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Can I Hitchhike From 35,000 Feet?

I knew I was in for a long night when the maintenance light came on, but I had no idea that it would be an experience to write about. Knowing I don’t have the greatest memory, I started taking notes when it really started to heat up. How could so much go so wrong in just a few hours time. I’m not talking about car problems, but rather, a customer service issue that went from bad to worse, when American Airlines started having maintenance issues on my outbound flight to Arizona last week. Ironically, I was hired to fly to Scottsdale to speak on a topic near to my heart: customer service and relationships. The positive side to my horrible service experience (I’m eternally a glass half full guy) are the lessons learned. Plus I have several new stories to tell.

Counter (un)productive

Until boarding time all was going very well, then that darn light came on. The counter/gate representative informed us calmly there was a maintenance issue that was being checked and she promised to keep us updated. About 60 seconds later she picked up her microphone and started admonishing those around the gate that she had no update just yet and further informed us that she had no information about connecting flights, so do not approach her with any questions. At least a half dozen more times she informed all of us in the waiting area that she was not the person to talk to and that American Airlines had set up a special phone number just for us, the stranded ones in Maryland. Any questions I have could be answered by their call center. Strike one, never avoid an opportunity to speak to a customer face to face, especially when there is a problem.

I sat quietly with my hands folded, awaiting my next set of instructions like a good third grader.

SMS non-intelligence

Since I booked my flight originally through Orbitz, I was updated on the progress of the delays via SMS (text) from Orbitz. Unfortunately, the updates conflicted with the SMS updates provided by American Air, leaving me more confused than I thought would be possible. None of the messages however were correct thereby making a bad situation even worse. Unfortunately, I was warned several times that approaching the gate might be hazardous to my health so I sat quietly with my hands folded, awaiting my next set of instructions like a good third grader. Strike two, keep communication clear and precise. A confused customer is not a happy customer.

Surely the pilot will straighten things out

A little after two and half hours later, we finally were given the green light to board the plane. Those that had connecting flights in Arizona to destinations beyond had the choice to stay back or to board but American would not guarantee another flight the next day. (“Aside from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?”). I’m sure the choice of hotels, at midnight, near the airport, in Baltimore, were only four star and up. As we took our seats, the pilot got on the microphone without skipping a beat and said “I am required by Federal law to inform you that you have the right to get off the plane if you care to, but we will not let you back on if you do.” Strike three, if you are in a position of authority and you know there has been an issue, take responsibility, provide a sincere apology, present a possible solution and get back to your job. In my opinion there could have been so many other ways to say what he said to the frustrated passengers on the plane. It almost seemed like he was mad at us.

Let’s get social

As with any challenging consumer experience I have, I take to my social channel of choice, Twitter, and request information and service. In this particular case, American was fairly responsive. Within about 45 minutes or so they responded to my request for service. Unfortunately, their response instructed me to fill out a multiple question document online (with all answers being required) before they would be able to take action and elevate my complaint to the next level. Strike 4 (good thing I’m not a sports guy), when you have a customer complaining, do everything you can to make the situation easy for them, even if it means bending the rules a bit. Make it easy for your customer to do business with you.

Take responsibility, provide a sincere apology, present a possible solution and get back to your job.

When each of the four instances above were unfolding, I kept thinking, “How would Southwest Airlines handle the situation?” What it comes down to is this, mistakes and problems are going to happen. How companies react will make all the difference to their customers. People skills were seriously lacking any level of empathy, understanding and perspective. When will companies like American Airlines realize they have the capacity to be amazing if they work harder on people policies rather than baggage fees and change reservations policies?

As I look back on that long night, all that was needed to make this bad situation better was one person stepping up and taking responsibility, providing a heartfelt apology, promising to make things better next time, while sincerely understanding that I have a choice in what airline I fly. I should have looked closer at their website. On American Airline’s home page, “Creating a great airline for you.” (emphasis on the ‘ing’). They still have long way to go.

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Opportunity knocks. Will you open?

Opportunity is knocking and all you need to do is open the door. Most of the time, you are held back only by YOU. If you let it, fear of change, fear of failure and fear of fear itself will stop you dead in your tracks, create an environment where you are afraid to open your mouth, and immobilize you. The gateway emotion to fear is worry and if you let it creep into your thinking, fear is not far behind.

So how do you avoid worry which will ultimately lead to the enemy? The following steps can help you overcome your challenges:

  1. Work hard at looking past the fear. Face the truth that you have fear but visualize yourself on the other side of it. Let's assume your fear is calling a client that is having a problem with your company. Envision how you will feel after the call is made. Now you can start to work on the solution instead of having a fear of the problem. Be a part of the solution, not the problem.

  2. Challenge yourself to focus on your goals. The idea of change conjures feelings of the unknown. Instead of focusing your thoughts on the unknown, focus on your dreams. For example, an opportunity for a new job is presented to you and although it seems like a good move, you are comfortable in your old job. But you'd like to make more money and you have not advanced the way you thought you should have advanced. Move past the fear of change, go on the job interview. Look at the positive side of change. The job might present you with an opportunity to make more money, have more responsibility and get more out of life. Don't let the fear of change stand in the way of your progress.

  3. Visualize the rewards success will bring you. Fear of failure holds us all back at some point. When we go through it, failure bruises our self-esteem, causes regret and deflates our ego. However, moving beyond failure, the rewards can be awesome. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, Steve Jobs was fired from the company he founded and Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC film school three times. If failure is handled properly, the take away from failure is a valuable lesson. True leaders learn from their missteps and realize failure is an opportunity to learn. There is huge growth in failing as long as we learn a lesson.

Life provides some amazing opportunities. The problem is, they are often presented in disguise. You are in control of your behavior and how you handle your fears. James Whitaker was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Although Whitaker was prepared for his climb in every way possible, things beyond his control like avalanches, hypothermia and one hundred mile an hour winds held him back many times before he achieved his lifelong goal of reaching the summit. The reason Whitaker succeeded in spite of all the disappointments? "You don't overcome the mountain, you overcome yourself."

Learn to focus on the journey, not the bumps (your fear) in the road. Expect there will be bumps, detours and accidents along the way. Take action and above all, focus on the future and you will hold the triple threat at bay.

Michael Josephson said, "You are worthy of greatness. Don't let others define you. Don't let the past confine you. Take charge of your life with confidence and determination and there are no limits on what you can do or be."

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