When customers reward employees

January 23, 2012

In a time when brands manage their employees to build positive engagements with their customers, it’s amazing how far simple recognition for their efforts can go...

Most brands these days understand the importance of their employees rewarding their customers with a remarkable experience. But what happens when customers reward employees directly?

The other day I was scheduled to fly out of a major west coast airport on one of the top airlines whose future and reputation has been recently in the news. Traditionally, this airline is very corporate, established and formal in their interactions with passengers. But not on this flight.

As the first and business class passengers boarded the plane, they immediately deplaned because the pilot had an indicator light in the cockpit. Maintenance had to be called to check it out. The gate agent used the PA to tell the passengers anxiously hovering around the gate that it didn’t look good, he’d seen this type of problem before and if it couldn’t be fixed, which he doubted, then there was not other substitute plane and everyone would have to be put on red-eye flights 7 hours later.

Then the captain himself got on the mic. The problem was that someone on the previous flight had stopped up the lavatory. And with a 767 fully loaded, the pilot would not fly with only two lavs cross-country. But that wasn’t his only announcement. Over the next 3 hours, the captain got on the PA and gave constant updates on the actual status of the plane and the maintenance work. He was candid, clear and honest about the potential for repairs and when we might get to take off. He even visited the hanger to see for himself.

When he came back with the thumbs up after a discussion with the maintenance crew, he told everyone to grab a bite because we were heading out shortly. I went over to the closest burger restaurant and, while eating at the counter, the captain himself came over to get his dinner to go. Spontaneously, I said I’d pay for his dinner. Initially, he was a bit embarrassed, but I insisted it was my way of showing appreciation for his being so straightforward and a stand up guy. He said it was the first time in his long career that a passenger ever bought him dinner.

It must have made quite an impression because during the five-hour flight, two senior flight attendants came by my seat and asked me if I was the gentleman who bought the captain the hamburger. When I said it was my gesture for his actions in treating the passengers with honesty and respect, they both said it was the captain’s true personality. When we landed in New York and I walked down the aisle to deplane, there was the captain standing outside of the cockpit, waiting to shake my hand again to thank me with a big smile.

In a time when brands manage their employees to build positive engagements with their customers, it’s amazing how far such a simple recognition for their efforts can go: All the way across the country.

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