Talk is cheap? Not always

Jon_mohrWhen you show up at an airport and see people lined up waiting to get into the terminal, you know you’re in for a long trip.

That was the sight that greeted me as I climbed out of a taxi Dec. 21 at New York’s LaGuardia airport. The large storm that had rolled up the East Coast the previous few days was gone, but the snow left behind – combined with normal pre-Christmas travel rush – meant that catching a plane would be more complicated than usual, even under the best of circumstances.

Unfortunately, circumstances were not the best that morning as the airport also experienced a brief power outage, adding another obstacle to the equation. However, all the negative variables could have been adequately managed had those in charge done one thing: communicate.

The airport’s managers realized the need to keep travelers informed, and did have a few employees attempting to direct traffic. But the simple information they needed to pass along – where to go and how to get there – was not making it to the vast majority of those present. I saw one woman with a bullhorn, who didn’t seem to know how to use it, and a few other employees were stationed in such a way that they would inform people who had been in the wrong lines of their mistakes as they ended up in the wrong place, but were not out front directing them properly to begin with.

The announcement on the public address system, which most of the would-be passengers could hear, wasn’t giving instructions, but rather explaining that there had been a power outage and telling everyone to be patient.

So the security checkpoints quickly backed up, as did the ticketing counters and baggage check-in. And as more and more people arrived, fewer and fewer realized what was going on and many became confused, then impatient, then angry.

I had a better experience than most. Rather than jumping into the first line I saw to grab a spot, I made my way into the terminal to try and find out what was going on. That saved me a lot of frustration as, by asking other travelers, I learned there were several lines snaking through one another both inside and outside the terminal: some to check bags, others to get boarding passes and another for security.

I tracked down the end of the security line, which started at about the midpoint of the terminal, followed as it went to the far end of the building then did an about face and came back, snaking through itself, before heading into the maze of ropes that normally designate where passengers should line up.

And I eventually made my flight, which took off three hours late.

Everyone catching a flight from LaGuardia that day knew things would be busier than normal given the circumstances. I’m sure airport officials knew it as well, and probably even had a plan for the crowds, they just didn’t execute the plan efficiently because they didn’t communicate.

Your business may strive for perfection in everything it does, but the vast majority of your customers will forgive you when you fall short of that goal ­if you do two things correctly: clearly explain the problem, then take charge of resolving it.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. We all know instinctively that owning up to mistakes is the quickest, best way to a solution. That’s why we get upset when we see others shirking that responsibility and/or failing to take the simple steps necessary to correct a problem.

The best businesses turn mistakes into opportunities to demonstrate professionalism and build loyalty. That’s a lesson LaGuardia, and much of the airline industry, would do well to learn.

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