suitcaseMy recent trip to and from my Vassar College reunion in upstate New York necessarily involved multiple service and transportation providers. There were some surprising wins and some unexpected fails in my customer experience.

Carol recently wrote a post about the one thing that you should tell every employee, and I have some clear examples of when this worked beautifully – and when it did not.

As a case study, I present my trip for the ugly, the good, and the unexpectedly nice customer experience.

The Ugly

I had some miles that were expiring so I had to fly on American Airlines. The flight to New York was OK, but going home…not so much. I arrived at Newark Airport really early – like 3.5 hours early. I checked in and the ticket agent took my luggage, which was good. I knew there were thunderstorms in Chicago but I was assured that my flight was still on schedule.

Since I had oodles of time, I treated myself to a good dinner and drinks. A little more than an hour before I was scheduled to depart, I decide to brave security – only to find that my flight had been cancelled. I had received no text or e-mail notification about this. American knew I was at the airport since I had already checked in. This was not good.

So I went to the ticket agent who checked me in initially. He remembered me and said he was surprised I wasn’t notified. (Me too!) It was an annoying hassle to figure out where my luggage was and get it back. First he told me it was on baggage carousel X, then on the flight that just left, then heaven knows where. Pro tip: Travel with unusual luggage so one of the baggage guys remembers seeing it and brings it up to you.

My luggage found, I tried to get on the earlier flight leaving in 20 minutes and now the last flight out. Nope! No way, no how. I was already rebooked on a 6 AM flight, although American didn’t tell me that. Where was I supposed to spend the next 11 hours? I asked for a hotel voucher but was told none were available for this type of delay. I tried asking a few different ways. Was it because I had a “free” flight? Hmmmm. I was not feeling the love.

Having spent many, many nights on the floor of Newark airport in my 20s during the People Express days, I was not in a hurry to repeat the experience. I decided to get on Hotwire and book a hotel. (See below for that.)

The American ticket agent then happily changed my ticket and booked me on a noon flight out so I could enjoy my hotel and get some rest. I guess that was one perk for not throwing a fit about the hotel voucher.

The Good

I love Hotwire, especially at times of crisis. Discounted 3.5 star hotel with an airport shuttle, free Wi-Fi, and an indoor pool for $72 – yes please! Great service in a crunch.

The Crowne Plaza at Newark was a lovely hotel with sweet, helpful staff. It was a balm for this weary traveler’s soul. Will I write them a good review on Hotwire? Absolutely. Am I giving them a nice shout-out here? Absolutely. Good customer service pays off because our expectations are so low.

The Unexpectedly Nice

It’s a bus to shuttle to plane thing to get to/from upstate New York. The charter service that Vassar hired to transport us from Manhattan had a big bus and a smaller shuttle for overflow. The driver, Vinnie, was amazing. He cheerfully directed me to the nearest rest room, offered me a place on his shuttle, and took my bag.

He was not a jerk about the fact I hadn’t reserved a place like I was supposed to. He didn’t make me go to the big bus first, which was across the street and halfway down the block. No, he just made everything work. He offered all of us water and chips too. How can you make your customer’s life easier instead of quoting company policy? Please steal this best practice. I’ll be using Vinnie as an example of a great employee brand ambassador.

The other unexpected joy was the incredibly kind football-player sized airport employee giving directions for the shuttle buses while the usual monorails were out of service. He volunteered to listen to my tale of travel woe in a Yoda-like fashion. He had nothing to gain from this. He even offered to help me with my luggage and personally escorted me to the spot to wait. We talked about Chicago and how he hoped to get there some day. My bad day got better. I made his day by telling him that he had made mine. And I left with better feelings about Newark Airport.

The Takeaways

Here are some things that you can learn from my experience:

  • If you are going to make changes, notify your customers. Most people carry smartphones with them. Text or e-mail the information as soon as you can. It breeds good will! And free word-of-mouth advertising.
  • Make a personal connection with customers. Introduce yourself and offer little extras when possible. It’s a way to differentiate your business in a sea of service providers.
  • Frequently remind your employees – all levels of employees – that they are the face of your brand and treat all customers well. And try to be extra helpful whenever you can because people do remember that!

So my trip ended well. Relaxed and rejuvenated after my hotel stay, I am pleased to report that my make-up flight back to Chicago was on time and uneventful.

But I find myself chewing on my different customer experiences during this trip. Nothing really compensates for so-so customer service, at least not for me.