At the root of the matter: organizations should educate, incentivize and inspire their front line staff …. Or suffer the consequences.
It is unlikely that I will have warm fuzzy feelings flying into Toronto’s airport (and by extension the City of Toronto) again in the near future.
The rub is that the root cause for my feelings came from interactions with people who probably have no idea of the impact their actions have – or how far reaching they are.
They ought to know better, but they don’t. Probably, they’ve never received even cursory training in public relations – despite their front row positions.
The world is not always fair.
Before I get into my experiences at Pearson International, let me give you some context.
It is ironic that the people who matter most working inside a given company are paid the least. I’m talking about the employees who are responsible for the face to face communication on behalf of their organizations.
These are the bank tellers, wait staff, attendants and agents who act as the front line, the crucial public façade that actually interacts with the public. And for most of these organizations, these people are underappreciated, improperly trained and completely unaware of their heavyweight effect on the public’s perception of their company or organization.
It is not like this for every company – just most of them. There are exceptions, of course. Southwest Airlines for example, is a company where nearly every employee has recognized and embraced the company’s cheery, efficient and experience-driven customer service approach.
Enterprise, the car rental service is also a standout when it comes to service – employees often have a stake, ownership in the business. This generates another level of care and diligence.
So should Pearson be doing something different? The answer is an emphatic YES!
YYZ (the three letter code for Toronto’s airport) could learn something from Southwest Airlines. They could also learn something from Enterprise Car Rental; employees have a stake in the business and despite their (often) second tier locations at airports, I have experienced great customer service in the past. They go above and beyond what is expected.
In the Toronto airport, I experienced in rapid succession three glaring instances where staff at the airport left much to be desired. I met three surly and combative people in the space of 15 minutes.
Here’s my story:
I came to Toronto to train a group of administrative workers in one of Ontario’s Ministries. The Ministry wanted me to improve the communication skills by putting their people through Corporate Explorer Training’s Cross Boundary Communication Module.
This necessitated a flight to YYZ and a subsequent departure.
Among other things, the particular training program I was delivering in Milton, Ontario is designed to emphasize the importance of building relationships inside and outside the work environment - and in particular the front line communication the Ministry might have with the general public. How we feel about our government is often a reflection of our experiences with the people who represent that government. And I’m not talking about politicians.
The people who handle your face-to-face business at offices maintained by your local government are the ones who PERSONIFY that organization. If you have a great experience renewing your driver’s license, you are likely to share that with others. If you have a nightmare of an experience dealing with this type of bureaucracy, you are SURE to share the experience with others.
Thus we judge our overall impression of a large organization or government by the interactions we have with their front line emissaries. These good folks are often at entry level positions without much prestige or control over the circumstances of their jobs.
When we have bad experiences dealing with an entity, like an airport, it colors our impression of that entity.
When I arrived at the airport, I needed to check in a bag. I’d completed check in online, so my seat was set; I just needed to drop my bag and get a boarding pass printed. The self-check in kiosk would not print a boarding pass for me. It asked me to join a line and talk to an agent. Fine.
After waiting through a line and watching multiple people drop off bags in front of me, it was my turn. The male agent asked me for my boarding pass. I explained that the kiosk had told me to talk to an agent and that it would not print my boarding pass.
At this point, the man actually, chastised me telling me I was in the wrong place and that I needed a boarding pass in hand to qualify for his service. He stood to the side in a gesture of dismissal and lifted his gaze to summon the person at the head of the line behind me.
Feeling both confused and slightly irritated at the brusque dismissal, I explained that the airlines own kiosk had referred me to talk with an agent. Wasn’t he an agent? He was providing passengers with service at an agent’s counter, after all.
Mr. Happy, the agent, impatiently told me I WOULD NOT be getting any service from him – apparently this included any hint that might have pointed me in the right direction where I COULD get service. Having been civil and friendly with this guy, I did not understand his attitude, reluctance to help – or, in fact, give me any useful information at all.
I travel a lot. I’ve been around the block. I know airports and their byzantine ways.
This guy was committed to dismissing the hapless passenger in front of him (me) as quickly as possible – despite the fact I had just been following instructions provided by a kiosk from his airline.
Rather than let the situation escalate, after a few fruitless rounds of back and forthing, I left. Eventually, I found another line where ‘service issues’ were handled. I got my boarding pass printed and successfully checked my bag for the flight by a cheerless agent.
I made a mental black mark in my head next to the file in my brain where I store airline information. This airline, too, was now tarnished by the illogical and unfriendly experience I just had. I could care less about the nice logo, the crisp uniforms, etc. If the person wearing the airline uniform does not provide good service, the entire airline’s goodwill is in jeopardy.
People remember personal interactions. Sorry Air Canada.
Since I was early, my next mission was to eat my Subway sandwich. I had to do this since the accompanying chocolate milk was likely to be seized as dangerous contraband in the security check stage of the airport dance. We live in strange days.
Between the security line and the check in area was one of the large seating areas that airports have where people sit while waiting for flights. This was a pretty large and empty area where about a half dozen restaurants surrounded the tables, benches and chairs.
I found a suitably empty spot, opened a newspaper and began to eat.
Then I met Winston.
Winston is employed to keep the seating area cleaned and the leftover trays and detritus bused. I had taken perhaps one bite of my sandwich when he made his presence known. He did this by informing me that I was NOT permitted to sit down in this empty area.
Confused, I asked him if he was serious.
Thinking back two days to our dinner with friends where we went to a spicy Korean restaurant with a takeout pizza in hand for our non-spicy food eating daughter, I replied, “actually, I would.”
Winston was not impressed. As I didn’t immediately jump up and flee, he sought out reinforcements from the guy behind the counter at the gourmet pizza place nearby. The man Winston talked to was having an animated discussion with him. I saw him looking at me to attract my attention giving me the sign to relax and remain seated.
I felt marginally better.
But Winston was not having any of it. Apparently, his reinforcements gambit might have backfired, but he was not to be dissuaded.
Again, he approached my table. I observed in a friendly way that his first name, Winston, was the same as my middle name. He was not impressed. “It don’t matter. You still have to leave.” He was resolute and seemed to be committed to standing directly over me until I made moves to depart.
Now, I should take a moment to explain that I am a big fan of what I’ll call common sense. If there is a rule in place, in some cases it makes sense to be flexible and allow transgression.
There was NO ONE in the area I was eating. The airport eating area was NOT busy. I was not disturbing anyone. There were no other seating areas anywhere to be seen.
Not wanting to be confrontational, and recognizing that Winston was likely an ill-trained employee in a low level job whose interpretation of his role included being hostile and unfriendly to interlopers, I left.
I ate the rest of my sandwich standing up balancing my chocolate milk on a railing in front of a photography collage.
Thanks for the visual distraction YYZ. It didn’t counteract the unwelcoming behavior Winston has shown me, but it served to distract me for a few minutes.
Security was next. Here, I’ve been through the whole ridiculous drill so many times, I figured it would be a breeze.
To keep things short, I’ll say that I usually travel with an empty water bottle. This allows me to fill it once I’m through security so I’ve actually got water of my own for the next 7 hours of travel.
We’ve all seen contraband Evian and sunscreen being seized from hapless travelers so I won’t question how taking a teenager’s spring break sunscreen is keeping us all safe.
My shoes were off. My jacket was in a tray – along with my cell phone, watch, change, etc. My laptop was in a separate tray. Everything should be smooth. The personal metal detector was a breeze – I got by with merely a stern look.
But my backpack was flagged. “Is this backpack yours?”
My water bottle had a miniscule amount of unfinished water – literally drops of water – in the bottom. Security wanted to seize it. Now I am talking about an empty bottle with enough water in it to ALMOST wet your mouth, but no more.
Once more the attitude displayed by the security detail was that they were dealing with a dangerous individual who needed to be taught a lesson.
On my way to the gate, I shook my head. In 15 minutes I’d experienced three back to back instances where front line staff working at the airport had gone out of their way to impose bad customer service on a passenger who was simply trying to get home.
People recall bad service even more vividly than good service. I am sure I’m not the only person who had to run the gauntlet of surly service at YYZ.
I’m aware that the three separate individuals I encountered were all employees who worked for different employers. That doesn’t matter to me. It all went down at the airport, so I associate it with the airport.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Organizations with first class leadership instill in their staff an awareness that THEIR ACTIONS MATTER! Great organizations are fronted by employees who care and provide first class customer service.
The airline agent could have helped me and pointed me in the right direction.
Winston could have simply let me eat in peace.
Security could have let me pass with a smile and 5ml of water in the bottom of my bottle.
With some proactive training, employees can provide great service – but they have to know that what they do is IMPORTANT. Their roles, though perhaps not highly-paid, are arguably the most important roles when it comes to how the public perceives their employer’s organization.
Do you hear me Big Guys!? Get your people the training that will turn YOUR company into a top flight company.
In this questionable business climate, you can’t afford negative impressions.
Fix this disconnect. Your people, especially the ones at the bottom of the org chart, are your most valuable asset. Invest in them and the public will embrace you.