August 14, 2012

Give People a Fine Reputation to Live Up To (and Don’t be a Jerk)

(and Don't be a Jerk)

Don’t be this guy.

It’s the humbling lessons you remember best.

One year when I lived in Washington DC I was traveling to visit my folks in Burlington, Vermont for the Thanksgiving holiday, one of the busiest travel days of the year.  The trip required me to change planes in New Jersey.

The plane from DC to New York was late due to some wintery weather.  When we landed in New York five of us ran about 400 meters to the Burlington departure gate.  Knees clanging against suitcases, we screeched to a halt at the Burlington gate.  The gate agent looked at us wearily.

“Sorry, we just closed the door.  Flight’s closed.”

I stepped to the front.   “When is the next flight?” I asked.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Well, you’re going to give us a complimentary hotel, right?”

“Sorry,” she sniffed.  “We’re not responsible for weather problems.”

I exploded.

“But you could look in the computer and see that there are five people on this flight coming from Washington, DC!  You closed the door just as we ran up.  You could have kept it open for just two more minutes!  This is your fault, and you need to fix it!”

The gate agent’s mouth tightened into a hard line.

“I’m sorry sir.  There’s nothing I can do.”

At that moment another passenger stepped up.

“Excuse me,” she said to me politely but firmly.  “I’ll handle this.” (I later learned her name was Jodi.)

“Hmmmph!” I thought.  “Let’s see what she can do.”

Handle it she did.  Jodi began with a slow, friendly smile.

“Hi,” she said to the gate agent.  “How are you tonight?”

“I’ve been better.”

“I bet you have.  Looks like you have your hands full tonight.”  Jodi waved her arm at the mass of bustling passengers swarming the terminal.

The gate agent smiled.  “Yeah, I sure do,” she replied.

I gaped as Jodi continued working her magic.

“Listen, I fly with you folks on United Airlines all the time.  You always give such fantastic service.  And I appreciate the hard work you all do to make sure people like us get home in time for the holidays.”

“Why thank you,” the gate agent replied, clearly touched.

“I was just wondering, since it’s late and cold outside, if you’d be so kind as to see if there’s some help you could give me and my friends,” Jodi nodded to us, “to book us on the morning flight and help us find a place to stay tonight.”

The agent smiled.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and started tapping keys on the computer.

Twenty minutes later we were all booked on the morning flight and on a shuttle bus to a complimentary hotel near the airport.  I swallowed my embarrassment and I asked Jodi how she did it.

“I work in the hotel business and deal with angry customers all the time.  I knew if I let you continue all of us would be sleeping in the airport.  The key is to be friendly and polite.  Don’t be a jerk,” she explained.  “No one wants to help someone who is yelling at them.”

She continued, “The next thing I did was give her a fine reputation to live up to.  Telling her that I’ve always had great service flying United and expressing appreciation to her was a compliment.  When I told her that she felt good.  Then she did her best to live up to the reputation I described when I told her what great service United has.  That’s why we got free rooms.”

“And that’s all there is?” I asked.

“Yep,” Jodi said.  “That’s all there is.  It’s a good lesson for you.”

Yes, it was.  The humbling lessons always are.