Customer Service Training Lessons—From My Lost Umbrella

I’ve had a long and noble line of beautiful, big, dome umbrellas I named Gertrude. A dome umbrella is necessary if you walk mile upon mile outside in New York City, which can become surprisingly windy, especially when it rains. The dome umbrella is a thing of beauty because it never snaps inside out, no matter how intense the gust of wind. Some of my Gertrudes have been polka-dotted, some have had black hearts, some have had prints of multi-colored shoes. I’m such an accessories fanatic that I name umbrellas and purses I love the way some people name cars or boats they love, hence, the name Gertrude. I’m up to about Gertrude XII at this point. Or, I should say, I was.

I recently had the great luck and privilege to fly first class from New York to Honolulu, HI. The norm is economy for me, so first class is always a tremendous privilege. First class makes a huge difference on long flights because it comes with a seat that transforms into a flat bed, and—in theory anyway—it comes with a higher level of customer service.

The service on my Hawaiian Airlines flight wasn’t bad. I was offered all the food and drink I was promised. The flight attendants’ uniforms were indistinct and almost sloppy looking—fleece pullovers and generic pants that made them look like college students heading to class. But that was my biggest complaint—until I got halfway to the gate to make my connection to Kauai in Honolulu and realized with dismay that Gertrude XII was gone. I had left her in the overhead compartment directly above the seat where I had been sitting. The timing of the connection was tight, or else I simply would have gone back to the gate where my flight from New York had come in, and tried to retrieve the umbrella myself. As it was, my only option was to tell the man working at the gate where I was making my connection what had happened. I assumed he would pick up a phone or radio over to the airplane I had just vacated, my umbrella would be found (since I told him precisely where I had left it just 15 minutes before), and it would either be brought to me or provided to the crew of my return flight, so I could retrieve the umbrella at that point, or simply held onto at some other place in the Honolulu mainland terminal. As a first-class customer I thought the airline might even find the umbrella and send it to my hotel in Kauai the next morning. First-class airline customers are sitting in seats that cost two to three times more than economy seats, so I didn’t think it was unreasonable to expect assistance.

I got assistance—if you could call it that. The man at the Kauai connection gate picked up his phone and dialed the gate where the plane I vacated was being cleaned out, but no one picked up. He did it one more time, no one picked up, and that was the end of it. That was as far as he was willing to go. I asked if that were really all the airline could do to help, and he noted how busy everyone at the airline was at the moment.

“We’re all busy,” I quickly responded. “I just thought you could help me with this. That’s what good customer service is all about.” I actually said that. All the articles on customer service training I’ve written over the years must be getting to me.

Good customer service shouldn’t depend on how much you’re spending with a business, but for customers who do spend a significant amount of money with your business, the customer service they receive—in addition to the product or privilege they’re paying for (i.e., the flatbed seat) should be extraordinary. It should be modeled after The Ritz-Carlton’s legendary service and ethos of “antenna-up” service, in which employees are trained to keep their ears, eyes, and intuition pricked to determine how best to serve the unique needs of each customer.

So, as a first-class-paying customer, I was instructed simply to file a claim at the lost-and-found in Kauai. I was told this while my lost umbrella languished a 15-minute walk away in a plane that was being cleaned out at the same airport I was still at. I couldn’t get over that I knew precisely where it was, and that it was in the same airport where I still was, but no one could (or would) help. And that no employee ever contacted me to tell me they found the umbrella after I filed a claim and left my phone number. What, they couldn’t find it, despite being told exactly where it was, and they couldn’t pick up the phone to tell me they found it, or better yet, give it to the crew of my return flight (another first-class seat), so that when I boarded the plane it would be there waiting for me?

I have a few customer service lessons for Hawaiian Airlines:

  • Don’t ever whine to a customer about how busy everyone is. Like an old friend used to tell me she told her boyfriends: “Don’t tell me what you can’t do; tell what you can do.” Train a baseline of service, in which all customers, regardless of amount spent, are treated with respect, and with enough efficiency and pampering that they leave satisfied and ready to return.
  • Train an even higher level of concierge-level service if you’re selling a product, membership, ticket, etc., that’s substantially more expensive than the rest of your offerings. These are your VIP customers. They’ve chosen you to make a big investment. What do you owe them? Train The Ritz-Carlton concept of keeping “antennae” up to wow customers.
  • Train persistence. If you’re having trouble giving a customer what they’ve asked for, and it’s doable and not unreasonable, be resourceful and creative (or just intelligent), and think about other employees who might be able to help you meet that customer’s needs. In the case of the man at the gate in Kauai, I find it hard to believe that when no one picked up at the gate where my New York flight came in, that he couldn’t ask another employee—any other of the very many Hawaiian Airlines employees at the Honolulu airport, to do him a favor and run to the gate to retrieve the umbrella, or to pick it up and hold it for me to retrieve on my way home.
  • Train employees to always pick up the phone if they are in a service industry such as commercial aviation. That he tried calling twice while I stood there, and no one at that that gate or on that plane picked up demonstrates a lack of organization and a failure of inter-employee communication. Shouldn’t they all have mobile devices, or old-fashioned 1970s walkie-talkies, so they can be reached at all times by fellow employees? What if it had been an emergency rather than a missing umbrella?

Customer service flubs are nothing to brush off easily. According to statistics I found on the site, Help Scout, an experience like mine can mean the end of a customer’s relationship with a business or brand. The site offers these stats from the 2017 American Express Customer Service Barometer survey:

  • More than half of Americans have scrapped a planned purchase or transaction because of bad service.
  • 33 percent of Americans say they’ll consider switching companies after just a single instance of poor service.

How does your organization manage customer service training, so customers don’t experience disappointment and irritation over something as simple to remedy as retrieving an umbrella left in an overhead bin of a flight that just landed? What customer service lessons has your Training team learned over the years, and how have you improved, so customers consistently choose you over your competitors?  

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