A Preview of Retail Hell

Bob Phibbs By

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The old adage, "The path to hell is paved with good intentions" is not relevant anymore. The path to hell is found at an airport.

I had enjoyed an exciting couple days with my luxury client's best ambassadors. Lots of leading, learning, and laughs. Got it? I was jammin', juiced, joyful.

At the airport I had to get something to eat before the flight home and stopped at a quick service cafe. While I was looking at the menu over her head, a rather stern young woman barked to me, "NAME!" Surprised, I said, "Are you talking to me?" "Yes, NAME for the order."

As they were the only ones in the vicinity of the gate I ordered then she barked the drill sergeant orders to "get your napkins, condiments and other stuff over there, under the arrow and move down to the left. NAME!" Like Charlie Brown in his Christmas special I was not going to let this person get me down. The food was good but I'd never go there again. In fact, I felt bad I rewarded such bad behavior.

Isn't that the way when you're a prisoner of a local provider you'd have to drive miles out of your way to replace?

The flight was scheduled to depart at 6pm so we boarded at 5:30, a prop-job puddle jumper for United operated by Colgan Air.

At 6:15 the flight attendant announced there was a "maintenance issue, we can't get the pilot door to close properly." Silence for another 45 minutes.

The woman next to me grabbed her phone to tell someone how her day "was just getting worse and worse." When she hung up and started to bitch to me, I suggested it was going to be fine, maintain a positive outlook.

Still parked at the gate, it started to storm with lightening. Dulles was shut down and we were stuck.

Rain stopped, pilot said we'd be able to get out shortly. Another half-hour of silence as we saw other flights leaving. Finally the captain came on, "We don't know when we can get out, you can get off if you want to." Cabin door opened, I left and began watching a movie on my iPad. After 45 minutes we were rushed back on the plane. To wait in silence for 20 minutes when the captain said they had to file a new flight plan.

We pulled out to the tarmac in queue and stopped for awhile. Pilot finally got on PA and said nothing he could do, we had to wait. After thirty more silent minutes the woman across from me called the steward over to say, "I want to get off now." The steward said, "No problem, I'll let the pilot know." That's when it registered to me what was about to happen... I lost my positive travel attitude.

As he came back down the aisle I said, doubtful I would be going home that night, "That's bull man, if we pull back to the gate it will be two hours for them to search through her luggage and get us back out." The confrontation was broken by the captain, "Ladies and gentlemen we're not going to Albany tonight as we are off at 9:30." The plane pulled back to the gate in silence.

At 10:10 the captain said another storm had descended and we couldn't get off the plane. A few minutes later a woman at the front of the plane screamed at the top of her lungs, "I HAVE TO GET OFF THIS PLANE! I HAVE SMALL CHILDREN!"

After a few minutes the flight attendant opened the cabin door to the heavy rain and lightening and said, "Take your chances, we're off."

The rest of the night didn't go much better but I won't bore you with the details of sleeping in the IAD lobby or missed opportunities to provide service by United. Here's why I wrote this...

What went wrong to create customer service hell?

  • Customers treated as a thing - something to get rid of quickly.
  • Customers treated as stupid - something to dominate.
  • Customers treated as inanimate objects- no communication.
  • Employees putting themselves ahead of their customers.
  • Customers getting their way only because they became aggressive.
  • Employees having to get the last cynical word in.

While everyone has travel stories, and I hesitated joining the herd of complainers, I wanted to see if elements of retail hell could be lurking in your business. If so, notice it isn't the actions that are the problem, it is what employees who represent your brand do to create customer hell-on-earth.

That comes from your hiring choices, training for procedures but also your training (or lack of training) to work with the public. The last 24 months seem to have escalated the downward spiral of customer service across many industries but it doesn't have to be. Checkout tomorrow's post....

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