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These Two Words Are Ruining The Travel Service Industry

by joeheg

The travel industry is all about customer service. As a business, you provide a service to your customers. That may be transportation on an airplane, train, bus or car. It could also be a place to stay like a hotel room, villa, AirBnB or campsite. You may be responsible for feeding those visiting your town at a restaurant. Lastly, you may be providing an essential need or travel service like acting as a guide or working at an entertainment facility, historic place or a park. All these jobs are front line service positions that directly impact how much a traveler enjoys his or her trip, regardless if it’s for business or pleasure.

Back in the old days, it was easy to measure how well your customer service was doing. If the service you provided was done well, people would return. If you did really good, they might even tell their friends and you would then have more customers. If your service was bad, the customers wouldn’t come back. If you were really bad, you could be sure they would tell everyone they knew and eventually you wouldn’t have any business left.


What changed?

I guess things changed when the travel industry became more corporate. Previously, a boss or mentor would show new employees how to treat customers so they were happy. This was called “training.” You could just have a new person watch someone who was good at their job and that knowledge was passed on from person to person. When corporations got involved, customer service became standardized. All employees were expected to provide the same level of service to the customer. Companies also wanted to measure how “happy” the customers were so they sent questionnaires asking about how they enjoyed their interaction. Since you can’t quantify feelings, the questions were basic. “Were you greeted quickly?” “Did you have any problems?” Nothing about how the service was, just was a service provided.  That leads me to the first word that’s ruining the travel industry and customer service in general.


Sorry, I can’t help you. That’s just our company’s policy. There’s nothing I can do.

I hate this phrase. Yes, there is something you can do; you just won’t do it. Because it’s against the policy.

When customer service was standardized, employees were trained about company policy instead of how to treat a customer. Following the rules at all costs was more important than any individual customers satisfaction. If you were keeping to policy, you were in the right, even if you were wrong.


Signs of this are pervasive in the travel service industry. I’m sure you’ve experienced it. Whether it’s having a gate agent harass you over the size of your carry on bag or an airline that obsesses over leaving on time even if that means stranding passengers or when a hotel gives you the choice of staying the night and paying for the room or not staying the night and still paying for the room. Just recently I heard a man in front of me on my flight say they almost didn’t let him on the plane because he was checking in 44 minutes before the flight and the cutoff time was 45 minutes. I was truly surprised they ended up letting him on the plane because, according to policy, they didn’t have to. I don’t have data on this but I’d feel safe in saying that more than half of customer service problems in the travel industry are due to employees’ dependence on policy instead of common sense.

It’s not the employees’ fault though, I’m sure they had those policies crammed into their head during what is now called “training.” However, this training period no longer involves teaching you how to treat a customer but is more a series of videos or tutorials that tells you about all of the company policies. They’re usually followed by the disclaimer that, “failure to follow any of these policies can lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination of your employment.” So it’s pretty clear, follow the policy or you’re fired.

Sure, there are supervisors but they’re just as afraid of breaking the rules as anyone else. Every time they bend the rules, there’s a chance they’ll be called to defend their action. There’s also the disdain from the employee who’s just been made the bad guy and feels the boss just threw him/her under the bus when all they were doing was following the, wait for it, POLICY.

Policies aren’t bad. They’re necessary when working in companies with more than a few people. There are reasons for them ranging from legal compliance to loss prevention to operational and fiscal jurisprudence. It’s a blind devotion to policy that gets people into trouble. Applying a policy when it clearly doesn’t apply or seems unnecessary.

That leads me to the other word ruining the travel service industry.


I’m sure you’ve heard this word thrown around. It’s usually in a sentence like “We empower our employees to make the situation right.” or “An empowered employee is the key to good customer service.”

It’s a good sounding word. If you’re working with a customer, you can do what you need to in order to solve a problem. What’s wrong with that? Think about it for a second. Why do you need to tell your employees that they have the power to solve a problem? It’s probably because you’ve set up a system where they feel powerless to help someone. What could possibly do that, keep someone from doing what’s right in a situation? Maybe it’s your POLICIES? Remember those things you drilled into your employees’ brains and told them they must follow them or they’ll be fired? That’s why you have employees who are not empowered. They are slaves to policy and you made them that way.


From: 10 Powerful Quotes from Industry Leaders that will Inspire You to Empower Your Employees

Every time an empowered employees goes out of his/her way, (s)he is probably breaking a company policy. Like that time the phone rep felt sorry for you because you were sick and let you change your flight without a charge – that was against policy. That other time where you ran to the gate and just made a connecting flight because they waited a few minutes before closing the doors. The flight may have left 2 minutes late and the crew members were dinged on a report for that infraction.

Policy and empowerment are like oil and water; they don’t mix. You can try to shake them together but eventually they’ll separate back to their opposite sides. You can’t empower employees and have strict policies. How will an employee know when it’s appropriate to ignore policy? Telling employees they have the power to solve problems and then questioning them every time they do isn’t the way to keep your employees or your customers happy. When an employee feels like they are constantly being questioned about their actions, they’re going to fall back on policy. At least by following that, they’re safe. The result is just another unhappy customer but the numbers will look good on the report, and that’s all that matters.


I’m not trying to say that all companies or all employees are like this. There are definitely ones out there who set customer friendly policies (Hi there, Southwest) and employees who go out of their way to care (Hello, Tasha). It’s more the fact that these are the exceptions and not the rule. I shouldn’t be able to pick out the ONE time that I received outstanding service at a hotel.

It’s not just me. I’ve read stories from One Mile at a Time and The Points Guy about horrible customer service experiences. Gary from View From The Wing wrote how American Airlines thinks that paying employees more will improve service. I guess we all better return our seat back to the upright position and fasten our seatbelts. Until companies realize they’re sending mixed signals to their employees, I have the feeling we’re going to be in for a bumpy ride.

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[…] These Two Words Are Ruining The Travel Service Industry […]

la4alphas November 4, 2017 - 9:34 pm

The United debacles were largely a result of a culture overdependent on rigid and convoluted rules and guidelines rather than customer perspective. That rule book is awfully big and heavy! I’m constantly talking to phone and in person reps about trying to see an issue from the customer perspective and challenging them to do better. To be sure, front line staff rarely get to change the rules, but more often then not I’m met with a primary response reeking of apathy. That’s not an empowered staff.

joeheg November 4, 2017 - 11:39 pm

I was going to mention the United episode as the extreme example of rigid interpretation of policies. If you have noticed, since the publicity caused United (and Delta) to give gate agents more freedom to solve the problem there has been no problem with getting volunteers to give up seats for sufficient compensation.


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