As I write this, I am flying over the Midwest at 36,000 feet, and I happen to be seated in the first class section of a U.S. based airline--rather than my usual economy seat. I treated myself because the flight to the West Coast is a long one and the price difference happened to be nominal by some miracle. I was set to really enjoy what I thought would be a top-notch experience, but the idea of getting great service evaporated the minute I stepped on the plane because the woman who was to be our dedicated hostess for this flight was full of attitude before our plane even gained altitude. Now, as I wing my way westward, with my experience ruined by the stewardess, it strikes me that safeguarding the customer experience comes from teaching our employees something far more basic than the technical skills they need to do their job--it comes from teaching them the importance of graciousness. Here are 4 guidelines to being gracious that all employees should be schooled on to insure that customers truly get a premium experience.
#1 Let every moment be marked by kindness and courtesy. Manners are mighty. Unfortunately, not everyone has been properly taught them. Being polite is simple--it means greeting anyone you come into contact with, looking a person in the eye when communicating with her, speaking clearly, saying please and thank you... Or in the most rudimentary terms, being present and attentive. Those who practice graciousness make manners the very foundation of everything they do. My stewardess, not so much. Rather than greeting passengers warmly with a hello and a kind look, she occupied her time with grumbling to another member of the flight staff about something related to flight scheduling. As we found our way to our seats, her failure to engage left us all feeling unwelcomed and underwhelmed by what was supposed to be the best customer service air travel has to offer.
#2. Let every interaction be distinguished by tact. Customers come to a company hoping to feel taken care of rather than feeling like a burden. Achieving this requires acting with delicacy, carefully measuring how to handle customer requests so that the customer gets what he really needs--often far deeper than the product or service he is paying for-- but more the sentiment of having been helped, of having been cared for, or having been made to feel confident. My stewardess forgot this when she was approached by a man who discreetly disclosed that he was immuno-compromised and needed to change seats because the person next to him had a cold. She clearly thought her only job was to make sure the man in question was in his designated seat for our journey, and told him it wasn't easy to "just move people around" on a full flight while rolling her eyes at another staff member. The training that had elevated her to a lead position onboard, had somehow neglected to inculcate in her the notion that caring for someone means treating him with dignity and respect. Tact is that part of graciousness that allows us to safeguard both of those fundamental human needs, and it should be practiced by all customer service representatives--especially those who are top-flight.
#3. Let every situation be guided by compassion. As human beings, the worst thing to experience is embarrassment. It causes most people to act in ways they never would normally. Graciousness means keeping in mind how our actions will affect those around us, and seeking to find a way to do what we need to do without shaming others. If only my stewardess would have remembered that when the father of a young child hurried to take his son to the bathroom before we pulled away from the gate while she was making her safety announcement. Instead, with the PA system still engaged, she told the father "Sir, you are going to make me have to start the announcement over, and delay the flight if you don't return to your seat." The father, crimson with chagrin, said pleadingly, "My alternative is to let my son wet himself and his seat..." Everyone's heart ached for the child who also turned red, and his father who looked like he wanted to melt into the carpet. While I recognize this interruption was a possible violation of airline policy, it could have been dealt with by creatively navigating the interruption. A first-class customer experience would have had the stewardess say nothing to the man in the moment and then, once he returned to his seat, given him the safety information he missed while attending to his son.
#4. Let every conversation be characterized by charm. Graciousness means finding a way to connect with those around us, and never is this more true than in dealing with customers. But here's the rub--finding common ground, if one is gracious, should always come from a kind place--not a negative one. Communing in a negative way about competitors, policies, or anything else just tarnishes the conversation. My stewardess demonstrated that she was absolutely wrong for customer service when she said to another passenger later in the flight that children can be really annoying on flights, clearly referencing the poor boy who had inadvertently (and momentarily!) delayed the flight because he needed the restroom. A superior service provider who had been taught to be gracious would have found a better reason to engage with a customer than disparaging someone else.
Graciousness can be learned--which means it can and should be taught. And the added bonus is that graciousness is as uplifting to those who exercise it as it is to those who experience it.