The Lost Art of Customer Service: Did Hawaiian Airlines miss the mark?

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I have the great fortune of training 100s of organization on how to build a winning culture, increase employee engagement and retention.  However, over the past decade I have experienced a decrease in customer service which is probably why I have been fascinated by Zappos and the CEO (Tony Hsieh) philosophy of delivering a wow experience for their customers.

This fascination around corporate culture and employee engagement always have me looking for case studies and examining The Lost Art of Customer Servicecompanies and organizations that are doing it right and those who are missing the mark.  My recently experience happened on my way to conduct a 2-day training in Hawaii on “How to manage employees with difficult behaviors.” I decided to add on a couple of days on the back of the business trip and my husband also decided to come.  (I’m all about work/life balance and this gave me a great opportunity to check out the island after my training.

My initial experience with the airline was a positive one.  I normally travel Southwest airlines because I absolutely LOVE their customer service and their ability to make fun of their company and each other.  However, I don’t like being cattle to find a seat but I am willing to let that go in exchange for a great experience.  Upon boarding the Hawaiian airline I noticed that they did not have a fan above you which didn’t alarm me but what will prove to be an issue later in the flight.

The staff was polite and then we received our meal for this 5 ½ long flight.  My first inclination was not to eat the spaghetti and meatballs because it didn’t look quite right but I decided to forego this feeling and consume the meal.  Let me just say, that you should always listen to your intuition.  Shortly, after eating the food I noticed that I was starting to feel queasy and a little light-headed.  My worst fears was about to happen, that I would become ill on an extremely long flight (we still had 3 hours before landing).  I went to the restroom and I will spare you the graphics, let’s just say that what I consume was being released both ways.  Every time I would get back to my seat and try to calm myself I would have to go back to the restroom.

I felt so bad that at one point I just wanted to lie down on the floor in the bathroom which is impossible and not the best place you would want to be.  After my last bout, I decided to seek out support also known as customer service.  I shared my dilemma with the flight attendant that was in charge of the back of the plane and my request was simple, “Can you seat me somewhere close to the bathroom?”  His response was “I’m sorry you are not feeling well.  Hmmm, we have a full flight however you can go to seat 12G which is close to the bathroom and an aisle seat.   I thanked him and proceeded to go from 40D to 12G.  Now let me just say that this was a huge plane and as I made my way to the front I realized that 12G was business/first class.  As I got to the curtain there stood another flight attendant who had just hung up the phone. This woman shared with me that there was “no way” she could allow me to sit in the business class section.  Her argument was “they paid for their seat and the upgrade”.


She further instructed to me that I could lean on the wall next to the bathroom.  “So what you are suggesting is that although I’m faint and lightheaded that I should lean on the wall for the remaining 3 hours flight?”

Well, I guess she say the look on my face and went hunting for a seat that was not in the business class section that she could put me in.  She was able to find a seat on the aisle and eventually my stomach settled down to the point that I could return to the “assigned seat that I paid for” but my illness was not the only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth.  As I sat there reflecting on the situation I started to asked myself “WWSD” (What would Southwest Do?) or Zappos or any of the other companies that I’ve interviewed and researched on building a winning culture.

Customer service is all about “serving the customer”.  I could see if I was trying to be Elaine Bennett from the Seinfeld episode where she was trying to sneak in the first class section with Jerry because she had a bad seat but that was not the case.  I was truly ill and I believe that Hawaiian Airlines missed the mark to make me a raving marketplace evangelist.  My post is simply to understand what is going on in the marketplace where customer service is becoming a lost art and the profits/policies are more important than the people or our planet.

So, what do you think?

What could they have done differently?

Is this about the organization not empowering their employees to make sound reasonable choices outside of their policies/procedures?

Please share your comments or experiences below.

2 Responses to “The Lost Art of Customer Service: Did Hawaiian Airlines miss the mark?

  1. Helen Thistlethwaite says:

    Great post Rae. Hope you followed up on the food issue with the airline? Love your website. HT

  2. Rae Majors-Wildman says:

    Hi Helen – Thanks for your post and comment about my website. How are things going for you?

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