Eat That Cookie! What I learned from a chance meeting at the airport

Service organizations can have toxic qualities and some of these are indeed changeable. Positive attitudes can be transformative. If your service organization isn't all it should be, here is a very personal story and a review of a book that can change the business results your firm experiences.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

I fly – a lot. That said, I and other passengers are usually treated like chattel by the airlines. Their disdain towards us, the flying public, gets transmitted like a virus to the passengers. It creates a bad atmosphere in the waiting areas, the check-in counters, the planes, baggage, etc. The bad feelings can start with either a bad attitude on the part of a customer or an airline employee. Regardless of the inception, the service professionals of the airline industry should be the ones who rise above it all and create that aura of flying enjoyment.

Because I get this, I try, I really do, to be diplomatic, cool and helpful to other passengers. In even really bad situations, I try to take the high road. I trade seats to accommodate travelers flying together although the airline has separated them. I give away free drink coupons on Southwest to newlyweds, partiers, and others. I even say hello to the people with me on the overly constricted seats on my row. And, when that ever rarer moment occurs when American Airlines lets me upgrade on a transcontinental, I even thank the airline employees for this opportunity.

I ended up sitting next to Liz Jazwiec at Chicago’s Midway airport the other day. We were waiting for our respective flights to board but a bad bit of weather was delaying these planes in ever longer intervals. Initially, we had no conversation but 3-4 hours of delays forced us to help each other out. It started with watching each other’s bags while flight statuses were checked, food was acquired, etc. Eventually, we ended up having a good conversation while waiting through these delays.

Liz does a lot of public speaking and training, like me, but her clientele includes hospitals and nurses. She wrote a book call Eat That Cookie! (that I’ve since read) that describes her personal journey from being one of those ER nurse supervisors with a poor attitude in a hospital in a bad neighborhood to a completely different individual with a different attitude towards work and patients. Her book, as hokey as it seems I’m describing, is about introducing workplace positivity and how that changes workers, retention and service/customer satisfaction levels.

I particularly liked the story in this book. It’s a personal journey of discovery and self-awareness that could and should transfer across to countless managers and supervisors in many, many industries. It should be required reading in airlines and I’d encourage Liz to add that industry to her clientele.

The book is more than the Golden Rule (i.e., Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you) but, that rule is at the heart of what every service person is supposed to do and live. I know dealing with the public is tough but I’ve also been in those service shoes, too. What more service people need to understand is that when you treat a customer with indifference, disrespect, disdain or discourtesy, you will trigger a corresponding, and negative, reaction from the customer. I know it works with me. I do not tolerate dismissiveness, talking down, bad attitudes, inattention, etc. from service workers.

On the other end of the spectrum, I become elated when I deal with someone who shows interest in my situation and talks with me as a peer. Even if that person cannot help me, I can at least walk away satisfied that this person tried to help. More often than not, I get someone who is reading from a script, told not to vary from it and has no authority to do anything. Worse, they only listen to problems but do not and cannot escalate or solve matters. When I feel I am wasting my time, I want to get mad. Instead, I write a letter to that firm’s CEO. I did just that last week to one Fortune 500 firm. When I’m treated poorly, I refuse to suffer fools. I go to the top. I go to the press. I go to government regulators. I keep going until I get satisfaction or until I have to go elsewhere.

Liz’s book highlighted something I’ve noticed repeatedly. Bad attitudes by service workers often originate from service people who think little of their customers and then reinforce those opinions by fostering bad stereotypes of them to other workers. It creates an air of superiority of service workers over the public they are supposed to serve. Her book has some great examples of workers believing that customers should be grateful that these service workers did anything for the customers. While it sounds logical from the service worker perspective, it is 180 degrees off. It also fosters a really bad work environment that only gets continually worse for everyone involved.

Even if you’re managing service people in a non-hospital world, this short, fast read is a good one. Change management consultants might also find it interesting for two reasons: a) the air of superiority issue they will likely see in organizations; and, b) the journey Liz went through. Of the latter, I found it fascinating to see how the path unfolded and how it created a changed individual. That’s a process no diagram or work plan can do justice.

Editorial standards