What Responsiblity Does the Customer Have in Service?

Are customers responsible for the service they receive?

Steven Slater
Steven Slater

Unless you’ve been living in a literal cave for the past few days, you’ve all heard about Steven Slater.  He’s the Jet Blue airline attendant who blew his stack when a passenger “allegedly” deliberately hit his head with her oversized bag as he was trying to help her get it into the overhead compartment.  When she refused to apologize, he lost his cool, grabbed the microphone, swore over the speaker system, said “I’m done! I won’t take this anymore!” He then grabbed two beers, deployed the emergency chute from the plane, slid down it and was promptly arrested.

The real story is the feelings on both sides

So that’s the nuts and bolts of the story.  The fascinating part to me is the ensuing furor from both sides.  Many are calling Steven Slater a hero for the working class.  He was sick of being treated poorly by customers and finally told the world, or at least that plane full of passengers, how he felt about it all and quit.  There have been hundreds of blog posts about it, news stories, Fan Pages on Facebook, and more coverage than I’m sure he ever imagined possible.  Many are lauding him for having the guts to speak his mind where most of us are timid in fear of losing our jobs, or being required to “suck it up” by management.

Some have also criticized Slater for his actions.  He is in a position that is known for taking a certain amount of abuse from passengers.  Passengers are more and more upset everyday by fees and restrictions by airlines, so he should know that some are going to be more ornery than they used to be.  You could also say that he is being paid to do a job, therefore, he must do it with professionalism and grace.  As long as he chooses to remain employed by Jet Blue, or any employer for that matter, he should perform the required responsibilities and if he is unhappy with that, go find a job somewhere else doing something else.

Customers are EVERYWHERE

So if he did leave, does that mean that the new customers he is serving in his new position would be nicer?  No.  Customers are the lifeline of any business and, unfortunately, one belligerent customer can sour your whole day.  No matter how positive your mindset is and how genuinely you truly try to best serve your customers, there are some folks that you wish you could send to another planet.  There will always be those customers that we love to serve, and those that we wish did business somewhere else.  Ideally, our level of customer service needs to be excellent, all the time, every time, with every customer, in spite of the customer’s actions.

Here’s my take….

I do believe that there is a certain level of responsibility on the part of the customer that determines the attitudes of staff.  Communication is a two way street.  If I irritate a staff member to the point of distraction, I can easily see how the level of service I receive would go down.  I’d hope that the person would be able to maintain themselves, but if I’m annoying or rude, or in this case actually hit someone with something and didn’t apologize, I’d expect poor treatment.  Maybe not to the degree of this incident, but poor treatment would be the appropriate consequence for my actions.

Yes, Steven Slater has a job to do. He is required to do it and ensure the safety of the passengers.  He is not required to be a baggage handler, but to assist passengers.  I haven’t seen any interviews with other passengers who can back up the statement that she really did hit him on purpose, but I do think that she should have apologized for him being hit, even by accident.  By being stubborn and rude, she helped him reach his breaking point.

Customers need to recognize that overall, staff are doing things adequately and generally are not “out to get us.” We need to recognize that every transaction is a two-way street.  There is responsibility on both the consumer and the provider to act appropriately for the situation and transaction in order to make it successful and positive. When one side falters, the other will as well.  Unfortunately, the few unruly customers are the ones that put service providers on edge and in the mindset that there could always be a potential problem.

I think Steven Slater was appropriate in how he felt, but should not have acted out in the manner in which he did.  My recommendation would be to have had someone else handle that passenger and get her settled. Had that not been successful, then she should have been escorted off the plane. He is responsible to provide excellent customer service. He should know that there is a certain level of abuse that will come with the nature of his job.  But I don’t believe that he should be treated rudely, injured – even accidentally, and then not be apologized to.

I know, there are thousands of stories where service providers have been rude and have deserved the rude treatment they got from the customer or deservedly lost the business, but what are your thoughts on THIS particular incident?  What role does the customer have in the transaction?

7 Replies to “What Responsiblity Does the Customer Have in Service?”

  1. Kristina,
    This is indeed a case of shared “over the top” behavior. I’ve always seen a mutual self interest as a foundation of every customer experience, but this is certainly a sad way to prove it!

    We must also note another party who bears responsibility for this shared, horrible customer experience: Jet Blue. I hope that leaders there are looking beyond employee support and disciplinary actions to examine the “system” that contributed to 2 people getting so far out of control.

    Recently I posted “10 things I’d do if I were in charge of an airline customer experience” – and sadly several folks have shared with me that those things in total may have gone a long way to preventing this kind of situation. Here’s the post if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/df6Zi4

    Another provocative post, Kristina – thanks! LCI

    1. You bring up a very interesting point that is spot on. Jet Blue does bear a large part of this because they do need to consistently examine the processes and systems that they have in place to allow this frustration to build up on both sides to such an extreme.

      Your blog post http://bit.ly/df6Zi4 was excellent. Just today I flew on Delta and couldn’t agree more with your first point – They need to determine the ideal customer experience. I’m actually launching a product in two weeks that addresses this very topic. Companies must create a Customer Centric Culture. In doing so, they will identify the ideal culture and craft strategies to uphold that. Maybe I can teach Delta a thing or two 😀

      Thanks for stopping by Linda. I look forward to more comments from you.

  2. Hi Kristina,

    I often wonder what has happened to the golden rule…treat others the way you want to be treated. I think there’s a fancier way of saying this but you get the point. Service certainly is a two-way street as you described. When teaching customer service classes almost every participant points to the golden rule as their guiding light but when emotions get high all knowledge and skills go out the door.

    Thanks for putting a different spin on this story!

  3. I completely agree with you Kristina, the customer does have a responsibility to act appropriately in the service scenario. Moreover, I believe that some customers naturally receive superior service because of the way they act and treat customer service staff. Those customers who wear a smile, interact, engage and laugh with customer service reps will find themselves more delighted more often than those who are angry, grumpy and looking for mistakes in service encounters. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have becomemore and more prevalent in the customers of airlines, whether the airlines have brought it on themselves or not.

    In this situation, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the airline attendant, because no customer service rep deserves to be treated in the way that the customer treated … However, I also agree with Christophe and believe that the way Steven Slater reacted was completely over-the-top. We all have bad days, but as a representative of a company you must act with professionalism and dignity at all times and losing your temper in front of customers is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, no matter what provoked the reaction.

    Thanks for sharing this example and for the great post. I must have been living in a cave because I hadn’t actually heard about it until your post…perhaps this sort of news just takes longer to reach us here in the UK!


    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this Jed. I believe that most people see as you, Chirstophe and I do – that we can understand the viewpoint of Steven, but that it was a bit over the top. We all do need to handle ourselves in the most professional manner, no matter what the circumstances. While he did what we all WANT to do, most of us have the restraint not to do so. You are right, the customers that do smile and engage do receive the better service. As an example, read today’s post as a follow up.

      And, I’m glad that we got you out of the cave! 😀

  4. Hi Kristina,

    I agree with you that customer service is a two-way street. This means that both customers and service providers have to cooperate in order to deliver and experience good customer service.

    With regard to this particular example (and based on the facts in the media), I can only conclude that both parties overreacted. My best guess is that both parties were too emotional to be open to each other’s arguments. In this case, it may indeed have been better to bring in a third party to settle the dispute.

    So, in my opinion, both parties were at fault. Service reps should never accept disrespectful behavior and assaults from customers. However, service reps should also try to master the situation at all times.

    Regardless of this particular customer’s temper and behavior, I can’t justify the harsh reaction of the flight attendant. Losing your temper in front of a customer is one thing, showing it to an entire plane is another. This reaction has influenced the customer experience of the entire audience, and it may have damaged JetBlue’s reputation. I understand why it happend, but it should never have happened in the first place.

    1. I think you summed it up perfectly, Christophe. They were most likely too emotional to handle the situation. As we all know in any situation, when emotions get involved at a high level, the best decision is rarely made. Again, the understanding for the emotions involved is there, but both parties handled themselves poorly.

      Thanks for comment and keep them coming. I always enjoy them!

      Best to you,

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