(Continued from PART 1)
You’ve now been waiting 30 minutes or so and have moved a couple of paces forward in this gargantuan line of people trying to get to Raleigh, NC. You can see the frustration and tension mounting. Passengers are going to other ticket counters to see if the agents at those can help but those agents tell them that they have to work the flights leaving out of that gate. So back to our line they come. If they’re lucky, their fellow passengers will let them back in the line at the same place. If not, they come to the back of the line just behind you. Now the blame game really kicks in. “It’s this airline. They suck.” You try to remain calm so you don’t snap at the complainers who obviously don’t understand that it’s not this airline. It’s every airline and flight that needs to fly through D.C. airspace.
The line is moving now, albeit very slowly. Fast forward to about 2 hours later. You’re still about halfway from where you began to the ticket counter. By now, other gate agents have been told by their superiors to help with the re-bookings. For the past 30 minutes or so, you’ve been on the phone (holding) with the airline attempting to re-book that way. Your idea being either the phone representative or the gate agent is eventually going to help and you’ll deal with whomever talks to you first. Your family has eaten and taken a walking tour of the terminal, just to keep them moving and active. They’re back now and your wife is trying her best to not show her disappointment. But you’ve been together long enough to know better. You’ve also been hearing that flights to Raleigh are full for at least the next couple of days. After all, every airline is trying to accommodate passengers and you were at the back of the line. Not only Raleigh, but flights to surrounding airports are also being booked full – Norfolk, Richmond, Charlotte, Baltimore, Greensboro, Greenville. Now, despite your best efforts, you’re beginning to panic. What’s the point of arriving for a weeklong vacation 3 days late? Should we just drive? Hell, no. That’s 24 hours or so with a wife and children who are already at their limits. Can you fly out of other airports? Maybe New Orleans or San Antonio, or Dallas? Then you remember that it’s the destination airport that is affected so you won’t be able to get there from anywhere.
FINALLY, it’s your turn at the ticket counter. You disconnect your call with the airline (you’ve been holding for almost an hour anyway.) You are amazed that the gate agent greets you with not only a smile but also with her deepest apologies for this inconvenience. She wants to have a conversation with you. Really? After being yelled at, hissed at, cursed at and insulted for the past almost 3 hours, this lady still wants to know how you’re feeling and how she can help you?
By now dear reader, you’ve probably figured out that “you” is actually “me.” This is the story of how our family vacation began. So for the sake of avoiding confusion, I’m going to continue writing this post in the first person.
I say that it’s been a long day and I appreciate her willingness to help me. I explain that this is the start of our family vacation and that it’s extra special because my wife hasn’t seen her family in almost a year and our kids haven’t seen their cousins, aunts, uncles, and Pop-Pop. The agent is emotional. It’s been a long day for her too. She says these exact words, “we are going to get you all to your vacation. I know what it’s like to be away from family.” But then she renders the bad news that we won’t be able to get to Raleigh until Tuesday at the earliest (remember this is on a Saturday.) Before waiting for my response that while I appreciate that, we can look for alternatives to get us near the area earlier, she’s already one step ahead of me. Her fingers are working the keypad of her computer furiously. I can tell from the expressions on her face that she isn’t finding any availability on other flights. She tells me that if it were just me, it would be no problem. But finding 4 open seats on any flight is difficult. My heart begins to sink and I realize that we might not be able to pull this off. My wife is sitting close by and she hears all of the back and forth between the gate agent and I.
Then the agent says something that lifts both of our spirits….”I can get you to Charleston tonight. That’s not too far.” I look for driving distance between Charleston, SC and our destination in Corolla, Outer Banks, NC and see that it is about a 7 hour drive. It’s longer than the 4 hours it would take to drive from Raleigh but it’s much better than 24 hours! No questions asked, I said, “book it.” My wife’s face lit up. She smiled for the first time in hours. My son asked if we’re getting back on the plane and I say it’s going to be a different plane but yes we will get on a plane today. He shares the news with his sister, who is equally ecstatic.
As the agent is again typing furiously, I thank her for her assistance and I explain that I am a frequent traveler for business and that I try to use Southwest (that’s the airline, in case you haven’t guessed it yet) as often as possible because it’s just a better experience. She asks what I do for a living and I tell her that I’m a professional speaker and trainer and that I often use Southwest as an example when discussing outstanding customer service or business philosophy with clients. I also tell her that I’m sorry for what the other passengers may have put her through today. She looks at me and says, “thank YOU for being so patient and understanding. Really, it’s passengers like yourself that make me passionate about my job.” I’m impressed with her poise and professionalism despite the activities of the past few hours. I’m trying to pay her a compliment and she turns it around and makes me feel like a King. Over the past few minutes, it has been decided that we’re not going to try to drive through the night once we get to Charleston. So, we’ll need a hotel room for the night and I have to cancel our existing car rental reservation and make a new one to pick up a car in Charleston. So I ask my wife to see what she can find in both regards while I finish up at the counter. The agent hears me say this and tells me that I don’t have to worry about that because she is already looking to see how Southwest can be of assistance with hotel and car. Remember, I was dead last in line at this point so there really isn’t a rush. She asks another gate agent to see what she can do with a discounted hotel room for 4 people. Then I throw her a curveball. I ask if there is any possibility for us to fly back to Houston from Norfolk, VA instead of having to drive all the way back to Charleston. She doesn’t scowl at me, doesn’t frown, doesn’t sigh or express any kind of frustration at all. She smiles and says, “I’m sure we can find something like that.” And she did. I wanted to hug this woman but thought that might be awkward. I asked to speak to her supervisor instead. She looked concerned. I said that she did nothing wrong whatsoever. I just wanted to tell the boss how impressed I was and that as a customer service training expert, I wanted permission to share this story with my blog readers and conference audiences. She said, “seriously? How nice of you!” I told her that if it didn’t mean taking always such a valuable and passionate employee from Southwest, I would hire her tomorrow to work with me!
My dear friends – never underestimate the power of maintaining your professionalism and courtesy. It goes a long, long way. After my experience, I promised myself that from now on, I would look at Southwest first when looking to book business travel. It’s the least I can do for providing what I consider to be, one of the most pleasant customer experiences in my life.
Fast forward to the next morning. We leave the hotel room in Charleston en route to the Outer Banks. It takes us precisely 7 hours to arrive. When we do, my wife and kids leap out of the car. I’m a bit behind them but when I walk into the house, I see my wife hugging one sister, then another, then another, her brother, and finally her father. A lot of misty eyes, I can tell you (including mine.)
It was worth the wait.