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China Gorman's First Blog Post... Customer Service: Arresting Your Customers or Delivering Happiness?

Capitalist Note: China Gorman is the former COO of SHRM and an absolute rockstar in the human capital game.  She's been an inspiration to many of us working in the trenches of HR, and her accessibility, candor, giving nature and leadership make me proud to be an HR pro.  She's so good at engaging those around her that she made me reconsider the role SHRM can play in my professional career, which is a feat on the scale of having the Sunnis and the Shites line up, hold hands and sing "we are the world" with George Bush, Dick Cheney and Hanson. 

China resigned from SHRM in May and is now considering her next move, which means she'll undoubtedly be managing a P&L bigger than the GNP of Mexico within the next three months - if that's what she wants to do. I consider China a friend, a role model and, as of today, a fellow HR, business and leadership blogger at chinagorman.wordpress.com (go subscribe now, people..). To help her launch her blog, I'm proud to make her the first guest blogger in the history of The HR Capitalist.  Take it away, China...

As business leaders and HR professionals, we all know about the close relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.   I witnessed an amazing breach of this relationship recently on an airplane.  (Where else?)

I was returning home from a weekend in New York City and was a customer in the lab experiment we call theFlight_Attendants_From_The_Past_50_pics__64 airline industry.   It was Sunday night. The weather was pretty awful.  The plane was full of tired vacationers, uptight business travelers and more than one crying baby.  The flight crew was stressed and cranky.  Me?  I was just grateful for my upgraded seat in first class.  And, as I always do while flying, I was buried in my Kindle, reading.  This time I was reading Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh.

The weather was so bad that we were in a holding pattern over our intended destination for 2+ hours.  We ran low on fuel and had to divert to a close-by airport.  We pulled up to the gate and the pilot let us know that we could get off and get food and exercise if we wanted to, but to stay close to the gate; we’d leave as soon as we got clearance. 

If you’re a frequent traveler and have the ability to upgrade to first class, you often overhear the flight attendants talking in the galley.  While we were at the gate and the door was open, all 3 flight attendants were up there and not very quietly complaining about how this diversion was going to screw up their work week and .  They also had a few choice words for some of the passengers.  From time to time a passenger would walk up and ask for an update on the time of departure so they could call their family.  These requests were met with increasing levels of impatience. 

And then there’s me:  quietly reading Delivering Happiness while the drama unfolded.  Talk about irony!  Here’s the passage I was reading when the wheels came off of the customer service part of the passenger experience that day:  “…we decided a long time ago that we didn’t want our brand to be just about shoes, or clothing, or even online retailing.  We decided that we wanted to build our brand to be about the very best customer service and the very best customer experience.  We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.”

The noise level back in coach was escalating so I turned around to see what the commotion was.  A customer was standing in the aisle and was being baited by the flight attendant:  “You really think we’re doing this on purpose? You really think we want to be stuck here with you? Now just sit down and shut up!”  This was said in a pretty menacing voice and with the congruent body language that was truly in his face.  The passenger snapped and pushed her away.  That was it.  The flight attendant started ranting “you can’t put your hands on me” as she stomped up the aisle to the galley, got on the phone and called the police.  Not airport security, the police!  And 5 minutes later two big police officers came on board and took the passenger and his wife and his baby off the plane.  Pretty stunning.  Even more stunning was the reaction of the flight attendants!  They high-fived each other (no kidding) and were all smiles.  And all I could think of was what I had just read:  “We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.” 

Now, clearly, a passenger should never touch a flight attendant.  And so that needed to be dealt with.  But the flight attendant very clearly created that situation and that outcome.  And the glee with which she called the cops spoke volumes about a culture that just isn’t focused on the customer experience.   Actually, I’m not sure what that culture is focused on.  I just know it isn’t focused on great customer service.

So here’s the point:  when the customer and customer service employees are enemies, no good can come from that.  No good if you’re a passenger who yearns to be treated like a human and not like one of a herd and just wants to go home.  No good if you’re an employee who longs to be part of something bigger, better and more affirming.  No good if you’re a union bargaining for higher pay, less costly benefits and job security.  No good if you’re a money-losing company in a money-losing industry that competes hard for every customer and struggles with customer loyalty.  No good if you’re a shareholder of the company and are looking for a positive return on your investment.  And no good if you’re a cop who would really rather be fighting crime than mediating between a company and its customers.

The rest of the passengers became very quiet and subdued for the remainder of the flight.  But when we finally did reach our destination and the flight attendants were saying their buh-bys with their fake smiles, not one passenger smiled or spoke back to them.  I waited to be the last to deplane so I could see if the passengers made any connection with the flight attendants.  Not one of them did.  And guess what?  I didn’t either.

There are lots of questions here for all of us in leadership and HR positions.  The ones I keep asking myself are: 

· What messages are we sending our employees about how we care for them? 
· What messages are we sending to our employees about how we want them to care for our customers?

As someone who’s spent as much as 100% of my work life traveling, I’ve commented frequently that the traveling public’s expectations for airline travel are so low that we’re satisfied when just two things happen:  that we get to our destination on the day we expect and that our luggage arrives with us.  I have a third one now:  that the airline doesn’t call the cops on us when we complain!

As for Delivering Happiness, Zappos and Tony Hsieh, more on that in an upcoming post ON MY NEW BLOG!  Come visit me at http://chinagorman.wordpress.com.  I hope to have conversations on HR, leadership and business success – oh wait, that’s all the same thing!  So join me when you can.

And thanks to Kris Dunn, my favorite capitalist for hosting my maiden voyage on the blogging waters.  He is at the same time, my buddy, The Man and the best!


Trish McFarlane

China, congrats on your maiden voyage and way to set the bar high! I would say it is hard to believe that story, but in today's world, I fear that scenes like that are playing out far too often and not just in the airline industry. It hit home when you talked about the employee and customer being enemies. Wow. That is something to ponder.

At a minimum, you should share this post with the CEO of that airline. As for the HR implications of bad customer service, we as HR professionals should be doing all we can to set the tone of good customer experience internally. It also needs to come from the top down. By adding our behavior as a model of what is expected, we can do our part to help our employees deliver that same level of service to our customers.

Welcome to the HR blogosphere China!

Chris Havrilla

Excellent first post, China! I see a lot of strong lessons here for those of us in Recruiting as well...no good if you're a candidate who wants to be treated like a person and not a resume that fell behind a desk....

I believe candidates, and in some cases even employees, expectations have become as low as the traveling public and I hope seeing a post like this can serve as a wake up call to the messages we send as companies, as well as HR & Recruiting professionals.

Looking forward to your new blog!

Jim D'Amico (HRPufnstuf)

China, great first post! I travel often, and find airline travel to be such a weird melange of good/poor service, civil travelers/unruly travelers. I've traveled on all the major carriers, and the one thing that surprises me is the total inconsistency of customer service. Some days it's spot on, great service, others it's dreadful and demeaning. I believe the same can be said of the travelers.
This is different from most other service experiences. If I go to a Best Buy or a Buffalo Wild Wings anywhere I know I'm going to be treated the same each time, it's consistent. Whether it's good or bad, it's consistent and that keeps me consistent. When customer service is inconsistent (or customer behavior for that matter), that throws 90% of the population into some sort of tizzy.
So my point is great customer service is awesome, but to get there many companies need to first strive for consistency.

John Jorgensen

China, way to start off with a bang. Great post but it is exactly what I expected from you, great insight, well written and done with a purpose. Can't wait to see you contribute to the blogging world more often.


Great post China,I witnessed a very similar situation while flying the end of last year. I now only shop and support businesses that care about winning my hard earned dollars. One would think given our depressed economy people/companies would rally to keep their existing customer population and consequently their jobs.

Thank you for bringing one of my biggest pet peeves front and center again. There is absolutely no need for poor customer service!

Congratulations and Happy 4th of July!

Joan Ginsberg

WOW! Nice post, China! We have all talked about customer service again and again - and still horror stories like this persist. We need to keep repeating this lesson until more industries get it.

Adding your new blog to my reader - thanks for adding your voice.


great start. Now what do you think of the Happiness book?

Krista Francis

Nice post, China. Maybe you should have left your book with the flight attendants for their edification?

I was just on a flight a few days ago and my seatmate, who spoke very little English, asked the flight attendant for more juice. The flight attendant refused to give it to her until she said 'please.' I thought it was so insulting to treat an adult passenger like that, especially someone who struggled with her use of our language and certainly didn't omit the 'please' out of rudeness. It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. But at least no police were called!

D Boyer

In both China's and Krista's cases, let us know what airlines were involved. If they are not held accountable, what will make them change.
And did either of you follow up in any way, Defending the other passenger, alerting the press to what was really going on, complaining to the upper management?
I don't know if I would have had the courage to do so. But maybe I need to find the courage to help from now on.
(I am not saying I would have step in right then - you do have to protect yourself around emotional loonies)

D. Kevin Berchelmann

China, you're spot on. Airline flight attendants are a bastion of idiotic anachronisms and misguided priorities. They start off by saying their "primary job is our safety..."


The "safety" line, that many of them wear like a freakin' shield to ward off demanding customers -- oh, I'm sorry, "passengers" -- is way past stupid. 95%++ of their job is about customer comfort; what occupation would allow you to do only 5% of your job well and remain employed??

Now, we've given people with a history of poor performance a bigger sword to wield: The Patriot Act. Included were two key provisions on airline security, both responsible for the unseemly application of the "Law of Unintended Consequences."

The first defined ANY PASSENGER disruptive behavior as a terrorist act; The second broadened existing criminal law so that any attempt or conspiracy to "interfere with a flight crew" became a felony. And guess who determines if that interference exists? You guessed it -- The blue-suited, wing-wearing bastion of customer non-service parked in the galley.

I generally sit in first class due to frequent flyer upgrades. The only real advantages are free drinks and bigger seats -- the service, by and large, is the same.

They need help, of the customer-attentive kind.

But that's just me...


sto credits

Capitalism Note: China Gorman is a former chief operating officer of Human Resource Management, and Human Capital Games absolute rock star. She has inspired many of us in the trenches of human resources, her accessibility, frankly, to the natural and leadership make me proud to support human resources. She is so good at engaging the people around her, and she made me reconsider the role of Human Resource Management in my career, this is a Sunni and Shites on line, hand in hand, sing the song size feat "We are the world "and George Bush, Dick Cheney and Hansen.After reading this, I admire the woman very much,I should learn from her,thank you very much.


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