The 6 words I didn’t want to hear at 2 am

Thing is, I had already planned for the exact situation described by these words in the middle of the night.  In fact, I was kind of excited about it.

How about some context…

My wife and I were at dinner at a friends house and I had put my phone on a table away from where we were sitting. When we got up to clear the table after dessert, I decided just to peek at my phone since I was traveling to a conference the next day.  That’s when I saw this text:

Okay. Flight cancelled. Not the entire flight, just the first leg.  With the amount of traveling I do, this was bound to happen, right?  Not a big deal, I will call the number and get rebooked.

Except, when I called the number, I got an automated system telling me that the department I was trying to reach was extremely busy and that I should call back later, then the system hung up on me.

Three more attempts, same result.

Again, I get it. Everyone and their brother was trying to call in at the same time.

I checked my connecting flight out of Charlotte (CLT) and it was still listed as scheduled and on time.  So, worst case scenario, I would drive to Charlotte (2-hour drive I had done MANY times) and catch that flight.  It was shaping up to be a nice weather day, so I actually started looking forward to driving the convertible to Charlotte and having a little less airport time than usual.

I tried calling the number one more time.  This time I had the ability to leave a callback number, since they said the hold time would be in excess of 4 hours. Yeah, YOU can call ME back, please.

So, at about 2 am, the phone rings.  I was asleep, but I got up and took the call.

After being on hold for a few more minutes, an agent came on and asked how she could help. I said, “You, well not you personally, but American Airlines cancelled my flight tomorrow and I was told to call this number to get it rebooked.”

Silence as she looked up my reservation.

The next 6 words I heard, even though I was already preparing to do this very thing, made my blood boil.

The attendant came on and said, “You’ll have to drive to Charlotte.”

No context, no apology, no asking about my circumstances or if driving was even an option. What if I didn’t have a car?  What if I was unable to drive and relied on someone else to get me from point A to B.  What if this wasn’t a 2-hour drive for me, but a cross-country flight? What if, what if, what if?

Feeling my face getting warm, I asked, “So since the airline canceled the flight, are they going to pay for a rental car, gas, a shuttle, anything since this is a major hassle?”

I sensed a slight scoff/chuckle/sigh… “No”, was the only answer I got.

Why was this making me so upset when I was planning to do the thing she just told me to do in the first place?

Probably because it was no longer my choice. Probably because I still expected some sort of resolution from the company that put me in this position in the first place.  And probably, most likely, because the agent made no effort whatsoever to empathize or even understand my situation.  She had likely been on the phone with hundreds of others just like me, but that doesn’t matter. To help me, she ideally should get try to find out more.

The rest of the conversation didn’t go so well, and more for the people who might be “monitoring and recording these calls for quality assurance” I did express to her just how let down and abandoned I felt.

Her, “well, you could just cancel this entire flight and rebook with someone else comment”, really set me off.  If I had any question before, there was no doubt now that her priority was to get me off the phone, not get me to Las Vegas.

Thing is, if, at 2 AM, she would have said, “I am so sorry sir, it looks like we won’t be able to rebook you on a flight to make your connection.  Can we look at alternate ways to get you to Charlotte, or maybe rebook you on another flight to Las Vegas altogether?”, this wouldn’t even be a blog post.

During the rest of the conversation, though, she made it clear that she was “over” dealing with people that she had to rebook.  I was likely not the only person who got a little upset, and wouldn’t be the last. At one point she even said that. “Sir, I just need to finish this so I can get to the other 1000 people that are waiting.”

Wow.

So I think there are two morals to the story.

  1. Word choice matters – especially when dealing with someone who you (or your company) had a hand in inconveniencing. A simple apology or acknowledgement (and willingness to take care of the situation) goes A LONG WAY.  I was ready to do EXACTLY what she was now telling me to do, but it was conveyed in an uncaring, almost combative way.  Even if she knew she couldn’t do anything but refund the unused portion of my trip, the slightest inkling to want to help would have changed the entire dynamic of the conversation.
  2. Take a break – Would it have mattered if I got this call at 2 or 2:15 AM?  Not to me. But I would imagine that the people overseeing the call center were adamant about clearing those call queues as fast as they could.  In fact, this agent may have been pushing HERSELF to the brink out of a sense of duty.  When we get pushed, or push ourselves, to our very outer limits, we can often do and say things we wouldn’t normally do. Taking a few moments to catch our breath or even expend some pent up anger can do wonders for your outlook.

Related – the topic of the “grumble station”, a spot for guest service personnel to safely and appropriately rid themselves of extra frustration-induced anger/energy, is outlined in The Myth of Employee Burnout.

As an update, I started writing this post before knowing that this situation was a result of a computer glitch with American Eagle affiliate PSA Airlines.  That being said, it’s understandable that agents would be getting pushed (and pushing themselves) to the limit to take care of their customers.  I think a little care for themselves would have made caring for their customers just a bit easier.

Thanks for reading!

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