Big Business does some things that are utterly necessary in modern society. They build airplanes and cars. They run airlines, phone companies, credit card companies and banks. But there is not a person among us, including employees of big businesses, that has not withered with frustration from confronting these businesses with a problem and then receiving little or no results.
Even though big businesses get the most attention, the vast majority of people in the U.S. work for small businesses. Small businesses by nature are more reactive and responsive to their customers. They are closer to the customer and more directly feel the pain of any problem. I have a saying, “It is not that you make a mistake, as everyone makes mistakes, but it is how you deal with the mistake that keeps your customers satisfied.”
Our recent encounter with American Airlines is a prime example of the dichotomy between big and small business. We are not some random AA customer, as both my wife and I are lifetime Gold members. That is not to say the pedestrian customer should be handled as we were treated.
We flew First Class (via miles) to Miami en route to Lima, Peru. We received early notification our flight would be delayed an hour. Then it was a delayed a little longer and it became apparent we were going to miss our Miami connection to Lima. My wife -- who handles these matters -- had them change us to a flight on AA’s partner airline LAN, which is based in Peru.
Then I went to the counter and asked what was to happen with our bags, tagged for both AA flights. This person clearly did not know. I asked to speak to her supervisor who told me they should be transferred to the LAN flight. But she was not sure. I asked a simple question: “Why don’t you pick up the phone and call your people in Miami, give them the tag numbers and make sure they get transferred?” You would have thought I asked to dig up the grave of George Washington. What I asked would have been what any small business person would have done, but the supervisor just confirmed we were on the flight and sent us on our way.
Before you jump in here and think, why did we check bags?, I will tell you why. We have flown all over the world with various airlines and never had a problem. Second, our trip was for an extended time and I am partial to clean underwear and we are not keen on doing laundry on vacation.
When we arrived at the nearly-deserted Miami airport at midnight, we had to race across to the LAN terminal. We arrived at security and were told we could not enter because we did not have LAN boarding passes. We asked the security person to call ahead to LAN who said we were not booked on the flight. At this point, for very experienced travelers like ourselves, we should have gone back to American Airlines, collected our luggage and gone out on the flight the next day, but we were anxious to get to Peru. That was a strategic mistake. It was already 12:30 A.M.
We got on the phone and called the American Airlines 800 number and were told by the person who answered, “Sorry we cannot do anything at this time.” One again I said let me speak to your supervisor. ‘Amazingly’ the supervisor was able to get us on the flight. LAN sent a staff person to security with our boarding passes and we got on the flight; it was quite a nice experience with their lovely staff.
When we arrived in Lima at 5:30 A.M., we went to the LAN people and told them about our luggage. They said the bags were in Miami and coming on the American Airlines flight arriving at 9 P.M. They provided paperwork and everything appeared to be fine. We just had to go the day in our existing clothes. We checked into our hotel, slept some, acclimated to Lima and had a lovely dinner before heading to the airport to collect our luggage.
When we got to the airport we could not just go into collect our luggage because of modern security measures. We went to the American Airlines counter and handed them the paperwork. We were then told: “This is odd, your luggage is checked in on the flight that just arrived and one arriving at 4:30 A.M.” We were admitted to baggage claim where we found out our luggage did not arrive. So we went back to the American counter.
This is when big business kicked into its totally helpless mode. We asked a simple question once again: “Would someone call Miami and confirm they have our luggage and it is coming on the next flight?” We never got an answer, though I poised the question numerous times. We then asked -- you guessed it, “Can we speak to your supervisor?” While waiting another staff person steps in and tells us since LAN initiated the paperwork, they were responsible under international law. We pointed out the obvious -- LAN never had the bags, American only had had the bags, so how could they be responsible? After 40 minutes of back and forth between American and LAN, the supervisors showed up. That is when I told the AA supervisor that, as an American citizen, I am embarrassed an American company was putting this on the Peruvians. Why would anyone want to be partners with you if this is how you treat them? “Why don’t you just take responsibility for your actions? For God sakes, this could all be resolved if you just called Miami?” Fortunately, the supervisor from LAN took responsibility.
No small business would ever act this way and survive. This is what you do if your customer has a problem:
1. Apologize -- It immediately disarms the customer as angry as they may be.
2. Take Responsibility – almost no matter what happened you should have made it right the first time.
3. Tell the customer you are going to fix it and do so.
I have been coaching businesses for years that this is the way to handle problems. It works. I can only remember one time when a big company representative (AT & T) followed the three steps and I almost fell off my chair and then went on a rant about how wonderful she was. Almost always big business representatives are helpless to resolve a problem. I always end up with a supervisor after wasting untold time with a staff person un-empowered or unwilling to resolve the issue.
Americans are can-do people. We see a problem and we resolve it. That is how we run our businesses. That is why we get so flustered dealing with the airline, credit card companies or cable company when they just don’t fix what seems like an easy thing to us. If someone would have just called Miami and checked on the bags we would have all been relieved. Thankfully, the bags showed up the next morning, but one is left to wonder how these people stay in business.
This is why we hate big business. They mostly will not or cannot do. They do not empower their employees to resolve problems. They make us feel like a number. If they only heeded the three steps, they would be so much better off. It reminds me of what Ernestine said: “We don’t care; we don’t have to; we are the phone company.”