Customer service Engagement Training & Development

Reaching the Breaking Point: A Lesson from JetBlue

Back from my summer blog break, I want to address the recent JetBlue flight attendant incident. For those who may have tuned out while vacationing the week of August 9th, here’s the condensed version: Flight attendant Steve Slater snaps after dealing with uncooperative, unruly passenger; launches into an expletive-laced speech on the plane’s intercom; and then opens and slides down the emergency evacuation chute to head home where he’s later arrested. A rather unique display of “take-this-job-and-shove-it” that generated a media frenzy and had people weighing in: those who hailed the flight attendant as a workplace “hero” for standing up to customer abuse vs. those who faulted him for not doing a better job of maintaining his cool as a customer service professional. (There was another group somewhere in the middle. A friend of mine commented, “He shouldn’t have done it, but damn!, what a hoot that he did.”)

Many factors contribute to customer frustration and rage – economic pressures, customer-unfriendly policies (not limited to the airline industry), poor customer service, even weather – as this summer’s heat wave made people cranky. Employees aren’t immune to these same factors in addition to dealing with demanding customers and/or employers.

How do you cope with workplace stress?
The owner of a small service-based business told me about her experience dealing with difficult customers – sharing what she refers to as her “call of last resort.” A customer called about a service bill he received, complaining the price was too high; this was after the work was completed. The business owner calmly explained that the price was based on the materials and labor involved, and that the customer’s wife had been given an estimate of the work in advance and agreed to it. The customer repeatedly complained about the price and would not listen to the business owner. She finally ended the call by saying, “Sir, your time is valuable; so is mine. We’ve reached the end of this conversation, and there is nothing more to say. Have a good day. Goodbye.” While she says this respectfully and sincerely, she admits it’s satisfying to have the last word.

Customer interactions vary by industry and may call for different responses to difficult situations. But how can they be handled without reaching the breaking point?

Start here
JetBlue’s incident can serve as a springboard to review your organization’s approach to difficult and/or abusive customers. I suggest engaging employees in thoughtful discussions based on the following questions:

  • What IS an acceptable way to handle difficult customers?
  • How can we deal with such customers while preserving our brand’s integrity?
  • What (if any) of our current policies contribute to customer frustration?  What can be changed to minimize this frustration?
  • What are our options when customers become abusive?
  • What coping strategies or healthy ways can employees use to deal with this stress?
  • Does the company have guidelines to help employees with this? If so, do they know what the guidelines are? And do employees have the necessary training and skills to apply them?

This discussion list is not exhaustive; additional questions are most welcome. I also invite you to share your experiences in helping employees deal with difficult customer situations before they exit the emergency chute.

6 replies on “Reaching the Breaking Point: A Lesson from JetBlue”

Unfortunately, in this situation, Steve Slater punished all of Jet Blue’s customers (on-board passengers) for the actions (alleged) of one passenger. This is the equivalent of a Blanket Policy which is never perfect for every situation.
I agree that many need preparation for tough times but let’s ensure that the preparation does not become a blanket policy – which is usually the choice of managers who don’t trust their own people to solve problems nor do they empower them to do so. People will lean on and use the policy as an excuse to not take their own initiative and solve a problem (Sorry, it’s company policy).
Slater’s stupid and selfish antics punished all passengers and directly hit Jet Blue’s finances because of his arrogance. Jet Blue should sue his butt for damage to their reputation and then issue a free flight to the passengers on board that day as an apology.
Until there is a consequence to leaning into tirades in front of customers, this will happen again because it gets you your 15 minutes of fame.

@Chip, Phil, Dawn, Matt: Thank you all for your wonderful advice & suggestions on helping employees deal with difficult customer situations. Here’s hoping that organizations will take this information to heart to help their employees. Just as important, employees could also be engaged in reviewing operations/systems to identify and remedy opportunities to reduce customer frustration.

Great post, Sybil. Great service recovery starts with front line employees who are trained and empowered to show calm, confidence, and competence under service duress. The factors leading to such effective employee engagement are well known. One piece often missed is helping front line servers like Steve differentiate between the “customer from hell” and the “customer who has been through hell.” The former erode your brand, invade the self-esteem of the front line, sabotage your organization, and use every service encounter to vent their fury instead of paying a counselor to help them cope with their issues.
There are times “firing the customer” is the right thing to do. Leaving frontline employees in the line of fire without the know-how and authority to effectively do that can lead to the “take this job and shove it” reaction of the JetBlue flight attendant. We all have our times when we are the “customer who has been through hell” and feel “mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.” But, in the hands of a compassionate, skilled, and caring front line server who would rather partner than pout, we learn to channel our frustration in more responsible ways.
ER nurses are able to endure all manner of job stress when they are a part of helping to heal a broken body; front line employees are able to endure all manner of job stress when they are a part of helping to heal a broken relationship.

Great questions for dealing with difficult customers Sybil. It’s key that we offer positive ways to deal with stress, and effective ways to escalate the situation.
The best way to train for crazy situations though is to deal with it. I’d show the video, or a similar video of an employee getting abused, show the WRONG way to respond, and then talk about why it was wrong, and how it could be handled better. It’s a serious matter, but I find that light hearted training often brings out the real problems; that employees don’t feel empowered to handle or escalate difficult customers.
While the customer isn’t always right…they are ALWAYS the customer, and should be treated as such!

Sybil, I love your list of questions and your recommendation that they should be discussed with employees before something hits the fan! All too often, the “what should we have done” questions come after the fact. Good training around customer service should be centered around just the kinds of questions you pose here on a repeated basis.
There should also be a clear system of escalation of customer complaints. Not every employee can process and resolve every situation. They don’t know how far they can go to accommodate a concern or if they should. So employees need to know where to go next and who has the last word. The smaller the business the fewer options. When there is good escalation and customers believe they are talking to a “higher up” their tone, approach, and expectations sometimes soften. If they don’t and they know where the buck stops, then reality just kicks in!
This is a terrific and timely piece, Sybil. Thanks. ~Dawn

Not every customer is right, and not every customer is necessarily going to be rational in their interaction with you either.
But by listening, apologizing, understanding their situation and/or point of view, and making an honest attempt to rectify the situation for them (or at least ask directly what could be done to make things right), you’ll diffuse the majority of sticky customer situations.
For too many companies, engaging upset customers is by default a defensive situation. There’s no reason that needs to be the case. Let the customer be heard, take them seriously, and collaborate on a solution. Nine times out of ten, you’ll more quickly resolve the situation by giving up far less than you expected to have to give. Plus, oftentimes the most prickly customers can turn into your most passionate customers – if you treat them right.

Leave a Reply