Tuesday, June 09, 2009

'He doesn't have to be nice, he's our boss.'

Yesterday evening, while checking in the Salt Lake City International Airport Delta Airlines counter, I witnessed a vignette that, sadly, may be all too common.  An elderly Japanese  couple, obviously with limited English and imperfect understanding of complex airport baggage procedures walked shyly up to the counter, seeking assistance.  The florid, gray haired, slightly overweight man behind the counter was almost belligerent in responding to their questions.  His demeanor conveyed arrogance and impatience bordering on contempt.  “How could anyone be so stupid as not to speak proper English and not understand our ‘automatic check in‘ procedures” was the unambiguous message he communicated.  Happily another agent and a Japanese bystander joined the group after a few moments.   They managed to resolve the couple’s problem with little difficulty.

I remarked to the cordial young woman helping me with my baggage: “he could have been nicer to them.”  “He doesn’t have to be nice, he’s our boss,” was her response.

The remark saddened me.  Once Delta Airlines was known for the exceptional quality of its customer service.  In fact, it was one of the firms highlighted in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s best selling book, ‘In Search of Excellence.’  The fall from excellence appears to have been catastrophic. How could Delta’s top management have let this happen?   I recognize that airlines are facing tough economic times, but it is hard to see how this justifies the outright hostility towards customers (and apparently towards his own staff) that this ‘bosses’ behavior exhibited. Does it cost more to be civil and considerate?  Perhaps promoting such bosses helps explains Delta’s decline.  

I was also sad for my country.  Incidents such as the one I witnessed often create lasting impressions.  I can only hope that this experience of rude, hostile behavior is not the lasting impression of America that the old couple will take back with them to Japan.  It is a lasting impression of Delta Airlines that I will not soon forget.

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