On a recent trip, an airline gate agent literally turned and ran from me to close the aircraft door on a connecting flight. This isn't a story of how terrible airlines are, but rather what valuable lesson it taught me in measurement and metrics, process-creation and empowering employees to break them both.
I am in a line to clear customs, I have fifteen minutes until my connecting flight will leave. I start to prepare myself for a close-call, I put my wallet in my bag, take things from my pockets to expedite security screening and get ready to make every second that I can control count.
I clear the security line, slide my laptop in my bag, ensure my boarding pass is in my hand and look at my watch - seven minutes to departure. I hear the “final call” page and my name over the PA system as I am on the last step of the escalator from security. I hit the ground running (literally), I am 15 gates away. Ten gates to go, my forehead is warm and my heart is pumping, shoulder bag in hand, coat flapping. I turn the corner; I see my gate, the open door and gate agent at the counter - I know I’ve made it. Twenty-five feet to go and the agent looks in my direction and starts to move towards the jetway door; I yell “Wait, I am here!” up-beat and confident.
What happens next?
The agent turns, and quickly enters and closes the double glass doors to the jetway. “Wait!” I plead; this time there is no confidence only desperation. We make eye contact briefly just before she turns and runs away from me down the ramp. A collective “ugh” is uttered from a small group of people at the adjacent gate that played witness to the event. I look at my watch, boarding card still in-hand and six minutes to official departure.
I wish not to play the victim of some three-act travel tragedy story where the airline is terrible and I am perfect. I acknowledge that I missed the 10 minute prior-to departure cut-off and I don’t really care that I missed the flight - things happen and I'm still alive. I only share this story because I care that I was ignored and (literally) run from.
When the agent returned I was calm and friendly. I didn’t allude to anything that just happened as I was curious to see how the situation would play out and how she might address it. I was simply given my boarding pass and told when the next flight was without any acknowledgment of the situation. So I asked politely "what happened there?" Her response "I couldn't put you on the plane sir, we needed an on-time departure."
What created this customer-service blunder?
- Process: the agent “couldn’t” put me on board, she was passing off the final paperwork to the on-board crew. Without confirming this as a fact with this specific airline, I can imagine that the agent isn't allowed to stray from this specific process and add me onboard and reprint the paperwork.
- Metrics: one guy (me) could have risked making this flight change from "on-time" to a possible one minute late departure. This means the one of the important ways the airline measures itself would be impacted.
- Leadership & Training: the agent panicked and ran and I empathize that she may have not had the training nor the passion for service to handle something like this in the moment nor knew how acknowledge that she personally handled it poorly without feeling awkward with me after or fearing a formal complaint. Additionally, she may have the default assumption that I was going to be an jerk to her as we've all witnessed copious amounts of those passengers at the airport. Either way, she stopped being human, wasn't responsible for her actions and defaulted to robotic process and exchange.
- Autonomy/ Empowerment: enable the people closest to the customer the power to make a wrongs, right. While airlines have bulked up their revenues by relying on MBAs identifying ways to squeeze every penny they can out of passengers there’s something for spending a little when there’s an eff up. Additionally, the front-line employee needs to have the training as to when to follow a policy and when to break it.
How many guests/customers feel this way each day from processes we create in our businesses?
What do the metrics that we are held to in large organizations doing to impact our customers?
Where do our leadership development or training programs fall short for our people to smooth over rough situations?
Where have we as leaders created inadvertent operating practices that prevent our people from being autonomous?
We have a responsibility to lead companies where our people can acknowledge process, know that humans come first and have the autonomy, training and leadership to do what’s right without consequences.