Owning Up to It; or, how not to model your customer service after the airline industry

Yesterday morning, I was laying in bed, wishing that I somehow got a miraculous second Sunday instead of having to haul my butt into the cold and go into the office.

To kill time (re: make myself impossibly late to the office), I was looking through my twitter feed on my phone and came across an article that had unexpected connections to my life.

This Washington Post Article, by Travel Columnist Chris Elliott, outlined how airlines use the “force majeure” excuse to prevent them from owing passengers any compensation for flights that were cancelled or re-routed. In the past, airlines used this excuse, which essentially means “due to forces outside our control,” for weather related events, or political events (i.e. war) that affected flights. Some call this the “act of god” excuse.

Now, it seems, airlines are deploying this excuse even when the cause for delays, cancellations or reroutes are seemingly in their control – maintenance issues, employee strikes, etc. The columnist, who often acts as an advocate for jilted passengers, notes that travelers do not have to settle for this excuse and can often get past it simply by asking “why?”

And so, everyone hates the airlines. Even passengers who have generally good experiences hate the process and experience of flying. Seriously. If you’ve ever sat in an airport waiting area during a flight delay, you know this is true. And I think part of the reason is because the airlines are increasingly refusing to take responsibility for their role in any delay or cancellation, because they owe passengers compensation for events that are their fault. And so passengers feel like the relationship is adversarial, rather than a customer service transaction like it should be.

The lesson here is this: don’t be like the airlines. Take responsibility for events that were in your control and let clients know that you will work to do better next time. No one is perfect all of the time, and the vast majority of clients would rather have a hearty apology along with a plan to improve than a million excuses on why it’s not your fault.

Treating the client-agency relationship like a partnership rather than a battle earns trust for those times when you do have forces outside your control that affect projects. For example, my car this morning looks like a glazed donut – there is a thick layer of ice that has totally encased it after a storm last night. That, combined with a slick, steep driveway, means I won’t make it to the office today. But clients know that I don’t use excuses like this often, and so their trust in me allows them to laugh at my iced-in car with me, instead of feeling like I’m just making excuses not to make my deadlines.

If the airlines went back to their policy of only blaming weather/geological events on “force majeure,” they could probably go a long way toward earning back the trust of their passengers. After all, we’re all in this giant airborne metal tube together, and we just want to get home safely.