Good Customer Service Covers a Multitude of Sins


One of the best customer service experiences I can remember was a very small gesture that emerged in the midst of a really horrible customer service experience.

I have a love/hate relationship with most airlines. So much so that I’ve gone on the record of saying there are two jobs I would never want to have: the president of the US of A, and an airline CEO. Airlines are plagued with so many logistics and situations outside of their control, and yet have to promise patrons on-time itineraries. And, we all know how often that works out.

I found myself in one of those all-too-common situations with an airline, whose name I won’t mention, at my departing gate, finding out that delays, delays and more delays were imminent. Tension was rising among all of the passengers, and by the time we boarded the aircraft, about 5 hours late, one could understand how folks can “snap” and become sociopaths. The boiling rage level in that metal tube was palpable.

In this case, it was the airline’s fault. But, what happened next amazed me for several reasons. A kind flight attendant began beverage service immediately and told passengers that she had decided that cocktails, beer and wine were complimentary on this flight, and that she apologized on behalf of the airline for failing to meet our needs.

Lots of folks on that plane, myself included, got some free booze. And you know what? It was perfect. Not only did it take the edge off some very edgy passengers; it communicated that the airline truly understood our frustration, and was willing to earn back our trust. They did something very small that payed dividends. You could feel the mood and energy on the plane relax. Angry scowls and pissed-off text messages turned to warm conversations and even laughter.

This taught me a valuable lesson. Often in business, we see a mistake as the epitome of failure. But I realized, with my Jack-and-Coke in hand, that a mistake is not the end of the world—it can be an opportunity to reveal true character. Often times, it requires an unfortunate error to uncover the depth of how dedicated you are to making it right. Gestures like these, I believe, have the power of solidifying your customer relationships forever.

I boiled it down to this: whenever I feel wronged, either in a relationship or with a customer interaction, we tend to crave three things.

  1. Empathy. We all want someone to “feel our pain”—to admit that we were wronged, and agree with us that it was a doosey.
  2. Validation. We want to know our anger is “righteous anger,” and that we have a right to be upset.
  3. Apology. It’s no small thing to admit guilt, and ask for forgiveness. We want that, and a small “thank you” to boot.


The beauty is, it doesn’t take much. That $5 cocktail was exactly what we needed—the admission that they had messed up, and a tangible way they wanted to reward us for our patience. Five dollars to offset five hours of delays? No brainer. Messing up in a relationship or business context is inevitable, and that’s important to remember. It’s what you do after that mess-up that determines forever how your disgruntled customer, co-worker, mother, son, uncle or wife feels about you. It’s not about being right all the time. It’s about owning your mistake and being committed to making it right.


jparm1 March 4, 2013 Blog, Inklings