained the delay before then?

I intended to write a letter to the airline suggesting some communication training for their personnel, but unfortunately never got around to it. Employees who work closely with the public need to know how to empathize with customers, how to stay cool and calm when people get hot under the collar. Of course, even a simple acknowledgment from the cockpit would have helped tamp down people’s tempers:

Sorry about the heat, folks. We know how uncomfortable you must feel. It’s pretty warm up here in the cockpit, too. We plan to be on our way just as soon as we get a couple of additional passengers on board. We thank you for your patience.

This incident illustrates an all-too-common customer service blunder: a negative situation escalates when the consumer’s plight fails to be acknowledged.

According to Ron Zemke, author of Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service, 50 – 70% of the perceived service climate can be traced back to the leader of the organization – either because of the emotional tone set by the leader or, as in the case above, because the leaders of the organization failed to adequately train airline personnel to handle the emotions of their passengers when things don’t go as planned.

If you are a leader, coach yourself by asking these questions

·  How skilled am I in consistently exhibiting the behaviors I expect from my employees?

·  What behaviors of my own could be setting a poor example for those around me?

·  How do I respond to the negative emotions of others? How competent am I to handle upset or resistance with grace and skill?

·  How well trained are my people to handle upsets, anger, or complaints? How skilled am I to be able to coach them?

·  What price does our organization pay when a negative situation is handled poorly?

·  What value do I place on making sure that my people have the coaching and/or training required to achieve the outcomes our organization expects them to achieve?


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