Actions speak louder

Last week we talked about how customer service (as in actions) communicates a company’s values far better than any fancy slogans, and we gave an example of a business that was doing it right.

I also promised to talk about a different experience.

I let it slide for a couple of weeks, to make sure I wasn’t writing about it just out of being mad. Now I’m sure my experience demonstrates customer service showing a corporate lack of valuing customers–especially since individual employees worked hard to try to take care of customers despite corporate policy.

I was in Austin, Texas, to do a presentation at a conference (which went very well, by the way). A colleague and I both used the airline app on our phones to track the progress of our American Airlines flight, and so we were surprised to find when we reached the airport that the flight, scheduled to leave at 6 p.m., had been delayed two hours because of weather! That meant our Austin flight would leave at the exact moment our connecting flight would leave Dallas/Ft. Worth (apparently the only flight at DFW that was not delayed).

Hoping for the best, we waited. But then mechanical issues cropped up with the plane, and they had to send it back. Then the replacement had issues, and they had to send it back. Ultimately, the delays accumulated to 8:45 p.m.

The gate agents worked hard to keep us apprised of the situation. Since every flight out of Austin for the rest of the week was sold out, the gate agent gave me two alternatives: American Airlines could pay for me to stay in Austin and fly standby the next day, or I could fly on to DFW where American Airlines would pay for me to stay in a hotel and definitely catch a flight on the next day. He encouraged me to go to DFW, since the flight situation was more certain, and I took his advice (as did my colleague and several others).

He assured me that American Airlines would pick up the hotel tab, since the delays that had really nailed missing the connection had been mechanical.

I’ll bet you can see this coming.


When we arrived in Dallas/Ft. Worth, the gate agents there told us that since the Austin delay had been because of weather, they would not pay for a hotel. But we could sleep in the airport, and if we wanted to go somewhere else, they had coupons that would get us $40 off at a low-tier motel.

We pointed out that the gate agent in Austin had assured us that if we did AA a favor by flying on to DFW, they would pay for the hotel. The supervisor’s response: since the computer indicated it was a weather delay, company policy prohibited paying for a hotel.

How much is a customer worth?

Consider first the short-sightedness of that policy. I seriously doubt that the low-tier motel cost more than $80 for the night. That means they were willing to seriously piss off a customer and risk losing him over $40.

Does that sound to you as if all the signs about loving their customers meant anything?

I know gate agents get lied to all the time, and such a claim from one person could have been a scam. Even in that situation, many businesses recognize they are better off being scammed occasionally than to lose genuine customers.

In this case, though, a planeload of people all attested to what the Austin folks had said. No matter. Company policy.

Side note: stay calm

If you’ve watched reality TV shows like “Airline” and “On the Fly,” you know airline personnel get yelled at and mistreated all the time. Yelling does no good. It fits what we know about assertive communication vs. either passive or aggressive communication: when you yell at customer service personnel, they can easily ignore you, because they believe your threats come from emotion. When you calm down, they believe, you will not follow through. It’s just the emotion talking.

You are much more likely to achieve your desired results if you stay calm, state you case, and remain politely but firmly persistent. When you start talking about lawyers while you’re calm, it communicates much more seriously and clearly, and leaves the impression that you are much more likely to follow through, especially when you calmly start writing down names.

Outcome: the gate agent took care of us

Ultimately, the supervisor found a way to be able to put us up at a nicer hotel without charge. I really would like to know if somewhere in the employee handbook there is a line that says, “If the passenger has been standing there calmly arguing for at least 15 minutes, you are authorized to provide lodging free of charge,” or if the supervisor finally decided to do what was right despite corporate policy.

Since the hotel had a system for dealing with us and charging the airline, it’s obvious that it wasn’t an isolated situation.

(My late ex-wife once worked for a home health agency, 25 years ago or more. She learned that the insurance company had a policy of automatically rejecting claims the first time, since a profitable percentage of people would just accept the rejection. The agency had learned to simply resubmit it, at which point most claims went through. Perhaps AA has a similar reason for their policy–if so, it certainly worked, since all but five of us just took the discount coupon and left.)

I’m grateful to the individuals who ultimately took care of us. I have to say, though, that if American Airlines has a policy of leaving stranded passengers stranded in order to save $40, then I have a policy of not flying with them.

In this economy, some businesses believe they must cut corners in order to survive, but the ones that are surviving are the ones who focus on giving value to their customers–it’s even more essential in a challenging economy.

I am, even now, planning upcoming trips. I don’t know if my experience will be any different on any other airline. But I can guarantee you I’m going to find out!

What about you? We’re not just griping here–what actions have you observed that communicate values that contradict company claims?

Share this, please!