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William is an Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in the Department of Business Administration and Tourism and Hospitality Management. He is fascinated by research around how individuals construct and create their social realities, intrigued with the powers of creativity and innovation, and an avid proponent of outstanding service experiences. When not teaching, writing, or researching, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally paint. He is currently completing his PhD in Management at Saint Mary’s University.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Observations on Customer Service from 40,000 ft

Take Off

Just recently, I returned from a trip to Hawaii. It was quite a fantastic trip, one that I hope to be able to do again...soon =).

Yet, anyone who has travelled can appreciate that moving two adults and two kids from the east coast of Canada to the beauties of Honolulu has a number of challenges. Timing, food, activities, entertainment, and the necessary naps all need to be thought out in advance. When spending close to 15 hours in transit each way, there are more than enough details and situations to keep us busy.

Our airline, Continental Airlines, decided that our journey needed a little more action. As someone who studies and teaches customer service for a living, here are a few of my observations, captured under “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.
The Good

The ‘good’ was shown in two standout moments of service.

The first came during our flight home on the red eye. The flight attendant was passing by offering drinks. I, of course, had a sleeping 4 year old nested on top of me and could not move. When she asked if I would like something, I jokingly said that I’d love a glass of wine but my wallet was buried under a 40 lb sack of potatoes. Without blinking, she placed a bottle of red and a glass on my table with a note that I should just come find her when I was freed. What awesome heads up service and a demonstration of trust!

The second moment came during our last leg of the trip home. Again, the flight attendant (seriously, these front line gems really do make all the difference!) had a ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ attitude and an in-your-face charm that created a relaxed and fun trip. Her landing script: “We’re putting this plane down in Halifax so your seats need to be in the upright position. For those of you that are confused about this, you push that little silver button on your arm rest then lean forward. If you are sitting in the most uncomfortable position possible, you got it right.” She was a shining example of the character found with SouthWest or WestJet.

Observations: Your front line people are the face, brand, and voice of your company. When they treat customers as real people through active listening, appropriate responses and authentic interactions, they exponentially magnify value.

The Bad

The ‘bad’ stemmed from a combination of miscommunication and horrible service recovery.

About a week before our trip, I was having challenges with the airline’s website, so I (gasp) called their service centre to ask about baggage sizes and fees. Over the phone, I was told that the first bag from Canada to Hawaii was free; I still have the notes and confirmed the details twice. I called because we didn’t need any hiccups at the airport.

When we arrived, the self check-in system (see below for the ‘ugly’) was trying to charge us $25 per bag. Looking for help, we found two agents talking at the front counter but they kept pushing us back to the self-service kiosks before they would speak with us. After some tension, we explained about the telephone call. The response: they just pointed to the fee sign. “But I was speaking with someone from your company?!” I said. Another point of the finger to the posted fees. Finally, a supervisor jumped in to move things along. Two things happened: A) The information that was passing along by the agent to the supervisor about my phone call was referred to as my ‘claim’, right in front of me (read: you’re lying), and B) we were told multiple times how wrong we were before they finally waived the fees.

Observations: The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer. Even if I was horribly wrong, your role is to take care of me and make things right. Rubbing salt in the wound means you lose.

Side note to all airlines currently charging for luggage: If I can check one bag for no charge on a 3 hour flight to the Caribbean, I should be able to check one bag for no charge on a 12+ hour flight to Hawaii. They are both international. Seriously – get over this flawed business plan. Better yet, charge me $25 more for the ticket and give everyone, everywhere their first checked bag free. This instantly raises the value of your service; people willingly pay for greater value.

The Ugly

Like most airlines today, Continental has self-service kiosks. Frequent travellers know the procedures and can navigate this system quickly. However, other travellers need more assistance, so they need to use the staffed service counter. Sure, self-service kiosks can create efficiencies and reduce wages. But if they are your only source of service, it is a prime point for bottlenecks.

At the Honolulu International Airport, Continental Airlines has 10 self-service kiosks. Yup - ten. On the day we were departing, eight were functional, and the line up to use these machines was nearly out of the airport. This is because many leisure travellers are also infrequent travellers who require more time to navigate the self-service processes.

Here’s the kicker: As I waited in line for nearly 40 minutes, I counted seven Continental staff members working behind the self-service kiosks helping passengers get their boarding passes, weight and check luggage, and have various travel questions answered.

If you have seven staff members monitoring eight self-service kiosks, you can no longer call it self-service. Period. Full stop. End of story. Bring in an additional person, staff every functioning station, and label it correctly: customer service.

Observations: Every time you dehumanize contact with your customers under the name of efficiency, you erode the value. And each time you dehumanize an interaction, you will need to infuse the human touch at another point.


Continental Airlines isn’t the only company missing a service focus. But they are the one that I spend 30+ hours engaged and interacting with, encountering dozens of staff members. Some individuals were absolutely wonderful. But the underlying focus on people seemed absent.

Service industries need to shake off business processes designed for the industrial age. Luggage can be transported efficiently through an airport. People have needs, emotions and perceptions; handle them with the care they deserve.

In today’s business environment, especially in any service industry, putting processes in front of people will be the quickest path to failure.


  1. Airlines are funny. My experience with them has been similarly good, bad and ugly. I once flew with an infant and 2 yo and was told I'd get the help I needed in flight. When the toilet-training 2 yo needed to be taken to the washroom I asked a flight attendant to watch my baby and she looked at my like I had two heads and refused (another passenger stepped up, bless her). Recently we got to the second leg of a journey and was told our pre-booked seats had been given away and the plane was full. Well, my spouse made a big scene, called a bunch of people, threw around his elite status (to my embarrassment) and guess what...seats miraculously appeared in our names. The squeaky wheel apparently does get the grease. I know the airlines are working on razor thin profit margins and fuel costs are high but I certainly feel like the service component is becoming lost. This is a good reminder that decency and working to make your passengers comfortable, happy and relaxed benefits all travelers. One cranky person on a plane can ruin it for many.

  2. All in all Bill, you spent less than an hour debating them. In the Airline industry, that is considered "Exceptional" Customer Service.

    I have only been on maybe two flights in my entire life where there weren't issues.


    Continental and United are now the same company...so consider yourself lucky.

    Just to verify the results, I believe you should travel the same route numerous times...so you can get an average, strictly for research purposes of course. ;)

  3. Interesting to see how a single trip gives so many occasions to deliver the right customer service experience. It is an opportunity to shine which airlines should exploit


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