Saturday, June 27, 2009

Like it or not, front-line employees = brand ambassadors

In my recent travels to various conferences and workshops on PR, marketing, social media and the like, I've heard a recurring message ... and seen it in action:

Your front-line employees are your brand ambassadors and your most visible public relations tools. They constantly interact with your customers, and, to those customers, are the "face of the company" more than any executive or spokesperson ever has been or will be.

And guess what? Putting the right people versus the wrong people into those positions as visible public relations tools is just as critical as picking the right tool for a job. A grumpy, unprofessional front-line employee can collapse a customer's image of your brand just as quickly as a wrecking ball sent to the wrong location can knock down a home you've painstakingly been working to build for years.

In other words, don't send in a wrecking ball when a carefully wielded hammer and nails are actually what is needed.

Nothing illustrated this better than my recent experience flying to the Washington, D.C., area for Geoff Livingston's fabulous BlogPotomac social media marketing conference.

As a bit of background, I should mention that my flight to our nation's capital was my first major commercial flight in more than 10 years, due in large part to the fact that I'd long been terrified of flying, thanks to the combined effects of my fear of heights and my irrational fear of airplane crashes. As you can imagine, I was a bit reluctant to hop on a plane and knew I'd need to have a pretty good experience on the first leg of my trip in order to feel comfortable with the rest of the trip.

That's exactly what happened ... at first, anyway. The Delta Air Lines flight operated by Northwest Airlines that took me from MBS airport to Detroit offered exactly what I needed: A pleasant flight attendant and a smooth, quick flight into DTW. I had absolutely no trepidation about boarding my DTW-to-Dulles flight, also a Delta-via-Northwest flight. Things were looking good for this flight, too, until the flight attendant was on and off the phone several times after making the requisite safety announcements. When she reopened the cabin door, I looked at the guy next to me and said, "I haven't flown in awhile, but I know that door isn't supposed to open once it's closed. This can't be good."

And it wasn't.

Our flight attendant came onto the PA and announced, "So ... we're WAY over weight on this plane. We're going to have to ask some of you to get off, but I don't know how many yet. I'll let you know."

Everyone kind of looked at each other, clearly thinking, "Well, that wasn't much of an explanation."

Moments later, a woman who'd been working in the gate area came onto the plane to make an announcement about what was happening.

"As you know, this plane is over weight. We need SIX of you to get off. We will do whatever we need to to accommodate you."

(By the way, this was only about a 26-person plane, so six was a pretty high number).

"When's the next plane?" several people asked, echoing the thought in my own head.

"We don't know that yet," the woman said quite curtly and unapologetically. "You'll have to get off, and then we'll figure it out."

Time out.

Wouldn't it have been logical to check on the next available flight before coming onto the plane and trying to get people to voluntarily delay themselves? Seems like common-sense customer service to me.

Miraculously, a few people volunteered, but I noticed it wasn't going to be enough.

Meanwhile, the woman and the flight attendant lost track of how many people had gotten off the plane.

The woman disappeared off the plane and returned, still agitated.

"Look. More of you have to get off this plane. We'll give you a $300 flight voucher, meal vouchers, etc."

Someone else volunteered and got off the plane. Everyone else sat still.

(I should note that under normal circumstances, I probably would have gotten off the plane on the first call, but I had somewhere to be that night, shortly after my planned arrival time in northern Virginia — as well the conference to attend the next morning — so I couldn't risk not getting there. And since no one could tell us when the next plane was, that was exactly the risk I would have been taking).

Anyway, back to the plane ...

"PEOPLE. We are in a weight-critical situation here. Either two more of you have to get off this plane voluntarily, or I'll just start going down the (passenger) list, and then it'll be over," the woman practically barked at us.

That was my boiling point. Who talks to people that way?! It was obvious why she wasn't a flight attendant; that's for sure. I bit my lip, not wanting to draw attention to myself by asking the woman to soften her tone with us.

Assuming I'd be called first or second once she started going down the passenger list (since, you know, my last name is Allen), I braced for the worst.

Finally, after a few agonizing moments of everyone avoiding eye contact with the angry airline employee and each other, a couple agreed to get off the plane and we were allowed to take off.

I don't care how critical the situation is; you never talk to your customers that way. Ever.

And if you're going to ask your customers to sacrifice themselves and be inconvenienced, you need to do it kindly and come armed with the information you know they'll ask for. Had someone been able to pleasantly inform me that the next flight was in 30 minutes, I would have volunteered to be one of the six to exit the plane. Instead, I — a nervous enough traveler as it was — got to cower in my seat while being shouted at by an airline employee and hoping to not get booted from the plane.

"Friendly skies," eh?

Lesson learned: If your employees can't take the heat, don't put them in the kitchen. But don't put them in the dining room, either, because then they'll be interacting with your customers. But wait; that leaves ... well, nowhere. My point precisely.

No comments:

Post a Comment