Airline customers don’t want to hear apologies; frontline employees should stress innovative solutions | Weatherhead

Airline customers don’t want to hear apologies; frontline employees should stress innovative solutions

Posted 8.14.2017

Airline customers don’t want to hear apologies; frontline employees should stress innovative solutions

By Jagdip Singh  

Few issues are as likely to generate damaging headlines – and circumnavigate the globe via social media – as poor customer relations. Witness the airline industry.

What other business would employ workers who would consider dragging a paying customer from his seat?

Recently, an airline deprived a two-year-old of the seat his mother paid for, forcing them to share the same space for the entire flight.

And these are not isolated incidents. Earlier this year, an airline’s employees prevented a family from placing their two-year-old into a seat they paid for and then threatened to have the parents thrown in jail and the children placed into foster care.

Rarely has an industry absorbed as much ridicule as the U.S. aviation industry. Public opinion of the industry is at or near an all-time low.

The root cause of such problems would seem to be a lack of basic common sense. Customer service 101. 

However, it is too simple to cast the blame on such deficiencies as poor policies, flawed communications or a lack of human understanding.

The real culprit is poor frontline worker training. Those in the airline industry who work directly with customers have not developed the problem-solving skills they need. In effect, airlines have failed to invest in the training that could avoid the type of public relations disasters that are costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business and market value. 

Airlines fail to follow three fundamental rules of customer interaction

Practices such as “strategic overbooking” are designed to maximize profits. But they also increase the frequency of customer problems and the pressure on poorly prepared frontline employees.

Let’s imagine the stress involved in interacting with a customer who finds out she won’t arrive at her destination on time because of mechanical failure on the plane she intended to ride. 

Or consider a passenger’s outrage after declining to voluntarily get “bumped” from her flight and being removed anyway, even though she already paid for the transportation. 

Research indicates that in such situations, current thinking and widely used customer service practices within the airline industry are surprisingly unhelpful and possibly damaging to organizational interest. 

These practices often violate three rules that are fundamental to effectively interacting with customers and retaining their loyalty:

•The employee must demonstrate competence in creative problem-solving. Bullying or dragging someone from their seat in a tense customer service situation is neither competent nor creative.

•Customers discount workers’ perceived competence when the employees spend too much time displaying empathy or apologizing. Believe it or not, customers don’t want an apology; they want an alternative solution. Employees should invest no more than five to seven seconds to express empathy before quickly shifting to problem-solving.

•Customers judge competence by the quantity and quality of the alternative solutions being offered to them. Creative problem-solving skills demonstrating competence, ingenuity and improvisation to generate multiple solutions are most valued by troubled customers. Telling customers that there is nothing to be done to address a situation generates frustration in the customer and employee alike. This can lead to harsh actions on both sides.

In today’s world of automation and real-time information, the service failures frontline employees handle are increasingly unexpected and significant. Repeatedly apologizing, engaging in actions that don’t solve the problem or constantly expressing empathy raises customer concerns rather than defusing the situation.

An industry that struggles to keep its skies friendly and provide quality service would do well to expand the training for their frontline employees. Understanding how to defuse tense situations can make the difference between a mollified customer and a damaging post that goes viral and generates harsh headlines around the world.


Jagdip Singh is the AT&T Professor of Marketing, co-director of the MSM-Business Analytics Program and a professor in the Design and Innovation Department at the Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management. 


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