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What A Delayed Flight Can Teach You About Empathy In Your Business

I had an experience recently taking off on a plane to Croatia but it started out as a disaster! Now, I wouldn’t call myself a flight snob (ok, I am a tiny bit picky) but I rarely fly budget airlines. Only because everytime I have I’ve been delayed (like, every single time). But sometimes there’s […]

I had an experience recently taking off on a plane to Croatia but it started out as a disaster!

Now, I wouldn’t call myself a flight snob (ok, I am a tiny bit picky) but I rarely fly budget airlines. Only because everytime I have I’ve been delayed (like, every single time).

But sometimes there’s only one flight leaving and so there’s no choice (first world problems)… and it happened to be that day.

I paid extra for speedy boarding even though I know it means nothing really – because we all get packed in; standing like sardines into a hot bus. That day was no exception. It was 5.30am and everyone was looking tired. Every time I thought, ‘the bus is surely full?’ Another couple of people squished on. It’s a good job I’m not claustrophobic or shy because at this point I was closer to body parts of the person next to me than I have been to ex-boyfriends.

So the bus drives us to the plane. So far so good. We then get told we have to stay on the bus, “we will not be opening the doors yet”. Why? Nobody knows. The driver says to stay seated. Everyone on the bus except the three old people are standing. Eyes roll.

15 minutes goes by. People are getting antsy and tutting politely. Parents are looking stressed.

Then they tell us that although everything is ready, a crew member hasn’t turned up so we can’t get on. We’re going to “give it 5 minutes to see if he shows”. Boos all round with mutterings of ‘why put us on the bloody bus then?’ ensue.

15 minutes pass and there’s a general angryness occurring. Things could get ugly.

Some woman keeps leaning on my back with her back as if I’m a lamppost or a wall. I keep myself amused by suddenly jolting forward a tiny bit every now and again so she loses balance (I know but it’s so rude to lean on a stranger and if you’ve ever been on a packed tube I know you’ve done it too!)

We then get told they’re taking us back to the airport. Shouts and swearing happen. I’m still trying to balance on one foot because there’s no room to put the other one down where my bag is and I have an armpit in my face from a grubby looking teenager but I can’t really move without standing on a small child squirming on the floor. I try not to be annoyed with the harassed looking parent letting this happen. I’ve been there. I’ve felt the eyes.

We’re back at the airport but we are not being let off the bus. I feel like cattle. Nobody knows why we can’t get off but the bus driver is bearing the brunt of the rage. He tells us to wait 5 more minutes.

10 minutes later we’re told a crew member has been found! Hurray! We’re going back to the plane! The bus driver tries to crack a joke about dejavu on the way there but nobody even sniggers. It’s a bit awkward.

We get there all eager to do the race from bus to steps but are told we can’t get off the bus. We have beaten the crew member to the plane. The kid at my feet is in full on devil screaming mode now and I’ve never seen British people get this irate. They have given up on the quiet tutting I’m used to. It’s now full on load moaning and insults about the airline.

10 minutes go by and we see a ponytailed male crew member race up the steps to the plane. We’ve all seen his face and I wonder if he realises the reception he’s going to get from the entire plane if we ever get on. I find solace in the fact that I am not him.

They open the bus doors. Cheers are shouted amongst the ‘about bloody time’ angry mutterings and we’re on. There is a plane of very angry people. There is glaring at Mr Ponytail.

But I’ve travelled enough to know there’s more bad news to come. I’m happy now I’m on the plane and on-plane delays rarely bug me so the knowledge that we must have missed our take off slot as we’re so late doesn’t worry me but I wonder how they’re going to tell these passengers that. It is going to bother them.

And then one man changes everything!

An older looking very well spoken gentleman comes out of the cockpit and takes the microphone. The pilot. He has kind eyes.

He gives a seven minute speech and it’s brilliant. He’s apologetic, funny and serious all at the same time. He explains that our comings and goings this morning are in no way acceptable. He shows empathy. He is on our side. We like him.

He then tells us that because the original crew member didn’t turn up, Mr Ponytail was dragged out of bed half an hour ago to take his place so we must be grateful to him. I don’t know if I believe this story (I’m cynical like that) but Ponytail is definitely off the hook with the passengers; some are even clapping him.

Then comes the news I suspected. We have missed our slot.

The kind-eyed pilot explains sadly but firmly that while he or the crew cannot control this (in other words don’t take it out on them) once he’s in the air he gets to be the one in control. He cheekily explains that he likes to fly fast and he’s going to make sure he gets our flight time down. He would rather be in Croatia too than on this plane (he’s just like us!)

By the time he apologises again and cracks a couple of ‘bloody crew member jokes’ the entire plane is laughing and clapping.

He’s done the impossible and got them all on side. Nobody will be moaning at anyone on this plane and they all feel grateful we’re even going anywhere thanks to the once hated but now revered Mr Ponytail. Would-be bad reviews are being turned around to ‘lovely pilot and although there was a delay, we had great customer service’.

I’m in awe of this pilot and he’s taught me a powerful lesson about business: You can turn any complainant’s mind around if you are great at communication, customer service and EMPATHY.

Empathy with a detailed explanation and a solution to even part of the problem can go a long way and turn a hater into a fan.

Well maybe. We’ll see when they tell the people in the middle seats that all the food is all gone…

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