Is the customer always right? The general answer I hear is that the customer must be given the benefit of the doubt, and that you should do whatever possible to keep him happy.
Southwest Airlines founder, Herb Kelleher, stated that his employees were more important than the customers. He described a situation in which a passenger was abusive toward the agent working a busy counter. Kelleher was adamant that his employees should not tolerate this behavior, and it’s better to “fire” that customer. In other words, he should fly a different airline.
I was recently preparing to board a United Airlines flight, and I observed this intense discussion between a passenger and the agent scanning the tickets prior to boarding the aircraft.
Agent: I’m sorry ma’am but we’re only boarding Group 2.
Passenger: The person working the counter said that I could board now.
Agent: Right, ma’am. I understand what you are saying. If you don’t mind, will you please wait for your group number to be called?
Passenger: That guy over there told me I could come straight here and get on the plane. I’m just doing what I was told.
[The passengers waiting in line are becoming a bit frustrated with the delay.]
Agent: I believe he meant for you to wait in line until your time to board.
Passenger: He didn’t say anything like that. He said that I should go straight to the gate.
Agent: I’m sorry ma’am. At this point, we are only calling Group 1, which includes people needing a little more assistance boarding the aircraft, and uniformed military personnel. You are in Group 3, and we’ll call you here in a few minutes.
[Passenger is getting upset, and has no intention of waiting. She is probably upset about a delay in her flight, or because she didn’t qualify for a First Class upgrade.]
Passenger: Look! I don’t see where this makes any difference! I’m not going to get out of line. Why don’t you just scan my ticket, and let me get on my way.
Agent: Ma’am, I’m going to allow you to go through, but please understand the boarding protocol on future flights.
Passenger: You need to talk to your colleague working the counter and learn to communicate with each other. This is not my fault!
Agent: Anyone from Group 1 still waiting to board?
The agent did the best he could to stand his ground, but the passenger was causing too much of a scene. I suppose he could have demanded that she wait her turn, but this was going to cause a bigger issue. She stated that the agent working the counter informed her she could go straight to the gate and board. In all likelihood, she misunderstood the instructions.
Managing a rude customer is tough. The United agent did a good job keeping his composure. The vast majority of passengers are going to follow the instructions given, but some irate individuals are going to test the system. This is one of those situations where the policy is flexible enough to make an exception.
I understand that some might disagree with the agent allowing the rude passenger to board out-of-turn. However, it did calm the situation, and allowed the boarding process to continue.
I suppose this is a case in which we lose the battle, but win the war.