7 Customer Service Lessons from the Terrible Customer Service of American Airlines

January 27, 2015

One of our company’s core values – and arguably the most important – is “Love Thy Customer.” We know that a strong customer service foundation is central to everything we do because customers are the reason we exist. No customers, no business. It’s that simple. Whether those customers are the businesses we serve or their end users, for whom we actually perform the customer service of that company, it is because some people choose to hand other people money for their goods or services that our economy moves. That creates our businesses, our livelihoods, feeds our families and lets us fulfill our other missions and visions to improve the world with what we do, no matter the widget we’re selling. When customers are treated right and made to feel that their business is valued, because it is, that begets more and better business. It’s a fairly simple concept, and it’s sometimes usefully demonstrated by a true lack of customer service.

We recently had an absurd experience dealing with American Airlines. I’ll spare us all the details, but suffice it to say that we didn’t create the problem and simply wanted a resolution that was fair. As the situation became increasingly ridiculous, I decided that we could all learn some lessons about providing good customer service by analyzing some of the worst.

A smile goes a long way.

Setting aside the horrendous treatment we received from American Airlines in the process of reorganizing an itinerary of flights that they rescheduled, when we actually arrived at the airport literally everyone was unpleasant, rude or just downright snarky. I understand it’s the holidays and holiday travel is stressful on both sides of the equation, but it doesn’t take that much to grin and bear it – you’re not a volunteer, so you do get paid for your job. I decided to do an experiment and see how many American Airlines employees smiled at me, consciously making an effort myself to smile at each of them. I interacted with fifteen American Airlines employees on my journey to my destination, smiling at each of them while looking them in the eye and using my pleases and thank yous. When I walked up to the gate counter in the terminal one gate agent literally looked up at me, wagged her finger ‘no-no’ and said nothing (and, no, she wasn’t on the phone or the computer). I just stared at her mystified and waited until another person came over to “help.” On my journey, a grand total of one American Airlines employee smiled back at me (the person who greeted me as I got on the plane of the first flight) and only one other used any of the words “please,” “thank you,” or “you’re welcome.” Just smile – it goes a really long way. And for those of you thinking that you do customer service over livechat or phones, smiles come across in your voice and in the words you choose.

Loyalty programs are fine, but everyone should be treated right.

American Airlines is notoriously dedicated to its Admiral’s Club members, especially because so many of those customers are business travelers whose companies will pay whatever it costs for just the right flight every time. There’s nothing wrong with that superior service to a select group or with knowing where your revenue comes from. That, however, shouldn’t give a license to treat everyone else poorly. Once upon a time my wife was such an esteemed business traveler and asked if she could get on an earlier flight; American Airlines just bumped another paying customer for her. This behavior is pervasive at American Airlines, and while it can be good to know where you stand, sometimes it would be nice to know that your dollars count, too. Indeed, when my wife became an Admiral’s Club member, she was given a different customer service phone number to use and told, “This is how you actually get help.” No longer having that status, we are quite clear on where we stand with American Airlines.

It’s okay to be frustrated, but don’t roll your eyes at customers.

To find out if it was just me, I decided not to bury my head in my phone while going through the lines at check-in, the gate and boarding. Instead, I sat inconspicuously out of the way and observed the American Airlines representatives. In addition to not cracking a single smile, they were borderline rude or flat-out nasty to nearly everyone. It was both amusing and flabbergasting. When one woman holding a baby and juggling her obviously complex holiday travel situation asked a question during boarding, not one of three agents looked her in the eye and one even rolled her eyes at the besotted mother. Fortunately for all of us, the mother had the wherewithal to say loudly, “Please don’t roll your eyes at me.” The knowing agreement of the other passengers was palpable in the small boarding area. This is another lesson that holds over the phone. We all get to the end of our ropes, but treating people with basic human respect goes a long way, even if you can’t be seen rolling your eyes.

Condescension gets you no where – just keep a pleasant tone.

My wife and I spent a collective 8 hours on the phone with American Airlines and 7 hours engaging in Twitter conversations. At some point we asked each other, “Are they hoping that by being so mean, we’ll just cry and hang up the phone?” When one supervisor joined the call, without introducing herself or asking any questions, the first words out of her mouth were, “So what it is that you’re not understanding about the situation?” When asked for her name (we keep records of all customer service interactions, good or bad, because at our company the person who opens the case might not be the person to close it and we need records of all promises and issues), she retorted, “Are you threatening me? Who do you think you are to threaten me?” In a separate conversation with another supervisor (let it be noted that the regular agents were more unhelpful than rude, but all of the supervisors were downright atrocious), I was told “No, no, no, you made your own mess and just don’t understand.” Even if that were true, though it wasn’t, speaking condescendingly, as if I’m a misbehaving child, is a poor approach. As a customer service agent, you don’t have to agree with my claims or give in to my demands, but you do have to maintain a neutral or pleasant tone and treat me like another adult.

As a quick footnote to that idea, if a customer starts cursing, being vile or truly nasty, I don’t believe customer service agents have to take that, and at our company, if they can’t calm a customer down or convince him to stop cursing, they have permission to provide a warning that they’ll have to hang up the phone and then follow through (or put the customer on hold and transfer to a supervisor who has the same rights). No one is paid enough to be verbally assaulted and abused.

Pretending like you care goes a long way.

I’ve spent years doing customer service myself, teaching others to do customer service, building a customer service department and training managers of customer service departments, and if there’s one thing I understand it’s that you don’t always care about every single case, every single complaint and every single issue. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about all of them – that’s your job! I just know that it’s not realistic to expect every agent to truly care about everything. Sometimes it’s an off day; sometimes someone rubs you the wrong way and it sticks. That’s okay. You don’t have to care from the bottom of your heart about every single interaction, but you do have to pretend like you care. Pretending goes a long way. Customers are human, too, and they know that every customer service interaction isn’t one they’re going to write home about (though it’s great when companies are firing at that level). Customers aren’t going to fault you for a lack of overwhelming exuberance in every moment, as long as you just pretend like you care about them and their issues. Not once in my entire American Airlines experience or in all the people I interacted with in my travels did I feel like I was interacting with a single person who cared at all – and not just about me, but about anything, from their jobs to their co-workers to their customers. One American Airlines gate agent even said about his colleagues over the loud speaker, “Me [sic] and the people I work with are going to need to see your tickets – not your passports or IDs, people – your tickets.” That captures it on so many levels. You don’t have to care – just pretend to. We’d all appreciate the effort.

Invest in a CRM that doesn’t put the burden of proof on customers.

I debated putting this one in here because this is a corporate level failing rather than an agent behavior (like smiling or pretending to care), but agents who try a little harder could resolve elements of this issue themselves. A CRM is a Customer Relationship Manager. It chronicles (well, the good ones) every interaction that a customer has with a company, from purchases to phone calls to returns to marketing material received. Huge companies should have CRMs that work, no matter the channel via which a customer interacts. For instance, the American Airlines agents on the phone had no idea what I discussed with the Twitter agents, even though it was the latter who had offered the largest concession towards “resolving” my issue. Because I had to call in to finish the issue no one on the phone knew what was going on, and I had to restart the Twitter conversations again. CRMs can be expensive (believe me I know, as I’ve tried to purchase them, vetted the market, scoped them for clients and built them), but when you are an airline or another huge company, I suggest you get with the program and invest. It’s not like I was asking for details on a US Airways interaction before the CRMs had been merged. At the very least, when I tell you what I was told on another channel and offer to email you a copy/screenshot of the conversation, don’t tell me if I “want what the Twitter people are offering go talk to the Twitter people.” At our company, before we had a good CRM, our policy was that after every interaction with a customer, no matter the channel, the agent had to send a summary of the conversation to the customer via email, including and especially any special offers, concessions or promises that were made. That way, if there was ever an issue or question later, we knew that important details were recorded and customers were never asked to prove something we’d promised. If it wasn’t written down, we knew we hadn’t promised it.

Good customer service starts with company culture.

There is no way that it says in American Airlines’ job postings, “We only want people who are disgruntled, dour and incapable of providing decent service.” I actually imagine that the spectrum of AA employees’ personalities is reflective of the larger populous and not some anomaly at the “wouldn’t want to be friends with that person” end of said spectrum. It just doesn’t come across that way, and the reason is culture. This is a culture of people who are not taught that superior customer service is a corporate value. This is a culture of people that watches those in positions of authority, management and colleagues treat customers like strangers passing on the street. They’re not taught that customers’ business has been earned and that it could be retained through pleasantness. This is not one person or a group of people providing bad customer service – this is a corporate culture that has failed to value the customer or understand the customer’s place in business. Then again, perhaps I’ve misunderstood their model, and American Airlines has actively decided that regular customers will buy regular tickets no matter what and if they’re not in the right “group” (i.e. Admiral’s Club), then agents are actively taught to treat them poorly and use as few resources on them as possible. At that point, if we care, it becomes our responsibility as customers to spend our money elsewhere.


At our company, we have miscellaneous weeks called “Love Thy Customer” week when everyone, no matter his job, has to do something extra special to demonstrate an understanding that we are all there to serve the customers. When we went around at team meetings sharing what we’d done, the finance team revealed that it had spent an afternoon in the warehouse writing kind, handwritten notes of appreciation on all of the packing slips.

It doesn’t matter what your role is at your company, you have the opportunity to affect the customer experience, whether positively or negatively. Speaking, if I may, on behalf of your company’s customers, please treat them right.