Why Air Travel is So Unfriendly

Have you ever had a bad airline experience?

OK, I joke. Of course you have. We've all had one. The only people who haven't had a bad airline experience are the people who don't fly.

One of the big problems is a lack of civility. Flight attendant turned author, Heather Poole, recently lamented on her blog about the lack of civility passengers show towards flight attendants. She has a solid point, but the issue is much bigger than that.

Passengers are regularly subjected to rude treatment at nearly every step of their journey. It's not just rude flight attendants. Rude gate agents, TSA officers, and other airport employees can all sour the experience before we get on the plane.

No wonder the U.S. airline industry is one of the lowest rated industries on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

This post examines why incivility is such a common part of air travel. And, it highlights a few things airlines (and airports) could do to improve things.

Sources of Air Travel Stress

Let's image a typical travel day. There's a lot of things that contribute to passenger stress. It starts with the airport arrival. 

Many airports are chaos. There's a calamity of cars, taxis, and shuttle busses jockeying for position. People cut each other off at slow speed. Infrequent visitors really clog things up as they block other traffic while trying to figure out where to go.

What can airports do here? Better traffic control is a solution. The traffic control officers at many airports are typically unfriendly and unassertive. It's a dangerous combination that leads to continued chaos while these folks sit idly by.

The next step is the check-in. Savvy travelers skip this part and check-in online or via a smartphone app and then use an electronic boarding pass. Checking a bag is to be avoided at all costs.

But, there are those of us who attempt to check-in via the kiosk. Here, passengers are often met with long lines full of anxious passengers. They're also met by airline employees who frequently seem overwhelmed by the stress of it all, or, they've long ago numbed themselves to the experience. Trust me, this rubs off on passengers.

What can be done? One solution is to give these airline employees special training on how to better assist passengers who use those kiosks. This would allow them to be more helpful and allow passengers to feel more confident. 

Getting through security is the next big hassle. TSA has lately come under fire for long lines. This causes stress to skyrocket as passengers worry about making their flight. 

The unfriendly and aggressive attitude displayed by many TSA officers only makes things worse. The typical TSA process involves someone who checks your ID, but steadfastly refuses to smile. Next, you are greeted with an officer who is barking instructions at people as they wait in line. To top it off, there's the process of taking off your shoes, emptying your pockets, and taking certain items out of your bag, only to reassemble the whole mess once you get through to the other side.

It's no wonder that passengers are on edge when they finally clear security. 

One immediate solution is for TSA officers to rethink their approach to passengers. Bark less. Help more. Seek out the confused travelers and offer some polite guidance while developing a friendly rapport with frequent travelers who don't need any assistance.

The gate is the next sore spot in the journey. People cluster around the gate like herded cattle, creating stress and tension all the way around. This creates an unpleasant situation where people in later boarding groups are inevitably blocking access to the gate for people in earlier boarding groups.

Part of the problem is the shear volume of boarding groups. (I counted six on a recent flight.) People crowd the gate well before their group is called. Another issue is gate agents tend to make their crowd control announcements over the intercom, rather than approach individuals directly to ask them to clear some space.

Southwest Airlines spares itself from this ruckus by having a clearly defined boarding process where every single passenger literally knows their place. While that's not feasible for every airline, some gentle assistance to get people organized can go a long way.

Boarding the plane itself is another exercise in incivility. Gate agents at many airlines rarely smile and say hello as they scan passengers' boarding passes. Flight attendants are so busy preparing for the flight that they often neglect to greet passengers as they board the plane. Passengers themselves are so worried about getting a space for their carryon baggage that they regularly jostle and bump each other.

Here, the fix isn't so easy. Heather Poole asked passengers to be more courteous to flight attendants. I agree. But, we all could stand to take a deep breath and be more courteous to each other. Flight attendants to passengers. Passengers to flight attendants. And, passengers to passengers.


What the Best Airlines Know

Take a look at the three airlines at the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index:

  • Jet Blue
  • Southwest
  • Alaska

All of these airlines consistently promote civility better than their competitors.

Their employees are more friendly. Gate agents do a better job of engaging passengers. Flight attendants do a better job of greeting passengers. 

They also tend to have better in flight experiences and better policies that make it less likely for passengers to get agitated in the first place.

Here's one specific example.

I fly Alaska Airlines a lot. The gate agent usually smiles and greets me by name as I board the plane. They get my name from my boarding pass, but it's a nice welcome.

I also fly one of their partner airlines a lot. On this airline, the gate agent doesn't even greet me two times out of three. I will smile and say "Hello" and they literally will not return my smile or my greeting. When this is a regular occurrence, it's hard to expect much friendliness on the flight.

How to Write a Customer Service Vision Statement

It's the most essential element in customer service.

That's how I describe a customer service vision. It's a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. The vision is a compass that always points employees in the right direction.

You can read more about what it is and how few companies have one. This post will show you how to write one of your own.


You'll want to do a little prep work before you actually sit down and write the vision.

First, take a moment to explore what constitutes a customer service vision statement if you aren't familiar with one already. Here's a short primer that can help.

Next, determine your scope. Are you writing a customer service vision for an entire organization or just one team? 

The third step is to identify any existing work that might influence the new vision. This way, you are building on your existing culture. I like to gather any examples of current mission statements, customer service slogans, service standards, etc.

For example, if you're writing a customer service vision for your team, you might want to get ahold of your company's mission statement to help guide you.

Finally, you want to get your employees' input. Unless you work on a very small team, it's unwieldy to involve everyone in writing the actual vision statement. I've found the optimal group size for that is 7 - 10 people (more on that in a moment).

So, I get around this with a single survey question:

What do you want our customers to think of when they think of the service we provide?

It's an open response question, so participants can type in whatever they please. Many survey programs (Survey Monkey, Google Surveys, etc.) make this very easy to do. Using a survey allows everyone to weigh in with minimal effort.

I then put all of the responses into a word cloud, which is a graphical representation of the words that people use most often. (You can use free software like Wordle to help.)

Here's an example from the Center For Sustainable Energy's Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. This team supports people who buy a car in California that qualifies for a rebate from the state. Take a look at their word cloud and see what phrases jump out at you.

Writing the Vision

Once you gather data, the next step is the write the vision. The first step is gathering the right group of people to help you.

I've learned through trial and error that the optimal group size is 7 to 10 people. This is similar to the two pizza rule, which suggests that you should limit groups to the number of people that can be fed with two pizzas.

The group's composition is important. Here's who I like to invite:

  • At least one frontline employee. They keep it real.
  • At least one senior leader. They provide authority.
  • At least one mid-level manager or supervisor. They're the link between execs and the front lines.

It's also important to use a professional facilitator. There's an art and science to keeping a group like this moving efficiently. You have to create a safe space for people to share their ideas, while challenging the entire group to think outside the box.

In the meeting itself, the goal is the write a simple customer service vision statement that meets these three criteria:

  • It's simple and easily understood.
  • It describes the type of service we want to achieve for our customers.
  • It reflects both who we are now and who we aspire to be in the future.

Let's go back to the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project team. They help their customers through the clean vehicle rebate process. As a group, they understood that customers expected things to be easy when they applied for a rebate. 

Here's what they came up with:

Make it easy to join the clean vehicle movement.

I also like to spend a part of this meeting discussing specific behaviors and examples that align with the vision. These will come in handy later when you explain it to people.

For example, after writing this customer service vision statement, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project team redesigned their website and some of their processes to make it even easier for customers to apply for a rebate.


After Writing

You still have a few things to do once you write your vision.

First, you want to share it with a few key stakeholders to get their buy in. You aren't looking for any additional word smithing here, just a gut check that the vision makes sense and hasn't left anything out.

Here's where you want to get a mix of leaders and individual contributors to weigh-in since each group will have a different perspective. You know you've got a good statement if it immediately resonates.

Occasionally, this second group will spot something the initial group didn't. It might be a key word that's missing or needs to be replaced. This doesn't happen often, but it's good to be open to the possibility.

Next, it's time to communicate the customer service vision to the rest of the organization or team. My suggestion is to make sure that everybody can answer three questions:

  1. What is the vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do I contribute?

It's helpful to have concrete examples to help people learn about the vision and remember it.


Bonus Resources

You are welcome to download my customer service vision worksheet to use as a guide.

I'm also working on a book about companies with customer service cultures. The book is called The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Service. The book is tentatively scheduled to be published in early 2017, but you can sign up for updates and download the first chapter on the book's website.

Finally, see how creating a customer service vision is just the first step in your journey to a customer-focused culture. You can read this overview or watch this short training video from Lynda.com.

(You'll need a Lynda.com account to view the whole video, but you can get a 10-day trial.)

What To Do When Customers Don't Follow Your Rules

The airport shuttle bus driver was exasperated.

She had a nice little system, but passengers weren't paying attention. They'd clumsily get in the way, as if they somehow knew better. Didn't they understand that she'd been doing this for 10 years?!

These passengers slowed everything down. Slowing things down was exasperating.

The driver's system was carefully planned. When she picked passengers up, she'd hop out and load their luggage into the bus for them. This allowed people to quickly take a seat without jockeying for position around the luggage rack. It also made sure that she could load the luggage rack just the right way to maximize it's capacity.

It worked the opposite way when she dropped people off. Passengers would exit the bus while the driver quickly off-loaded all the bags. This was much more efficient than everyone climbing all over each other to get to their own suitcase.

If only they'd listen. 

The driver muttered angrily under her breath. "I've been doing this for 10 years. I know what I'm doing. Don't they understand they're just slowing things down?!"

Perhaps you've been in a similar situation where customers don't follow your rules. Here's what to do.

Photo Credit: TheGabeC

Photo Credit: TheGabeC

Step 1: Question Your Rules

Some rules have no obvious benefit to your customers.

Stop thinking about yourself and your company for a moment. Shove aside what's convenient for you. See your rules through your customers' eyes.

Rules that don't directly and obviously benefit your customer are less likely to be followed. 

The shuttle bus driver didn't realize this. What seemed convenient to her seemed inconvenient to her passengers. That's because passengers don't care about the fastest way to load and unload the entire bus. 

They care about the fastest way to get themselves on and off the bus. 

You have two choices when rules don't obviously and directly benefit your customers. One option is to change or abolish the rule. That usually works just fine, except for situations when you can't because of a compelling reasons like regulations, safety, or fairness.

If you can't change the rule, then go to step 2.


Step 2: Clearly Explain Your Rules

Some rules aren't clearly explained.

Customers get confused easily. They don't listen when you want them to listen. They don't pay attention to what you think is important. 

That's because they have other priorities.

Passengers on the airport shuttle bus were worried about getting to and from the airport. They were anxious about their flight or getting to their rental car. Following the bus driver's unique system wasn't on their mind.

A lack of explanation caused problems for the bus driver. Instead, she literally snatched suitcases out of people's hands and said, "My way works much better." She sighed and muttered to herself at the slightest hint of resistance.

This felt confrontational. 

The shuttle bus driver would have been much better off if she had spent more time communicating her rules to passengers. She could have engaged people one-on-one by saying, "I can take care of your bag for you! Just come on board and make yourself comfortable!"

She could have made a warm and welcoming announcement on the bus's public address system to inform everyone that she'd be happy to unload everyone's bag for them, while explaining people would save a little time and trouble in the process.

Sometimes, a clear explanation is enough. Other times, you need to do more.


Step 3: Make Your Rules Easy to Follow

Rules can be difficult to follow.

Some aren't intuitive. Others are inconvenient. In some cases, it's tough to follow the rules when everyone else isn't.

Having rules that weren't easy to follow caused problems for the shuttle driver. Just think about what people normally do when riding an airport shuttle bus. The driver's rules went against the grain of what people were used to doing.

When a typical airport shuttle bus pulls up and opens its doors, people naturally file onto the bus and look for a place to stow their bags. Most people enter via the side door that's halfway down the bus because it's nearest the luggage rack.

That meant that by the time the driver got out of the driver's seat and started enforcing her rules, people were already herding themselves onto the bus and doing exactly what she didn't want them to do.

Of course, that brings us back to #1, where she might realize her rules weren't absolutely essential.


Putting It All Together

The airport shuttle bus driver is just one example, but her situation was instructive. Above all else, she got stuck seeing things through her own point of view and refused to look at her rules from her customers' perspective.

Think about situations in your own business where customers don't follow the rules.

  • Can rules be abolished or changed?
  • Can you explain rules more clearly?
  • Can you make it easier to follow the rules?

These fixes can go a long way towards getting your customers onboard.

Re-Cap: 2016 Contact Center Expo & Conference

The 2016 edition of ICMI's annual Contact Center Expo & Conference took place in Long Beach, California last week. An estimated 1,500 participants were in attendance.

It's billed by ICMI as "the highest rated and most trusted Contact Center event in the industry." I've personally attended the past four years and found it to be true. 

The conference is a great opportunity to learn about some of the latest trends that are shaping the world of customer service and contact centers in particular.

This post is a re-cap of some of the conference highlights. 

Conference Overview

You may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference if you aren't already. 

I always enjoy reading what people have to say on the Twitter backchannel, #CCExpo16. You don't need to have a Twitter account to view this.



The 2016 Global Contact Center Awards were presented at the conference. This was a great opportunity to highlight top agents, leaders, and teams in the contact center industry. 

The awards were presented at a festive party that gave conference attendees a chance to mingle with the award winners and the finalists. I had a chance to chat with some of the folks from moo.com, who won awards for Best Use of Technology, Best Chat Support, and Best Small Contact Center. It was awesome to see their excitement after getting such well-deserved recognition.

ICMI is already accepting applications for the 2017 awards.



If you'd asked me last year about video as a customer service channel, I'd say it didn't seem to have much promise. I now think I was completely wrong.

Video was a growing topic among many attendees. Here are just a few applications I learned about:

Nurses at Kaiser Permanente can use video through a secure app that lets them see patients who call in for advice.

TurboTax users are able to share their computer screen with a support agent, so the support agent can better understand where they're experiencing difficulties. 

And, thanks to video chat, visiting a bank branch may soon be a thing of the past.

The next big shift will be developing proven methods for training contact center agents on the nuances of video-based service. And, we'll need to figure out how to make customers comfortable with it too.


Agent Burnout

This was a big concern among contact center leaders. Perhaps it's the nature of the job, but there might be better solutions out there.

That's why I'm doing a study to assess the causes and hopefully find some cures. The survey is running now through May 31, 2016.

If you're a contact center leader, you can benchmark your agents' burnout level against the average. Just drop me a line and I'll get you set-up.

Or, if you just want to take the survey yourself, you can access it here.

Why Your Customer Service Training Should Be Out of Sync

Carpool Karaoke is an amazing thing.

It's a popular segment on The Late Late Show with James Corden, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is it's amazing how we can watch it.

My wife mentioned a recent episode that featured Gwen Stefani, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts. We were enjoying a lazy Sunday morning with my parents who were visiting for Mothers Day, so we decided to watch it.

That's the amazing part. 

The Late Late Show with James Corden airs weeknights at 12:37am. We didn't have to stay up that late. We didn't have to wait for a weeknight. We didn't even have to watch the rest of the show that led up to that segment. 

All we had to do was find it on YouTube.

That may not seem amazing at first, but think of all the other content we can consume the same way. For example, why can't we do the same thing for customer service training?

The notion that we need to sync up everyone's schedule to attend a training class at the same time seems so out of date. And, it certainly doesn't make sense to sit through a bunch of training you don't want or need just to get to the really juicy stuff.

That's why your training needs to be out of sync. 

The Synchronicity Challenge

Imagine you have 1,000 employees.

They're spread over 13 locations and work 3 different shifts. You can't just shut everything down and get all the shifts to come to one central location. So, how will you get them all together for training?

In the old days, classroom training was the default solution. This was a hassle because you'd spend a great deal of money on four big things:

  • Paying employees to attend training
  • Paying a trainer to facilitate multiple classes at each location
  • Travel costs to get the trainer to all of the locations
  • Covering the employees' shifts while they attended training

Webinars made things slightly better. Employees could tune in from their computers, so you could hold fewer sessions and didn't have to pay for the trainer to travel from location to location. Of course, there was a drop-off in training quality, but the savings was substantial.

This type of training is known as synchronous training.

This is where everyone attends training at the same time. It's great from a learning perspective because people can easily share ideas and contribute to each others' understanding of the topic. It's not so great because of the aforementioned logistics.


The Asynchronous Opportunity

E-learning promised to solve the synchronicity problem. 

The beauty of e-learning is it's asynchronous training. This means that people don't attend at the same time. They consume the training when it's convenient for them.

To relate this back to television, e-learning is kind of like your DVR. You don't have to tune in to watch your favorite show at a specific time. You can watch it when (and often where) you please.

This can help you save a lot of training dollars. 

You pay to create the training once, and then re-use it, so you don't have to keep paying the trainer for each class. It's also easier to work asynchronous training into employee schedules, since employees take the training at their own pace. That means you'll spend less on keeping your operation covered while employees attend training.

There are also a few downsides to many e-learning programs.

For one, they're boring. Many e-learning programs are nothing more than a monotone voice droning on over text-laden PowerPoint slides. Even the flashier e-learning programs make you sit through a lot of content you aren't necessarily into before you get to the good stuff.

Another problem is what happens next. How will participants get the support they need? Will they get a chance to share ideas with each other? Many e-learning programs lack this crucial element.


The Balanced/Blended Solution

Really good training often blends both asynchronous and synchronous elements.

To help explain this, let me go back to Carpool Karaoke. I viewed the segment asynchronously. But, I also viewed it with my parents and my wife, so we were immediately able to talk about it (which reinforced the memory). 

I've since talked about it with other people who watched the segment. Even though they watched it at a different time than I did, we still consumed the same content. 

Good training is often like this.

Imagine again that you had to train 1,000 employees in 13 locations spread over three shifts on how to better serve upset customers. You wanted to focus on giving them specific skills for diffusing customer anger.

Here's how you could blend both asynchronous and synchronous elements:

Step 1: Everyone watches Chapter 1 from the Working With Upset Customers training video on Lynda.com. This part of the course focuses on diffusing customer anger and finding a way to help them.

Step 2: Supervisors hold team meetings. The purpose is to lead a team-level discussion about the training video. Employees can discuss their key learning moments and make a commitment to apply what they learned. The conversation could take place in a regularly scheduled team meeting to minimize operational disruptions.

Step 3: Supervisors provide feedback. The goal here is to check-in with each individual employee to see how well they're using the new skills, and to provide additional feedback to help them continue their development. Supervisors could do this as part of the regular feedback sessions they're already holding with their teams.

The net result of this plan is effective training that costs less and has far fewer logistical headaches.