By Leigh Ann Hubbard

It’s 12:14 a.m.

My flight, scheduled to leave two hours ago, is taking off.

I fear I won’t make the connection — my third of this 17-hour journey from Alaska to Mississippi.

Okay, pause: From here on out, this is a frustratingly familiar story. But there’s something interesting we can learn from it: the simplest thing we can do to maintain customer/team member loyalty when someone is unhappy. What do you think it is?

Two Hours Ago

I can deal with a delayed flight. No big deal. I’ll talk to agents. Maybe I can get a hotel voucher, stay the night, rebook the last two legs for tomorrow.

First up: online chat agent.

“The airline doesn’t provide hotel vouchers for weather-related delays.”

“This isn’t weather-related,” I type back.

“I’m unable to discuss about hotel vouchers .… You have a great night Thomas.”

Next up: gate agent.

Type, type, type. Thirty seconds of typing. “Yes?” without looking up.

“Hello,” I say, searching for her eyes.

She dismisses me to the help desk — opposite end of the terminal.

“HOW CAN WE HELP?” the signage behind the desk declares in TWO-FOOT LETTERING!! The three agents barely glanced up. I look from one to the other, confused. They all seemed to be on break.

Agent 1 points to Agent 2, then goes back to her cellphone.

“Hi,” I say to Agent 2. “My flight was delayed, and —.”

Agent 1: “Interruption. Incorrect assumption. Interruption.” It keeps going, oh my gosh.

“Ma’am,” my blood pressure is building, “You have people who come here who are already stressed, and you are escalating the situation. You barely acknowledged me. You pointed at her. I can deal with her, or I can deal with you.”

“You can deal with me,” she says. “I’m the supervisor.”

… You don’t say.

Electric Ears

As I’m walking back to my gate, my phone dings: a survey from the earlier chat!

I eagerly rate all the things: 1, 1, 1, 1. Then comes a final request: “Please tell us what we did well and what we could do to improve.” The sentence ends with a colon — a psychological prompt that I should enter a response, that they actually want to know what I think.

And respond, I do.

This is a nightmare. Your customer service is like it’s built to make people furious.

Paragraphs later, that may or may not make complete sense, I … feel calmer.

Someone listened.

Okay, something listened.

No one in management will read it. Nothing will change. The airline will not care.

But somehow, that little chat thing did what no human along the way has done: It asked me what I thought and stayed silent while I told it.

How powerful the need to be heard must be, if that act alone calmed me down.

Imagine if a human had listened.

10 Minutes = Long Payoffs

These debacles reveal that something is amiss at this airline. But it’s not just this airline. It’s all sorts of businesses.

How about yours?

Do your leaders and salespeople listen? Are you sure?

Do you listen? … Are you sure?

Listening costs nothing but a little bit of time. It pays in the form of satisfaction, retention, and move-ins. I started out as a loyal customer singing the airline’s praises. This treatment turned me around 180º. It wasn’t the bad situation that did it. It was the response.

Active listening should be incorporate into sales and leadership training — made part of the company culture. Here are the basics: When a team member, resident, or family member comes to you with a problem — whether it’s about a resident, a co-worker, a decision, or a rule …

  1. Stop talking.
  2. Put down your devices.
  3. Make eye contact.
  4. Let them say everything they need to say.

Once they’ve spilled their guts, use your empathy to ask questions. This shows that you’re engaged and you care.

Then, ideally, validate the person’s feelings in some way. (I’m speaking generally. There are, of course, situations where you wouldn’t want to do this.) You don’t have to say they’re right. You don’t have to agree with them. But can you understand why they’d feel that way?

Here are some examples of things you can say:

  • I’m sorry that happened to you.
  • That sounds challenging to deal with.
  • It sounds like you handled that perfectly. Great job.
  • I can see why you’d feel that way (no, “but … ”).
  • What I hear you saying is ….
  • Thank you for telling me this.

Only after listening should you offer resolution ideas (better — ask for them) or explain your point of view. Once they feel listened to, they will be more able to listen to you in turn.

Listening is one of the cheapest things you can do to increase occupancy and employee retention. It may be one of the most effective too. It’ll certainly make your community stand out. Yours may be the only business who’s listened in a long, long time.