Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Some things are given, right?

Buses won't arrive on time, Starbucks will spell your name wrong and airlines are all about customer service.

What am I saying?

Many passengers will happily attest that too many airline employees act as if they're members of a security force, rather than representatives of a brand that's supposed to make customers feel good.

It's (mostly) not their fault. 

Their bosses have flown them into these corners where they're instructed to err on the draconian side.

Last year, United Airlines concluded that it had to do much better on the humanity side of its business.

Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised, then, that American Airlines is working hard to teach staff how to offer good service.

I stumbled upon a recent podcast in American's Tell Me Why series.

It featured Jim Fahnestock, the airline's Managing Director of Training, explaining something called the Elevate program.

This exists to remind employees of -- or perhaps even teach them for the first time -- the basics of creating a good experience for another human being.

Fahnestock said that the airline had worked with expert consultants to discover what employees were doing well and what they -- or at least some of them -- were doing badly.

The result was five basic essences that, to some, might feel so basic as to not even be worth mentioning, never mind teaching.

See how these square with your average American Airlines experience.

1. Acknowledge the Customer.

No, really. It seems that the airline believes employees need to be reminded they have customers at all. I know there are difficult customers. There are also natural human moods experienced by airline employees. But people really don't like being ignored.

2. Be Present.

This is basic, but not necessarily easy. Employees in every job sometimes wish they were anywhere but here. And in a business in which complainers are -- often justifiably -- a hearty part of your daily diet, it's easy to give the dull-eyed stare so often beloved, in my experience, by American Airlines check-in agents at Miami Airport and Southwest Airlines gate agents at LAX.

3. Show You Care.

But what if you don't? Especially for that self-important halfwit who believes he deserves an upgrade by virtue of being a self-important halfwit. Fahnestock explained that if you do the same job every day, you get complacent. Yet an essential part of customer service is to make the customer feel like their problem is your problem. Or, at least, a valid human problem. I cannot confirm American uses the Stanislavski Method as part of this training.

4. Proactively Communicate.

Oddly, one of American's insistences to Flight Attendants in First Class is that they should greet a customer by name and offer them a drink before takeoff. On my last experience in American's First Class, this didn't happen. This was partly because the lone Flight Attendant seemed so harassed that she had little time for anything. Perhaps that's why the airline feels the need to teach the importance of, you know, proactively talking to people.

5. Give Options.

I've rarely seen this one in practice, though of course it would be nice. The option I suspect many flyers see -- and not just on American -- is My Way Or the Highway. Too often, dramatic tales that emerge from flights involve passengers who may or may not have been difficult and airline employees who rather appear to have been intransigent. Why, I seem to recall an incident in which a Flight Attendant challenged a passenger to a fight. That was on, oh, American Airlines.

Some might think it sad that American Airlines has to teach -- or even re-teach -- apparently obvious elements such as these.

I fear, though, it does reflect the drive in many airlines -- and certainly American -- toward revenue at the expense of customer service, which meant the latter is often bumped from the process.

Fahenstock rightly says on the podcast that your people are often the lone way you can truly differentiate your airline.

Yet the airline's numbers people -- which these days seems to comprise the majority of senior management -- can't quantify the benefits of customer service. 

Until, that is, something goes very wrong and the airline starts to lose business.

Published on: Aug 12, 2018