funny stewardessI often wonder if airlines these days have any idea how absolutely awful their employees’ attitudes have become.

Take USAir, for example.

The other day I patiently waited for my potential upgrade to first class.  Hey, it’s one of those little things that makes us frequent travelers feel a little bit better about sitting in horribly designed airplane seats for hours on end.

I didn’t get the upgrade and walked dejectedly down the jetway to board.  Okay, so I’m being dramatic.  I grabbed my seat, the plane boarded, and we pulled away from the concourse.

And guess what was sitting in 1st class?  That’s right, an empty seat.  Just staring back at me as if to say “haha, you can’t have me”.

For those of us who traveled regularly in the nineties, this would never happen.  Frequent travelers were treated like gold (well, and silver).  You always felt special back then.  And the employees of USAir went out of their way to make you feel this way.  Exceptional customer service was the norm, with an occasional bad customer service incident that was corrected immediately.

Today, it’s the other way around.

The Cancer Spreads Faster Than You Think

“I watched in dismay as no one even noticed.”

I watched in dismay as no one even noticed.  Not because the seat was all that important to me, but because that seat signified the cancer that has spread throughout USAir employees and to every aspect of their operation.  And it’s not just us travelers; it’s how the employees at the gates treat even their own pilots.  Just a few weeks ago I witnessed an employee close the door just seconds before a captain (4 stripes!) showed up hurriedly trying to board the plane.  The gate agent proceeded to deny a fellow employee access to the flight.

As we taxied away on my flight, I politely explained the situation to the airline attendant and was surprised to get the “brush off”.  You know, that hand gesture where you try to get the yuck off of you while summarily dismissing another fellow human being?  Yeah that one, combined with that smug smile and slight shake of the head because in her world, you’re just another example of why she hates her job so much.

So is it her fault?  Or is something else going on?  And if customers in your operation feel this way about your customer service – do you blame your employees?

I think as an owner, it’s your job to create an environment where people can feel good about themselves and their work.  Where they feel empowered to make a difference.  When employees feel abused and taken advantage of, everything breaks down.  They fall back on the required minimums of the job and get by with just enough to get paid and lose interest in everything else.

Your Environment May be the Problem

When customers have a bad experience with your dealership, it might be time to look a little deeper.  Sure you can hire a bad apple now and then, but in general if you see repetitive customer service issues that have been occurring over time, it’s a sure bet you have a culture problem.

I’m sure you’ve heard the comment that your environment is the biggest predictor of your behavior.  Time wins out on all of us, unfortunately.  If your dealership’s environment isn’t healthy, over time it will turn even your best employees into zombies.

As for me, I try like hell not to fly USAir anymore.  And if we’re lucky enough to get Southwest or something similar in Charlotte, I’ll fly them religiously – even if they’re more expensive.

Why?  Because companies whose employees no longer care force customers away in droves.  They don’t just leave, they run in packs to the alternative choice (i.e. your competitor).  It’s a marathon of a run too – as they tell everyone they know along the way how ridiculously bad their experience was.

In the world of social media, one bad incident like this, could affect hundreds of your prospects and sour them before you even know what hit you.

What’s the solution?

Fix your environment first before you start changing business processes.  If the environment is healthy, employees pitch in to recommend changes to business processes that might be broken.  In other words, your team pitches in to help make a great company.

The best part about my flight?  A special announcement comes on that thanks us frequent travelers, offers us a credit card, then reminds people like me that I can’t use the bathroom in first class.

So close…yet so far away.

Have a war story to share?  Let us know what you think in the comments!