Steve Denning

The Seven Deadly Words

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 25 Comments

No matter how tightly you run your ship, not everything will always go according to plan. That’s life.

What matters is how you deal with setbacks, mistakes and mess-ups.

Whether you run a one-person operation or you employ over 33,000 people worldwide, if you don’t go out of your way to treat your customers as if they’re the most important asset to your business, you’re playing Russian roulette with your reputation. This week, US Airways completely dropped the ball.

Before I tell you what happened, there’s something you should know.

My wife has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable chronic disease of the central nervous system.

Symptoms differ from person to person, and can include muscle weakness, spasms, numbness, coordination and balance issues, problems in speech and swallowing, bowel and bladder difficulties, visual problems and fatigue.

We don’t yet know what causes MS, but we do know that MS symptoms can be triggered by physical exertion, overstimulation, temperature changes and stress.

Now think about the joys of modern day air travel. Who doesn’t feel overstimulated, stressed and fatigued after a day of going in and out of airplanes? Even if you don’t have MS, it can wipe you out.

Since my wife was diagnosed, we have learned to pace ourselves. Take our flight to Fort Lauderdale. My wife was invited to speak and perform at an MS gathering (she’s a flutist), and we were scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon. That way she would have plenty of rest to be ready for her appearance the next day.

Unfortunately, our first flight to Philadelphia was delayed by thirty minutes. When we were in the air, the flight attendant assured us that we would make our connecting flight to Florida, as long as we’d alert personnel on the ground who were supposed to be waiting with a wheelchair. They would need to let the gate know that we were on our way, and that the doors of the plane had to be kept open.

That morning we learned three lessons:

1. Don’t expect employees of the same airline using the same computer system to communicate with one another, let alone pay any attention to instructions.

When we arrived there was no wheelchair, a scene that would repeat itself at different times at different gates and different airports. As one of the pursers remarked:

“The guys responsible for getting you off the plane are usually chatting or playing with their cell phones. We almost always have to get them.”

And as we were waiting, time was ticking away.

2. Never trust or act upon the advice of one employee.

We asked four different people involved in ground transportation to notify the gate that we were coming. Some told us they couldn’t do that. Others shouted “Later!” and ran away.

In order to get to the gate, my wife had to jump into an electric car, onto a shuttle bus and into a wheelchair that took her to another electric car. For fit and able-bodied people this is no big deal, but if you have MS it is an ordeal.

3. People are oblivious of their environment.

If you’ve been at an airport lately, you might have noticed a familiar phenomenon. Almost everybody is connected to some kind of portable device, which completely disconnects them from reality. They’re all in their little bubble, totally unaware of, or seemingly uninterested in the rest of the world.

This becomes obvious when you’re in one of those electric cars used to transport passengers from gate to gate. Don’t expect people parading the aisles of the terminals to step aside. They don’t see the car coming. They don’t hear it beep. They don’t hear the driver shout. And when the car finally manages to pass by, people look peeved because they were almost run over.

Meanwhile, the passengers inside are holding on for dear life as they try to balance their bodies while keeping their luggage from falling off. The jerky movements of the car as it is attempting to avoid human roadblocks, are enough to make a healthy person seasick. Believe me, by the time we arrived at our gate, my wife wasn’t doing so well.

That’s why it was a huge relief to see that the plane was still there. As I was taking our luggage off the car, the woman at the US Airways desk looked at me and said in a stern voice:

“Sir, this gate is closed. The plane is leaving.”

I said to her: “Did anybody notify you that we were on our way?” “No,” she answered. “Any chance we could still get on board?” I asked. We really need to catch that flight.” “Sir,” she said in an annoyed tone,  “I told you that this gate is closed. We do not keep planes waiting.”

I told her that I’d been on many flights that had left a few minutes late so as to accommodate passengers coming in from other flights.

The woman at the counter looked at me as if I had just murdered her baby. Then she said these seven deadly words:


There and then I learned my fourth lesson:

4. Body language is far more powerful than any word in the Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

“What are we to do?” I asked the unhelpful employee. “Go to Customer Service,” she said. “They will get you on the next flight.”

When our car took off again, the driver asked:

“When you landed in Philadelphia, did you let the people on the ground know you had to catch this flight?” I told her we did.

“Well,” she said, “There’s absolutely no reason why you should have missed it.”

As we approached the Customer Service desk, my wife had to get into another wheelchair. I could tell she was exhausted.

“Yes?” said the woman behind the counter, as she was trying to type a message with her long, artificial nails. As I explained what had happened, I learned a few more lessons from the US Airways book of customer treatment:

5. Never give a customer your full attention. You have far better things to do. Keep on staring at your computer screen and continue typing.

6. It’s not important that you understand the customer. The customer needs to understand you.

7. No matter what happens, do not show any signs of empathy.

“So, you arrived late at your gate,” concluded the customer service rep. “Boarding time was over. Let me see when the next flight leaves.”

“But the flight attendant assured us we would make it,” my wife replied.

“She should never have told you that,” the rep said.

8. When things go wrong, blame someone else.

“We asked four people on the ground to make a call to the gate and no one could be bothered,” my wife continued.

Sir, what are their names?” the rep wanted to know.

I looked at my wife who appeared to be fading fast.

“We were in a hurry to catch this flight,” I explained. “There was no time to write down people’s names. The driver of the electric car told me the gate could have been kept open a little longer.”

“She should never have said that,” retorted the rep. “Your next flight leaves in six hours.”

“But I have a medical condition,” said my wife. “I can’t wait that long. What do you suggest we do?”

“Sir,” said the rep, “I suggest you go to the gate and wait just like all the other passengers.”


9. Ignore people in wheelchairs. Always talk to the caregiver.

At that point I was really getting ticked off. My wife was treated as if as she didn’t exist and I asked the rep to include her in the conversation.

“I have MS,” my wife continued. “I need to lay down. The right side of my face is already numb. I can’t see properly. I’ve lost my sense of balance and I’m having trouble swallowing.”

“Is there a place we could go to,” I tried. “A quiet place where she can put her feet up and close her eyes. A first-class lounge perhaps?”

“There are Minute Suites at the airport,” the rep said.

“That sounds like a solution,” I said. “Could you get us a room?”

“We could get you there, but we wouldn’t pay for it,” the rep answered. “It’s $30 per hour.”

“Look,” I said as I was getting increasingly frustrated, “it wasn’t our fault we missed this flight. In what way can US Airways accommodate us for what happened? I shouldn’t have to pay $30 per hour out of pocket.”

“Sir,” the rep responded, “you can always file a complaint and send us the bill, but I can practically guarantee you that we won’t pay for it. You missed that flight.


At that point I asked to speak to her manager.

When he arrived, my wife could hardly hold her head up and parts of her face were twitching. “I can barely swallow,” she said. “If I don’t lie down now, things will only get worse. Your employee said there was nothing she could do for us.”

The manager looked at me and said: “Sir, your wife is obviously upset. Could I talk to you alone for a moment?”

“Absolutely not,” I responded. “We are a team and we’d like to know what you can do to help us. We’re stranded for six hours and my wife needs to rest because she has MS. The longer we wait, the worse it gets. I don’t feel we should have to pay for accommodation. It’s not our fault we missed that plane.”

“Sir,” said the manager, “US Airways has no arrangements with any hotels and we can’t put you up at our lounge. That would be more expensive than these Minute Suites and we’re not paying for that. If I were to offer that to you, I would get fired. Now, do you want to get me fired?”

That did it for me. I snapped.

“All I want is a quiet space for my wife while we wait, and I’d like US Airways to pick up the tab. You turn this around and make it about you losing your job? This is not about you. This is about my wife.”

I stopped for a moment and looked at him. “The stress of having to deal with your customer service -or lack thereof- is triggering all of my wife’s symptoms. Can’t you see that? Are you sure you don’t have anything to offer to us?”

He said: “We did. We booked you on another flight and we told you about the Minute Suites. Other than that, THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU. You have to be reasonable. I need your name and email address so I can file a report.”

Eventually, we ended up going to a Minute Suite and the organization that had invited my wife to speak, agreed to pay for a couple of hours.

Two hours later, when I stepped out for a moment, I saw the US Airways customer service rep drop off two meal vouchers for us. They were ten dollars each.

Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed as well, and as usual, there was no wheelchair waiting for us at the gate in Florida, even though I had specifically and repeatedly reminded ground personnel to make arrangements. After another half hour wait for the car service, we finally arrived at the hotel around 10:30 PM, 14 hours after we had left our home.

Stepping out of the car, it was as if we had entered a different world. Staff at the Mariott warmly welcomed us with a smile and did everything they could to make our stay as pleasant as possible.

The next day I did some research on airlines and customer service. It turned out that Forbes-contributor Steve Denning had had a similar experience:

“The US Airways gentleman on telephone was the quintessential unhelpful bureaucrat from Hell. He was following rules and doing what he had been told was the right thing to do and saving money for the airline in the short run. The only problem for US Airways that his behavior was rapidly turning me into a vocal detractor of US Airways—someone who would tell the world how badly I was being treated. The agent whom I met at customer service was trying hard, and was being very helpful and pleasant about it, but she was hemmed in by company policies that prevented her from delighting me.

The airline has no provision to deal with the obvious and recurring problem of people who don’t make their connection because of flight delays. Instead the problem is dumped on the passenger to solve, by waiting in a long queue, increasing the level of frustration.”

Denning continues:

“Over the last two decades, there has been an epochal shift in the balance of power from seller to buyer. Today the customer has options and access to good information, can avoid companies whose principal objective is taking money from our wallets and putting in their own. As a result, companies whose primary goal is to make money are vanishing off the face of the planet, ever more rapidly. Studies show that the life expectancy of firms in the Fortune 500 is down from around 75 years to less than 15 years, and fast approaching five years.

(…) The future belongs to firms like Apple, Amazon and which are dedicated to delighting us. It is some consolation that companies that do not delight us will not be with us much longer.”

As I was reading his words, my mind wandered back to that dreadful day at the airport. Like Denning, we had noticed that some people still seemed to care about the customer. I particularly remember that young guy whose shift had ended but he still insisted on helping my wife get to a room where she could rest. Or the lady back home at Allentown International Airport. She was there with a wheelchair and she stayed with us until we were picked up.

As I said in the beginning: not everything always goes according to plan. That’s life. When something goes wrong:

  • Acknowledge it
  • Show some empathy
  • Listen actively
  • Understand first. Then be understood
  • Be accountable
  • Seek solutions
  • Don’t make matters worse
  • Make matters right

It’s a well-known fact that if a person has a great experience, they will tell only a few people. However, if that same person has had a bad experience, they will most likely tell 30 to 40 people.

Whether you run a one-person business or a global corporation, the reputation of your brand rests on the number of positive interactions your customers have with you.

Adopt the attitude that is central to the way the Walt Disney Company consistently delights its customers. When something goes wrong, here’s what they say to their employees:

10. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem. Do whatever you have to do to fix it.

How’s that, compared to:


Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Next week, part one of my Media Training mini series.