What airlines can learn from customer service companies

June 13, 2017

It's been close to two months now since David Dao was manhandled, dragged and left bloodied and unconscious after he refused to give up his seat for the crew of United Airlines. He went through the ordeal on Flight 3411, on the 9th of April, 2017, after United Airlines overbooked available seats. What's worse, the company handled the aftermath in a less-than satisfactory manner, spurring many people to boycott the airline.

There was not only a furor across social media, but it caused a flutter among other airline companies too, which have now begun to rethink the way they treat their own customers.  Fact is, airlines today have frequent customer service problems, and most people dread flying on any airline and going to any airport.

Yet, there is hope for airline companies across the world, if they can take this opportunity to learn valuable lessons from successful customer service companies. All they need to do is follow what customer service providers such as phone answering services or virtual receptionists do on a daily basis.

Do airlines today have a customer service problem?

United Airlines isn't new to controversies. The airline's baggage handlers broke passenger Dave Carroll's custom-made guitar and he didn't get a favorable response even after he made a number of calls. This incident alone cost United Airlines $180 million, after the company's shares fell. Carroll made a viral YouTube video about his experience:

United CEO Oscar Munoz handled the entire saga terribly, in an arrogant and callous manner. He neither accepted responsibility for his staff, nor did his apology seem sincere. More recently, Flight 1738 which took off from Chicago to Miami had to return to Chicago after it hit a flock of birds. The airline made arrangements for the passengers to get on board another flight but the customer service handling was again sub-par, with the airline stating it will contact customers "to compensate them for the inconvenience."

What's more, just a few days ago, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed to fine United Airlines $435,000 for operating an airplane that wasn't airworthy 23 times. Here is an airline that not only handled its customers aggressively and callously, but it also put its customers' lives at risk. In another case, Southwest Airlines told Actor-director Kevin Smith he was too fat to fly. Who does that?

Learn from customer service providers

Considering how stressful flying has become, and how governments and security agencies are making it even more difficult to have a peaceful flight, the least that airliners can do is provide great customer service. There is no better way than to learn from successful customer service companies how to treat passengers better.  Airlines, take note - here are some golden rules that we customer service providers follow every day:

  1. Display empathy

One of the most important tenets of customer service is empathy. Empathy can be described as having the quality to feel what the other person is feeling. If a customer is in distress, a customer service agent is expected to feel that distress themselves and be able to provide a helpful solution. However, remember that empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy can come across as condescending and arrogant, while empathy comes across as genuine understanding. Clearly, airliners should be more empathic when their passengers are in distress, instead of just handing out clichéd apology statements that are almost non-apologies.

  1. Display patience and kindness

For a customer should feel better when he or she is upset, they should be handled patiently and with kindness. Kindness goes a long way in retaining the customer and bringing them to your side. If you display impatience in handling a situation, or if you are unkind, the customer will not want to return. The last thing that a customer whose flight was delayed needs is impolite behavior. Listen to the passenger’s problems and experience with patience, and display your kindness by not aggravating the matter.

  1. Don't be aggressive and rude

This does not even have to be said but unfortunately, aggression is something that is encountered often in air travel. Airliners need to train their stewards, ground staff, and just about everyone to control their aggression. Having an in-house plan to cover your employees’ psychological care and regular counseling sessions with a psychologist can help in ensuring your employees are happy and peaceful. You don’t want your employees to displace their aggression or disappointments in life on your passengers.

  1. Take responsibility for your staff

As you might have witnessed a number of times, most airliners tend to go with the version provided by their staff. While handing out apologies or when dealing with disappointed passengers, you need to ensure that you take responsibility for your staff’s errors. Do not look at an incident as a unitary issue but instead let the customer know that you are training your staff, and doing whatever it takes to be responsible the next time.

  1. Apologize genuinely, publicly

As you might have seen, United Airlines’ incident went viral on social media, and this is one of the reasons why the airliner incurred so much of losses and a dip in its stock price. Airliners need to remember that apologies must be genuine, and they need to be public. A well handled apology can actually work in your favor, and can be an example of how you treat your passengers when things go wrong. As everything is shared across social media these days, including complaints and rants, your apologies should be public too, if possible.

  1. Tell your customers about your action plan

Every customer wants to know what’s going to happen next, once something has gone wrong. They want to know if the erring employee has been warned, if they will be compensated for their loss, if you are going to change your policies, etc. Always have an action plan, and communicate this to your customer or passenger when they contact you with your grievances. Communicating your plan and customer service strategy will help them to believe that you are genuinely interested in changing the situation that caused them agony.

  1. Don't be insecure and don't be scared of your customers

One of the first things that we teach our customer service agents and virtual receptionists is to not be scared of callers. No matter how angry they seem, their anger is not directed at the agent but at the company. If your airline has caused distress to a customer, admit the mistake and move on to handling the situation efficiently. The moment you stop being scared of your customers, and understand that anger is a valid emotion and a natural reaction to stressful or unjustified situations, you will start practicing empathy.

If United Airlines and other airliners followed these golden rules that we teach our virtual receptionists and customer service agents, they probably would have saved millions of dollars, and brought back smiles on thousands of passengers’ faces. There is much to learn from these incidents, and there is also a lot for airlines to learn from customer service providers.

If you are a frequent traveler or work in an airline company yourself, what do you think airlines can learn from customer service agents, other than the golden rules we have listed?

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