5 Rules of Customer Service I Learned in the Fog of Discontent

Take Off in the FogAs fun as it was to visit the Barrett-Jackson Auction, our actual time traveling was exasperating.

To save a few pennies, we chose to fly out of a small regional airport just south of the Canadian border in Bellingham, WA. From our house in the suburbs, BLI is only about an extra 40 minutes further away than YVR here in Vancouver. The two airports and the airlines that fly out of them compete for customers and, for this trip, BLI came out ahead for our two tickets by about $200, especially when factoring in the much cheaper long term parking. The smaller airport is friendly and we feel very comfortable there, so it seemed a no-brainer to book our flight to Phoenix via Seattle out of BLI.

To make a long story short, we will likely never fly out of BLI in the winter ever again. First off, during the drive down on the I-5 our traction control engaged going straight on the freeway; it was that white-knuckle icy in one stretch.  But that just got the heart pumping. It was the thick fog over the airport that ate our trip. We were delayed several hours on our way down, experienced an aborted landing through the fog in Seattle due to an instrument glitch, and our flight from Seattle to BLI was outright cancelled on our return home. Even the backup flight we got bumped to on the following day was cancelled because of the fog.

We eventually ended up staying overnight in Seattle and caught a bus to Bellingham (where our car was parked) the next morning. Neither the cost of the hotel or the bus ride were covered because the delay was weather induced, so we ended up paying as much overall as the flight into YVR would have cost in the first place – and then some.

But the aggravating part of the flight cancellation was not the cost, but rather the hideous, unnecessary panic the whole experienced caused.

Here are a few rules I believe airline companies – heck, any company – should learn to live by:

1) Don’t assume your customer knows what the heck is going on.

“I’d send you to customer service, but if I do you might miss the bus. It leaves at 11:30 outside the 00 doors past the luggage carousels.” He waved us on, encouraging us to hustle.

In fairness, this representative at the gate of our cancelled flight was sincerely trying to help, however, those words were all and everything we were told by anyone to that point. His words probably made sense to him – being in the industry and this particular airport – but to me they were just so much bloobee-bloobee-bloo-bloo. Without ever experiencing a weather cancelled flight before, we had no idea if this was a bus arranged for by the airline or where the suggested bus would take us. Had a group of customers already been collected (our flight in was late)? Was this bus going to a hotel? The BLI airport? Was it free? Who did I talk to once we found it?

As it turns out, the bus in question was the regularly scheduled charter going as far north as BLI. We did not make it in time to get on. Well, actually we did, but we didn’t know we were even supposed to add ourselves to the passenger wait list until it was too late. When we finally found the 00 doors and the bus area, we went looking for an Alaska Airlines rep handling a special charter (it seemed reasonable at the time) and missed our opportunity to get on the list. By the time we figured out which bus we needed to get on, found the cash to get onboard, and got our names on the waiting list for this one bus, it was too late. After standing in the cold for half an hour to see if there would be enough “no shows” to make room for us, we were literally the first two riders on the waiting list not to get seats.

Next time we’ll know what to do, but in this instance we had no context. So there we were, left stranded in the cold at half-past midnight – on the wrong side of security to get to the Alaska Airlines customer desk to find out what the heck to do next

2) Your customers will need you at the weirdest times.

Without a boarding pass to get back through security, we were hooped. We could not go back to talk to anyone inside. So we took the long walk to the Alaska Airlines ticket counter hoping to find someone to talk to there.  Unfortunately, there was not a soul in sight at this time of night. Not only that, but try as we might, we couldn’t see an afterhours phone number posted anywhere.  Feeling the pressure now, I went online to Alaska Airline’s website to try to find help there.  Nothing. The seemingly most appropriate number listed was supposedly only available from 8:00am -5:45pm number. A way to contact someone, anyone, seemed out of reach and judging from “the look” on my wife’s face, I only had moments to live.

3) Your employees make or break you.

At this point I was a tad stressed. My lovely wife is an anxious traveler at the best of times, and this was all starting to be too much. In my head, in spite of excellent experiences in the past, I was ready to add Alaska Airlines to my “never again” list. We felt abandoned.

But then he passed, stopped in thought, and turned to ask “Can I help you?” He was an Alaska Airlines flight crew member (pilot?) just in from San Francisco. We explained our predicament. He pulled out his own phone and dialed. “Cancelled Flight” he told the system, and within seconds he was connected to an agent. We accidentally dropped the call but, proof-of-concept confirmed, he gave us the number so that we could call it ourselves.

This employee did not need to help us. He was off shift and likely pretty tired himself. But he did help and, in that moment, my anger towards the company turned back to midnight, tired, grumpy traveler annoyance. After a call to the number in question, I finally got answers. Not the ones I wanted, but I still got answers. We were stuck but rescheduled for a flight the same time the next night. No, there would not be compensation to help pay for a hotel as this was a weather delay. Yes, we were on our own to find accommodations. Yes, I could call for a possible refund of the ticket when customer service opened in the morning (aside: as a feeder flight, we basically got nothing in terms of a refund. We were given 2000 air miles into my account [and 2000 into an account I don’t know whose it is] as compensation for the hassle).

To make a long story short, we reserved seats on the 8am charter bus (We calculated there was no way a plane was going to make it out the next day either. We were right.) and eventually made it to a hotel for a short overnight stay. The bus ride the following morning was pleasant enough and ultimately we made it home safe and sound, very tired, but only about 14 hours behind schedule.

Lessons learned.

Before I leave the story, there are two more random rules I want to talk about:

4) Honor the rule followers.

Looking later at the telephone number given to us by the pilot, it appeared he had used the same number listed on Alaska’s website as an 8am-5:45pm number. Had we followed those guidelines to the letter (and not known we could say “cancelled flight” at any time) we would not have been able to talk to anyone.

Also, in an effort to speed entry onto our plane in Phoenix, a second line was opened. Rather than take us from the front of the line, the second line was formed from the back of the line – in effect rewarding passengers for arriving late. Not cool.

In both cases, being a good, rule following passenger was a penalty. I think companies need to realize that they are teaching problematic client behavior if following the rules is no advantage.

Hmmm… sounds a lot like what happens in the classroom.

5) Signage needs to be clear.

Instructions and signage should be tested on stressed individuals and infrequent users. Assume that the client has little or no “prior knowledge.”

For example, we had no idea what our bus would look like in the morning. We almost didn’t get on the correct bus as nowhere on our bus did it list Bellingham as a destination. However, it did list several other cities which confused matters. Call me “Captain Literal,” but if a bus mentions Yakima but not Bellingham, I think stepping on that bus is taking me to Yakima.

Airport signage can also be an issue. To help improve things, I propose The Coffee Test: take random pairs of executives from an airport/airline other than their own, load them up with four cups of coffee, and then send them on a scavenger hunt to find several key locations a stressed passenger might need to find. The only rule… no using the washroom until all the tasks are complete. I think the resulting discomfort report out and lessons learned from that process would be very cathartic for this bemused traveler informative.


Greg Tjosvold is a teacher, writer, and innovator. One of the first to crowdsource his biography, he is apparently 12 ft tall, has no body fat, is always polite, and is the only living recipient of an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Stanley Cup, Pulitzer, and two Nobel prizes (Economics and Break Dancing). He is currently reevaluating the merits of crowdsourcing.

He is the father of two amazing children and currently lives with his wonderful wife in the wilds of suburban Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.