Customer Satisfaction: Why Don’t More Companies Do the Right Thing?

I don’t know if you heard the story about the little 10-year-old girl that was flying unaccompanied on a plane trip** from San Francisco to Traverse City, Michigan with a transfer in Chicago. She was going to a camp near Traverse City.

Sending children as “unaccompanied minors” on flights is done quite a bit, and there are specific instructions that airline staff are supposed to follow. Losing a child is not one of them.

This little girl got off the plane in Chicago. There was no one there to meet her and make sure she got on the right plane for the last leg of her travel to Traverse City. She wandered around and finally ended up at the airline’s counter.

Is there anyone who will help?

Her parents found out about this fiasco when the camp called to tell them their daughter had not arrived. The story goes on to tell of the horrors these parents encountered when trying to locate their daughter in the Chicago airport. Each was on a phone, and neither had any success.

The mother called the airline numerous times and was transferred numerous times. At one point her call was routed to India where she was told not to worry and that “her daughter would be fine.”

The father reached a female airline employee in Chicago and asked that she find his daughter and put her on the phone. She told him that her shift had ended, and she couldn’t help. Then the father asked her how she would feel if her 10-year-old daughter were lost and alone. At that point she softened, found the girl, and connected the two by phone.

This was a critical point in the story. In her role as an airline employee, this woman showed a total lack of empathy and accountability.

Her indifference in this situation was almost inhuman. But when asked to approach it in the role of a mother, she totally changed. She was able to empathize. She took responsibility and action — action that she was not willing to take as an employee.

All’s well that ends well?

When the parents were finally connected to their daughter by phone, they relate her story as follows:

The attendants where busy and could not help her she told us. She told them she had a flight to catch to camp and they told her to wait. She asked three times to use the phone to call her parents and they told her to wait. When she missed the flight she asked if someone had called camp to make sure they knew and they told her ‘yes — we will take care of it.’ No one did. She was sad and scared, and no one helped.”

The little girl finally made it to camp and eventually home.

For six weeks after the incident, the parents’ attempts to communicate with the airline were met with silence. The only way they got the airline’s attention was when a TV reporter got involved and told the airline there was going to be a story. Only then did an executive from the airline pick up the phone and call the parents to apologize.

This is another critical moment. The airline apparently did not care about the child or the parents, but certainly cared about bad PR. What message does this send to its employees, customers, and the public at large?

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In the end, the story was on nationwide TV and was picked up by media in Europe as well.

Culture comes from the top down

My intent here is not to “blast” this airline (and that’s why I am not identifying them). This type of scenario could, and does, happen in other companies and industries.

But my big question about this story is this: How does a company or organization reach a point where it is packed with people who don’t feel responsible for doing the right thing?

Some people would say don’t be so naïve. Morality has no place in the business world. Companies have no time to be helpful or go out of their way for customers.

While I am certain there are companies that fit this description, I also believe there are those that do not. There’s no reason why morality has to be at odds with “business.”

Whatever happened to “customer service” and “customer satisfaction.” These certainly impact “business.” Are they just empty words?

Company culture is tricky, and if you don’t build a good one and set good examples from the top down, you’ll get exactly what happened here.

** Author’s note: The focus of this article is on employee accountability and company culture. The name of the airline is not important.

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.

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7 Comments on “Customer Satisfaction: Why Don’t More Companies Do the Right Thing?

  1. The same company just recently posted a $448 million loss and blamed it on “computer glitches”. Very interesting point here, the company’s culture is so rotten and there is a total lack of accountability and responsibility.

  2. Who puts a 10-year-old child on an airplane ALONE? Are you kidding me? This is absolutely NOT done all the time as the third paragraph states. My heart was in my throat when I read that these completely insane “parents” allowed that little girl to go on a 1,500-mile flight. These parents should be brought up on child neglect charges. I would have social workers in their home immediately. Completely unacceptable & inappropriate to expect the AIRLINE to babysit this little girl! This article is completely ridiculous. Focus on the PARENTS’ failure, not the airline!

    1. Kathie, people really do this all the time and the airlines charge a fee and have programs and procedures in place. That’s what make the story all the more real and horrific. In fact, this airline subcontracts the service to a third-party, and probably blamed some of the problem on the vendor and the fine print.

  3. Kathie — I understand your feelings, but uncompanied minors flying does happen a lot.   Either parents cannot afford to fly 2 instead of one or some other reason.   Airlines also have had no “bad press” on this practice either.  People in wheelchairs and otherwise not able to manage a trip totally by themselves have had airline employees meet them at their first stop and make sure they get on the next flight.  The airline could easily decide to longer fly unaccompanied minors —- but they haven’t —- so if it is their policy they need to make sure it is followed correctly.  

  4. Personally, I would never put an unaccompanied child on a flight that required a transfer. But Jacque is right, it happens, and the parents paid the airline to oversee that transfer and they didn’t do it. The point about customer service–or the lack of it, in this case–is well made.

  5. Excellent Article, I recently taught a college course in Customer Service and will use the article when I teach it again. When we say it is the “Little Things” that count in Customer Service it is so true…aah maybe we should include it is the “little People” that count  as well.

  6. Thank you all for the comments.   In all fairness I realize that the airline industry is facing a lot of hurdles these days and employees have tough goals to meet that they are measure against. 

    In hard times companies can either rally employees in a positive manner and reward them for doing the “right thing” — or ignore the kind of environment/culture they are creating and wield a very big stick in focusing so much on the numbers they alienate employees —– who then take it out on customers.

    What companies don’t realize is that it is a vicious circle.  Companies focus on numbers = employees become over-focused on them because they are the performance measurement = customers are mistreated = customers stop flying the airline = numbers (revenues) decrease.

    What comes around, goes around.   Or the reverse — I forget!

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