On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was reminded again firsthand why it pays to be nice to people in customer service.
I was running late to the airport as it was, and when I got there, the line stretched all the way across the width of the terminal in front of the ticket desk. I wasn't checking a bag so I weaved my way through the people who, printed tickets in hand, were just standing there apparently waiting to check theirs. I thought, Look at all these people, checking bags. Look at them waiting and look how smart I am skipping that step. I'm a genius. Once to the little electronic kiosk however, I was taken down a notch.
"Flight something something has been delayed. Please see a reservation specialist or call 1-800-whatever for more information." Apparently I had a very recognizable look of confusion and disappointment as I looked up because the first lady behind the desk I made eye contact with pointed to the line that spanned the width of the terminal.
Defeated, I picked my way back through the people I had just laughed at in my head. They were waiting to speak to a "reservation specialist" as well.
A few miles away, at the back of the line, I watched as one traveler after another approached the desk and lit into the poor women behind it about how they were going to miss their connection or how long ago they had booked their flight and how ridiculous all this was. The ladies were obviously stressed out as collectively there were around 65 people waiting.
As I got closer, I noticed the older man in front of me was especially unhappy. He was on his phone with the airline and was being very rude. "I'm gonna to miss my connection! You need to fix this. (pause) I don't care if the repair part is coming from China, you give me another connection!
I turned behind me to exchange an eyebrow raise with a mother and daughter waiting who were looking at each other in disbelief. There was a muffled mixture of profanity and mumbles as he hung up on whoever he was talking to and put his cell phone back on his belt. If I didn't like him before, the cell phone holster on the belt took the cake. WHY do people (mostly middle-aged and older men) consider it necessary to have a holster for their cell phone on their belt? Is it so they can "quick-draw" their phone Old West gunslinger-style to get on that call? Is it because there isn't enough room in their, count em' FOUR pockets, for your ONE cell phone? They're stupid and I hate them.
This guy was chomping at the bit to get to the desk, huffing extra loudly and shaking his head in disgust to anyone that would notice. When it was finally his turn, he made his three-step approach as theatrical as he possibly could by dropping his bag hard enough to make a loud thud and slapping his ticket info on the desk.
I turned again to the two ladies behind me to make a "Buckle up, here we go" face.
The poor lady behind the desk, Barbara, was obviously stressed. Her hair was a little messed up and her forehead was glistening with sweat from busting her ass with the luggage. He didn't waste any time letting her have it. You could see her shrink a little with the first barrage of "This is the most unprofessional something something" he hit her with, take a breath, gather herself and settle in to take yet another pissed-off traveller's horrible attitude right on the chin.
After she had checked every airline that flew out of Charleston for available options and rearranged connections with a typing speed of what seemed like 900 words a minute, something with the computer system put him on hold. She asked him as sweet as she could if he would step aside for just a minute so I could step up. He let out an annoyed sigh and Wyatt Earp'd his phone out of his belt holster as he sauntered off.
As I stepped up, I saw her again, look down, take a deep breath and armor up for just another livid, delayed passenger to give her hell.
"Hello sir, how may I help you?"
"Hey there, I think I might need to switch flights."
As she looked up my itinerary, she started talking through the options.
"I have a 4:30 out of Charlotte, that'll put you at your destination about 2 hours later."
"I hate to be that guy, but is there anything earlier?"
She began to look, as she had for the gunslinger in front of me, at every available airline. The times were either way too late or the flights were full. With an almost fearful expression she looked up and said "It's a Friday afternoon, most flights are full so…"
"Hey no worries, if that 4:30 is all you can find that'll work just fine."
As she started back with her court reporter typing speed to switch my flights, I leaned a little closer and jokingly said in a hushed voice, "Do they send you to some kind of special psychological boot camp to deal with days like these?'
She looked up with a spark in her eyes that made me laugh. "I've been doing this for over 20 years, and people don't realize we're just as upset about it as they are."
"Does that make working in baggage claim like punishment?'
She gave me a look that only a memory full of baggage claim nightmares could produce. "Ohhh, baggage claim is not somewhere you want to work for very long. It'll change you."
"I bet, especially dealing with guys like that guy." I nodded towards Gunslinger who was waving his hands in the air mid conversation with whoever else he was chewing out. She smiled and shook her head again, "It's not like I broke the plane! It's in Houston! I don't even know how to set my radio in my car, I'm sorry I can't fix an airplane that broke down in Texas! My Lord!"
I was laughing out loud at this point. She probably had an entire soap box worthy speech ready after years of dealing with angry people.
"I know a little how you feel. It's like that saying, 'Don't screw with people who handle your food.' I bet you could make or break some people's day with that little keyboard there."
She laughed again and replied with a mocking, "I'm sorry sir, the only flight I can find for you is through Antarctica." She had me rolling in laughter as she acted out a sarcastic "I'm sorry" face and dramatically hit one key on the keyboard as if to make that connection through Antarctica official.
"You're being very easy, it makes it so much easier to work with people when they're understanding. How's an upgrade to First Class sound on your second connection? These little planes out of here don't have First Class but your connection is almost two hours long, how would you like that?"
"Really? That's awesome! Thank you so much!"
"Like you said, be sweet to the lady behind the desk, and the drinks are free." She handed me my tickets and smiled. "Have a good flight, and drink one for Barbara, here at the US Airways desk."
I laughed and took my boarding passes like Charlie finding his golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory. I wanted to hug that sweet lady, but the desk was too high and Gunslinger was hovering behind me, impatiently waiting to speak to her again. I shook her hand and held it just a second longer as I leaned in again and wished her luck.
Then I turned and smiled to the angry man who was about to climb over me to get back to Barbara. I wanted to ask him if he liked apples like that scene from Good Will Hunting and then slap my upgraded ticket onto his forehead like "How bout' them apples?" but I didn't. I just went on my way to gate B2, thinking about Barbara in the trenches, taking grenade after grenade.
Lesson learned, as if I wasn't already fully aware. Don't be rude to people in the customer service industry, no matter what the situation. Treat people with common courtesy and a smile and it's amazing how willing they'll be to help you. Hopefully all of this makes sense, as I am writing it two vodka tonics into my 1st class flight.