• January 1, 2013
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Flying Colors?

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Airline travel makes me think about customer experience. There are few times in our lives when we are so completely in the hands of a business as when we fly. Flying isn't something you do while doing something else, the way you can stop for a bite to eat while shopping, or talk too loud in the movie theater while the film is running; when you head to the airport, air travel is your focus.

As a result, airline travel has gotten a very bad rap over the years, in part because the bar for customer experience is set nigh-impossibly high. The only people who are delighted when they fly are pilots or passengers on a private jet. The best an airline can hope for, even the ones renowned for their good service, is unobtrusiveness—the flight goes without incident, and you forget about it. For anything better, the gate agents and/or flight crew have to go truly above and beyond, which typically means something has gone wrong and they do a great job fixing it.

This is not to say good things don't happen during the process. A flight attendant gave me some free food on my last flight, mainly because she said she felt guilty about rolling the first- and business-class food right past me. I suppose we fat dudes always look hungry. I'm sitting at the gate right now waiting for a connecting flight, and I got a giggle from an announcement: An agent paged "standby passenger Fang," which made me think the late Phyllis Diller's husband was hopping a flight. It's little moments like these that make flying bearable, since the overall process is a slog.

But if the bulk of all flights are the same—uncomfortable, boring, noisy—then it's the little things that can ruin a flight as well. Last week, I was seated next to an attractive and vaguely friendly young woman, whose presence otherwise would not have bothered me or even registered as anything but background. But she made a pre-taxi call to somebody and had a long chat about a private wine tasting she had just done with friends, where one guy was able to identify a wine's year, variety, and terroir like James Bond. She gushed about the velvetiness of the pinot and blah blah blah, then whipped out a giant issue of Wine Snob Spectator to browse through. Naturally, this gutted my opinion of her, and thus a chunk of my experience. Don't worry, I got over it.

The lesson here is that, while airlines are on the hook for your flight experience, there's actually very little they can do about a lot of it. They don't control turbulence, personalities, or the intestinal condition of the other passengers. If there's a weather delay or a problem on the ground at either end of the flight, often it's beyond the control of any mortal agency—and Thor has a notorious temper.

Outside of air travel, there are numerous situations where the customer-facing person just can't win. It happens in food service, retail sales, and so many other industries. As customers, we are becoming more and more comfortable with demanding that businesses delight us every time we deal with them if they wish to retain our custom. Overall, this is a good thing. But we must be careful of this newfound power and not tyrannize the people who just want to make us comfortable. Let the flight attendant (or waiter or salesclerk) know that you realize some things aren't his or her fault. Try to have a sense of humor about human interactions. And don't get all hoity-toity about the velvety pinot.

Marshall Lager is the captain of Third Idea Consulting, with flights to customer experience and stopovers in absurdity and snark. See his record at www.3rd-idea.com, and buy your tickets at marshall@3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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