A while ago, I had an experience with a US airline that made me vow never to fly with that airline again. I don't really fly that much (especially compared to a lot of Strengths Campus members, I'm sure), so it hasn't been all that much of a challenge to stick to my guns on this point. But I'm just stubborn enough that I think I'll be able to avoid them for the rest of my life, on principle. Even though my problems with the airline were largely of my own making.
It happened around the time that airlines first got the brilliant idea of charging for checked bags. I had paid the fee online when I checked in for my departure flight, but foolishly assumed that that covered my return flight as well. So, when I arrived at the airport just barely within the recommended time frame and went to drop off my bag, I was told that I had to check it at a kiosk. By the time I got through the bag check line, learned my error, and got to the kiosk, it was too late.
So then it was time to hit the customer service desk to figure out my next move. Again, I must grant that it was all my own fault that I wasn't there in plenty of time, and that I didn't know how to handle the bag issue. But this airline's approach to customer service was a bit off, to say the least. They had several different stations open. Each time I got in line at one, the main thing the staffer at that station seemed to be doing was directing people to another station down the line which, supposedly, had shorter lines. In obedient ovine style, I would move along to the next station, only to find longer lines. After the third time, I stopped falling for this trick and just stayed put.
At this particular line, there was a customer service agent mingling with the customers to... well, I'm not sure what she was doing, really. She wasn't offering any help or advice. She just talked to people. I mentioned to her that I felt like I was getting the runaround. I must admit that I was not especially polite. I wouldn't say I was rude, but my tone was not particularly understanding. Now, let me say that I'm Canadian by birth and upbringing, and I like to think that I usually live up to the "polite Canadian" stereotype. I apologize to people who run into me in the mall when I wasn't even moving. I normally go out of my way to tell customer service people on the phone that I understand how they're not personally responsible for whatever problem I'm having. But on this day, I was a little exasperated, and I let it show. A little. No raised voice, no stream of invective, no curses on anybody's ancestors. Just a bit of frustration.
The customer service agent may have been having a bad day, too. I have no idea what it's like to work at an airline these days. It must be difficult to deal with layoffs and job uncertainty and the general stress of travelers, all day, every day. But her approach struck me as a little counterproductive. Rather than trying to placate me or even explain why things were working the way they did, she chose to complain about me to the customer behind me in line. They continued to converse, and she complained to him about how this airline had been cutting back on customer service staff and making it difficult to deal with all the people who come through the airport. Feeling conciliatory and repenting of my earlier peevishness, I attempted to sympathize by chiming in that it was too bad that she had to bear the brunt of those cutbacks, opining that it's all too easy for executives to think that customer service can be cut without any direct impact to the bottom line, but it really can make a difference.
The customer service representative proceeded to reinforce my point by telling my line-mate, "Don't listen to him. He's just mad because he got here too late for his flight."
And so, at that moment, I vowed never to give another dime of my money to the airline whose uniform she was wearing. So, maybe she was having a bad day. But I had to wonder: who made the decision to let this particular individual directly interact with customers? How was she screened for being suitable for the job? It was a simple lesson that reinforced for me one of the cardinal rules of the strengths-based approach to work. If someone isn't naturally drawn to an activity, you're making a mistake by making her do it anyway. I'm sure that this individual had many wonderful qualities and many strengths to offer, but I'd venture to guess that a penchant for dealing with difficult people (like me) wasn't one of them. It's certainly not a glamorous job. Not everybody is suited to it. But that's all the more reason you have to find those rare people who are.
But perhaps I'm completely out of line on this one. If you've had your fill of dealing with jerks like me, feel free to let me know in the comments.
I'm still not flying on that airline again, though.