You’ve arrived at the departure gate feeling hassled after clearing airport protocols and looking forward to a comfortable flight ahead.
The agent tells you in a harsh tone to hurry up as the boarding gate is about to close.
Odd, you think. You glance at your watch and see there are five minutes or so to spare before the cut-off time. There are still passengers making their way to the gate. Why the fuss? You’ve shopped till you dropped at duty free and get there before the allocated T-minus 20 minute gate shut down.
Not impressed by the manner in which you’re spoken to, you refuse to smile, wanting desperately to eyeball the person who has temporarily taken custody of your passport and boarding pass for final checks. Keeping restrained, you instead choose to ignore the man in charge, not wanting to engage in conversation but keen on retrieving the travel documents and gathering your hand luggage quickly before proceeding.
As you step into the departure lounge, you overhear a conversation behind you involving the very same agent you initially felt like coming to blows with.
“Welcome Madam, how are you this evening,” says the agent.
“Am well, thank you,” responds the passenger.
“Could I have your boarding pass and passport please?” asks the agent who goes on “wow, you’re heading to Singapore. What a great place. Going on holiday or business? “Actually on work,” the passenger goes on.
“Excellent, enjoy the flight and your stay in Asia,” the agent finishes.
“Thank you, have a nice evening,” the passenger is heard saying returning the pleasantries.
A 45-second casual conversation: valuable time which could have been spent clearing the passengers lined up further behind if time seriously was an issue. You turn round puzzled to see why the difference in attitude. You had almost entered into a commotion with the agent while the other passenger felt well treated and looked forward to her flight.
In a split second, you notice the inconsistency between you and the other passenger.
Is it a man, woman thing? Or perhaps, does it relate to other forms of discrimination based on race, colour and nationality? Take your pick. In many cases it is any of the three or all three rolled together. But by the shear sight of a boarding pass, the shift in attitude is clear. You’re an economy class traveller. The passenger behind is holding a premium ticket for either a first or business class seat. You’ve quickly figured out the reason.
Let’s go on. There’s more.
You’re making your way through the lounge, along the air bridge before reaching the aircraft door. And there are plenty of fellow passengers both lining up in front of you and behind.
It’s 11pm. You’ve had a long day at work. You’ve driven through late night traffic to the long-term airport car park before taking a shuttle bus to the terminal. You’re already feeling exhausted.
You just want to get on the flight, into your seat, have a bite to eat, maybe watch a bit of TV and then nod off. Not much more you can do in your cramped space for the next seven hours.
The crew welcomes you onboard, checks your boarding pass and guides you to the correct aisle, turning right where all you see are endless rows of seats. Welcome to the dreaded economy section.
The female passenger behind turns left towards the exclusive “best seats in the house” zone. She will for sure have a comfortable journey sipping champagne, enjoying gourmet cuisine, watching a movie on a screen bigger than your iPad before snuggling into free airline-branded pyjamas under a duvet with fluffy pillow on a seat that stretches into a fully flat six-foot bed.
You ignore and walk the distance to your middle seat half way down the aircraft. Damn, no space to put your trolley bag or suit carrier. There genuinely is no space, You ask the crew to kindly hang the suit in the closet at the front of the plane.
“Am sorry (no mention of Sir) but that’s only for our First and Business Class passengers,” says the charming crew member.
“But I can’t have my suit crumpled in an overhead storage area by other bags,” you explain.
“Sorry (once again, no Sir) we can’t,” she goes on.
“Don’t understand why you can’t. Is it company policy?” you ask.
“No, we can’t, the space is only for our premium passengers,” the crew member adds, gradually losing her charm and getting frustrated by the conversation that appears to be going nowhere.
“You’ll have to put the bag under your seat,” she says.
Does she not realise the foot space is very limited, you think to yourself.
“Sorry, but you’ll have to take it to the front of the aircraft or find other suitable space. There just isn’t space here,” you go on, making a point with dignity but with no menace at all.
The crew member, clearly agitated has no choice but takes the bag and suit carrier and finds a home for both.
Settled in your seat, the customary sweets are handed out. The crew member chooses to turn her back on passengers as she walks down the aisle thrusting the sweet basket at lightning speed. Forget the eye contact! Never mind, you say. You paid for economy and you get the economy class treatment, so you get what you pay for. Well should you sit back and take it all in? The moral of the story: treat your customers with respect. Whoever they are, which ever service industry it is, customers deserve respect.
In the case of aviation, time and time again at every customer touch point – airport, duty free, aircraft – one sees a level of discrimination for which there is no room. Whether it is colour, race, nationality or class of travel, discrimination is a fact of life. Sadly we don’t want it.
Difficult to do, yet easy to say: under promise and over deliver. Treat every customer as if they are signing off your salary, which is actually very true.
If you don’t like or respect your customers, think again.
Bad mouthing you and your company to friends, colleagues, family and on social media is not what anyone deserves. Next time round, customers will choose to avoid a product or service simply because of a bad experience at service delivery. There truly is a lot to be said for respecting customers.
Building a great rapport is part of the experience of a good journey, otherwise it’s doomed. Word of mouth and social media are powerful tools to build and destroy both respect and loyalty. Quality of a service or product is not what one puts in, but what the customer gets out of it.
Yes, we know the airline industry is one that is highly charged, highly competitive and all about filling seats to ensure planes don’t go empty every day of the week.
But there is no room for any form of passenger discrimination at whatever level.
As my former boss Sir Richard Branson, the British business tycoon in charge of the Virgin brand, always enthused in staff gatherings, courtesy and customer service go hand in hand. Discriminating between those who pay your salaries is not on.
An advocate of customer service, Richard as he is known by all employees, believes in superior customer service being the key ingredient to success regardless of the industry.
It starts from the top down, he goes on. Quality interactions between leadership, staff and customers separate the average company from the exceptional one. “When we started Virgin Atlantic 30 years ago, we had one 747 and were competing with airlines that had an average of 300 planes each,” he says.
“Every single one of those airlines has gone bankrupt because they didn’t have customer service. They had might, but no customer service which ultimately is everything in the end.” Virgin’s philosophy is simple. Hiring friendly, positive people is 90% of the battle won with just 10% of the time spent brushing up on training. When a company hires great people, other great people want to work there too.
And it’s also about self-empowerment. Doing the right things at the right time to save a situation or protect the reputation of the company one works for reaps great rewards – particularly customer loyalty.
Known for praising his employees at any opportunity, Branson will go that extra mile to reward staff and create a “feel good” atmosphere that in turn creates a customer-friendly environment. Good service is not just a smile. Attitude, approach and being sensitive to customers’ needs are the recipe for success for any successful business.
We’ve all had differing customer experiences.
It’s about time companies think carefully about what customers really mean to them. Without doing so, they might as well forget the customer and continue prodding along with arrogance and pray they don’t pay the price of failure.
♦ Updesh Kapur is a PR & communications professional, columnist, aviation, hospitality and travel analyst, social and entertainment writer. He can be followed on twitter @updeshkapur