TSA Can’t Even SPELL “Customer Service”!

October 2, 2007 on 4:38 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Customer service is a topic we touch on often here, and not just in the context of your government customer or your government contract, because in terms of service – all customers are the same. A customer is anyone who can affect your revenue stream – either positively or negatively. It continues to amaze me how, despite the obvious shift of our economy from an industrial one to a service economy, how so many companies and “service” organizations still just don’t get it. They do not emphasize customer service, they do not teach customer service, and apparently they do not expect their employees to provide customer service. The absence of it, and even the direct antagonism of your customers, is not something that warrants discipline. Maybe their management just never learned it themselves.

 

A recent experience highlights this. I was passing through the SEATAC airport after teaching a class at

Fort Lewis (home to many of our fighting soldiers who are paying the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedoms) and it was also the same day that the Stennis sailed into port after a seven and a half month deployment. As I proceeded through security I noticed that the stanchions extended for about 50 yards down the concourse in about seven layers, indicating that there were times when the lines at the security check points were amazingly long. On this day they were relatively short and moving fairly quickly. As I waited to unload my computer from its case, one of the TSA agents begins barking out (and I use that word intentionally). “Listen up!” he says commandingly, as if addressing a group of five-year-old little leaguers. “We’ve been telling you people for over a year now that you have to keep your gels and fluids to a 3.4 ounce container and that they have to be separated in a baggie. We keep telling you people this and you just aren’t listening. This is what is tying up the lines. You can’t bring sodas, jellies, or even peanut butter through here. You have to drink up or eat up before you get to the front of the line. This has been the rule for over a year now and you just aren’t paying attention. You will be stopped at the checkpoint and you will have to throw those items away. So pay attention!”

 

I may be paraphrasing slightly, but this just happened about ten minutes ago, so it is pretty fresh in my mind. While I may have some of the words out of order, this is pretty much verbatim what was said. So let’s take a look at this and see if this falls into ANY of the categories of providing good customer service.

 

First of all the “you people” he was addressing are not a unified lot. It was a Friday evening before a holiday, so I can assume that there were many people traveling who do not do so regularly. Perhaps he was not happy that he had to work on a holiday weekend; perhaps he is a man of little patience naturally. I do know that as a regular traveler, I didn’t need to be talked to like an elementary school student. I heard many comments through the line of “Who does he think he is?” “Why is he talking to us like that?” “Watch out, he’s got a badge; don’t screw with these guys.” “What does he think we are idiots?” “Why doesn’t he just shut up and do his job. That would make the line move faster.” And “What is he talking about – there isn’t any line here at all!” One of the scanners responded to one such comment, “Those are the rules!” as if he was certain that we were all idiots and could not be trusted to find our way to our departure gate unless he took us by the hand. Several people (me included I must confess) were so distracted by Richard’s rant (I later asked and found out it was Pastor Richard who was preaching to us that evening!) that they failed to clear all of their pockets of metal. I forgot the cell phone on my clip and had to go back through the scanner. These events, of which there was suddenly a rash, tied up the line more than anything else I observed. Yes, there probably were people who had not followed the “rules” and were being forced to part with their personal property. I’m sure they were not happy about that, and this is not intended to be a comment on the standards set by DHS/TSA although such a blog would be equally appropriate. But it is the TSA agent’s job to educate and enforce – not disparagingly preach and berate.

 

And any employee who simply states “those are the rules” should never be allowed contact with customers. Yes – rules exist for a reason, and in many cases they need to be followed. But a rational rule has a rational basis. The customers in line were not commenting on the rules, as the other TSA employee erroneously concluded, they were commenting on the rudeness and inappropriateness of Richard’s discipline toward his customers. It seems that the rules trump courtesy, at least to this group of TSA employees.

 

So back to Richard’s rant. He was addressing all of the travelers as if they were all similarly situated. They clearly were not. He was berating the entire concourse of people when clearly the vast majority of them should not have been the target of his ire. He spoke in a commanding way to people he was being paid to serve. He was not polite; he was not courteous, and despite his peanut butter comment juxtaposed against the jellies, he was not in the slightest humorous. And on top of it all, his comments did NOTHING to speed up the line; it had, in fact, the opposite effect. His speech, if it was to be given at all, was for people who had not yet gotten to the airport. What did he expect people to do at this point? You either were prepared to go through security or you were not. Unless you planned to guzzle a six-pack of water, or put 6.3 ounces of tanning gel on you and your traveling companions in the next thirty seconds, your choices were rather limited.

 

Customers do not need to be talked to in such a manner. Yes it is unfortunate when people do not know or understand the rules and it results in the loss of their property. They always have the option of getting out of line and finding a way to mail it to themselves, or leave it with a friend or family member who is not traveling. And when someone who wears a badge talks to people in such a manner unnecessarily – well it is pretty clear to most of us that they should not be wearing a badge. In fact, on that day in

Seattle, with the USS Stennis coming into port and my two and a half days around the noble soldiers ofFort Lewis, Richard was a disgrace to ANYONE in uniform or with a badge.

 

As the comment from the scanner monitor indicates, any TSA investigation of this will be a whitewash. After all – rules are rules. And in case any TSA people don’t yet understand this – courtesy is courtesy. I once filed a complaint with TSA because as my luggage was being inspected in plain view of the public (fortunately the dirty underwear was on the bottom), the inspector picked up a document from a stack of papers in the suitcase and began reading it. I’m not sure what he expected to learn, and he read more of it than he needed to in order to determine that it was not a terrorist plot, threat, or ransom note (it was actually the private business plan of client). He simply and blatantly invaded my privacy unnecessarily. My complaint to TSA received a pre-programmed “thanks for letting us know” response. And my follow-up was essentially ignored by coating it with non-responsive pabulum.

 

Richard did not serve the TSA well this day. Richard did a dishonor to his badge, his uniform, and to his co-workers. Richard caused about 100 or so people to think less of the TSA and to feel a need to fight back –to give them all just a little more grief; just be a little more uncooperative. Not to the point of causing a disruption, but certainly not going out of your way to talk to any one with respect when a person wearing their uniform has just dissed the general public – treating them as five year-olds, or as complete idiots. And all of this clearly with the full acquiescence of his co-workers and supervision. None of this serves the TSA customer well; we are free law-abiding citizens. When our government-sanctioned officials take an uncomfortable situation that already tramples on our liberties more than most of us like (but we grudgingly accept), and treats us with disrespect like this – we all suffer a little more and the terrorists believe they are winning. Overly dramatic? Perhaps, but in the final analysis most would agree that this is the direction toward which Richards pushes us.

 

So what can we learn from this about customer service? If you have a rant about your customers (yes they can be pretty thick-headed sometimes, but whose fault is that?) and you do it in their presence, they will not be your customers for long.  If you do not treat them with respect, your competitors will. And people remember these things for a very long time. TSA needs a better training program. TSA needs better discipline with its employees. TSA interacts with people who are stressed, afraid, and tired. Their usual clientele is not one you might naturally select. And their clientele, if given a choice, would avoid TSA altogether. The TSA employee’s job is a tough one, and it is absolutely NOT the right job for a lot of people. You need a special temperament; you need to understand verbal judo; and you need to understand how to meet your customer where they are – no matter the level of stress and confusion they (or you) may be feeling. You need to put the right people in the right positions when they will face your customer. And you need to treat your customers with a little respect. Richard’s rant did none of this. And once again I find myself called upon to appeal to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain who said, “No one is a complete waste. They can always serve as a bad example.” Thank you Richard for being today’s bad example.

 

And no, I have absolutely no expectation that TSA will do anything whatsoever about this event – despite the fact that I saw four people request and receive comment cards. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

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