Service with a smile … and at Terminal 5, at that!

I’m known to take contrarian views, but I don’t really try to be contrarian per se. I’m just not hung up about following the herd.

The herd, whoever they may be, have been Terminal 5 (and BA) bashing for some time now. And for many reasons. It’s a big ambitious project with space for many things to go wrong, and many things have gone wrong. After all, if you build a terminal with more shops than Bluewater, you’re not building a terminal, you’re building a shopping centre.

Instead of complaining, I’d like to tell a story about something that worked well. About someone who worked well. Exceedingly well. So, if you have a few minutes, fasten your seat belt and come with me on a little journey.

I returned from an all-too-brief business trip to San Francisco this morning; came home, showered, changed into fresh clothes, and prepared to leave for church. Yes, church on Saturday. We had some visiting pastors over, there was a special meeting with them, and my wife was already at the church offices, waiting for me.

Keys. Change for paying the cab. Phone. Wallet. Wallet? Wallet!

It was only then I realised that I’d left my wallet behind, on the plane, carefully placed in the drawer, under a newspaper.¬† I wasn’t 100% sure, but that was the percentage play. [I’d already replayed the relevant sequence in my head. Got on plane. Emptied pockets into drawer: keys, change, phone, wallet. Slept. Awoke. Emptied drawer contents into pocket. keys, change, phone… but not wallet. I couldn’t remember picking up the wallet, it must have been hiding in the back of the drawer].

I’d landed just after 11am, a couple of hours earlier. It was now nearing ten past one. I really didn’t want to go through the palaver of cancelling all the cards, not if I had a sliver of a chance to get the wallet back. So off I galumphed on to the web. Tried to find a number that might actually lead to a person at British Airways, without bankrupting me in the process, and on a Saturday afternoon as well. After hearing the same tape at the other end of a series of different numbers, I had a rethink. Time to call a cab and get to the airport pronto, at least I’d be dealing with live human beings.

I didn’t need much, just a minor miracle or three. Or four. Or a lot.

  • I needed to get to the airport quickly.
  • When I got there, I needed to find someone who really had a heart to serve customers.
  • When I found this person, I needed him (or her) to (a) know how to find out which aircraft I came in on and (b) know how to find out where that particular aircraft had got to (or was en route for)
  • In fact, I really needed that aircraft to have stayed where it was; I didn’t want it to have been moved or towed away from the gate.
  • If cleaners had already got there first, I needed them to have missed my wallet somehow.
  • And, to top it all, if I wasn’t asking for enough miracles, I needed to have found a person who was willing to then go to the aircraft, look for my wallet and then bring it back to me.

God was looking out for me. Because I found such a person. Actually on the floor of the terminal, not stuck behind a desk. With a real heart for service. She listened patiently to me, walked with me to a desk, entered a whole bunch of hieroglyphics into a computer. All she was trying to do was to figure out where my flight had come in, which gate I’d disembarked at. But she got nothing. Nada. The information was no longer on the screen, it was now three hours since I’d landed.

So she went and found someone else, told her the story, was advised to try something else, came back to me. Tried that something else, and bingo, she was into the archives, and she now knew that the aircraft I’d been on had come in to gate 32. Then off she went again, to try and check whether the aircraft was still at gate 32. It was.

Then she said to me “Wait here for me, I’m going to go to the aircraft and take a look, see if I can find your wallet.” She warned me that it could take 20-30 minutes, and off she went.

I waited patiently. And expectantly. Twenty-four minutes later there she was, wallet in hand, beaming. It transpired that I hadn’t actually left my wallet in the drawer as I thought. I’d emptied the contents of the drawer on to my seat before transferring them to my pockets, and hadn’t noticed that the wallet had slipped down the side of the seat.

She’d checked the drawer, found it was empty, and decided she would check the seat and its environs, just in case.

Many miracles. None of them would have mattered a jot or tittle unless they’d been made real, made real by a person with a real heart for service. Service with a smile. Going way above and beyond the call of duty to help a customer. Because she felt it was the right thing to do, without any expectation other than a satisfied customer.

Her name? Sarah Wilson. So, Sarah Wilson, I salute you. For reminding me that customer service is not about what firms do. It is what people do. People who care for customers. People like you. [I will be writing to BA about this, I am sure there is room for the odd letter of praise at BA HQ. It’s the least I can do for people like Sarah Wilson].

15 thoughts on “Service with a smile … and at Terminal 5, at that!”

  1. That’s great – and really lucky!
    I wonder, though, whether Ms. Wilson will have to justify to her manager why she spent an hour on a single person…

    By the way: Is the lady okay with you publishing her full name here?

  2. @FND of course. I told her I’d be writing to BA and that I’d be mentioning her on my blog. But you’re right to ask.

  3. This is a splendid story and an example of an individual going the extra mile to understand and solve a customer’s problem.

    This is an focus might be lost today as customer service metrics focus on numbers which does not include customer’s perceptions..and lacks the personal touch ..

  4. What a wonderful story. Three cheers to Sarah Wilson, and may there be many more such wonderful people (P.s: I now have something to show to my wife to justify choosing BA to fly everytime :) )

  5. Many years ago, around the turn of the ’90s, a young man at United performed a similar service for me, above and far beyond the call of duty. (In this case it involved car keys left on a plane.) I promised to send a letter of commendation on his behalf to United, but I lost the slip of paper with his name. I still feel guilty about it. I also still remember his generous efforts.

  6. Hi JP, that’s probably why I’m on social media and networking. To find others kind of “social service”, with regard, attention and cute people. And yes, it probably exists in the real world (before ? because of ? anyway…). And maybe God’s creation, we can never know. Despite this, and live this as a best time…
    Take care.
    Kind R.,

  7. This is an example of what a colleague of mine calls “front line innovation.” That is, when a service sector customer-interface employee is empowered to (or empower themselves to) use their knowledge and networks to solve problems without management involvement. His name’s Kip Bergstrom and he’s been active in the econ dev/community planning community in the NE USA working with the Regional Plan Assoc. in NYC and, most recently, the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council. (Sorry, no blog.)

    The thinking is that innovation in the service sector will not come from above but from below. Inefficiencies in the service chain, such as you could have experienced, are almost always in response to something unexpected, such as leaving a wallet on an airplane for several hours.

    When service workers confronts an unexpected situation, do they a) seek a manager to deal with the non-standard variation or b) use their knowledge and the knowledge of those around them to troubleshoot and resolve?

    Your ‘miracle’ was that you found the latter. Think about the value your helper delivered both to you and her organization. A lost wallet is no small deal, so had it ‘disappeared,’ we’d all be reading a much different story. Had the wallet been found when the plane was half-way around the world, many hours would be devoted to managing its safe return. Now, with a happy resolution, BA is enjoying some free PR among an influential group.

    With the prominence you’ve given this episode, it would be great to see what BA have to say. Was this woman making decisions outside the defined protocol or is ‘front line innovation’ a part of their service regime?

  8. This is a great story and a great follow-up comment about empowering front line workers. I love to cook and at various times in my life have worked on the sales floor at two different but well known kitchen/homegoods stores. At one (Crate & Barrel), I had the power to discount, replace, refund, and track down almost any customer request. At another company, everything had to be approved by a manager. Policies, it turns out, have a dramatic impact on service. Now as a customer I notice and I have a definite preference for Crate & Barrel.

    Which brings me to a story I heard recently on NPR about a man who innocently enough bought a ‘lemonade’ at the ballpark for his 10-year-old son. Despite the $8 price he didn’t realize that it was alcoholic…he figured it was just the normal expensive crap ball park food. A security guard caught up with them, forced them to go to the hospital where it was found that no alcohol was still in the boy’s bloodstream. But the boy was put into state custody (only following procedure) and a judge denied immediate release (only following procedure). The boy was in state custody for two weeks before he was allowed to go home. Which leads me to say WTF?!?

    Policies matter – and they can matter a lot – but because they are ‘hidden’ it can catch the customer by surprise, in good and bad ways.

  9. Lovely story JP. I had a similar experience in my holidays recently. Me and my friend managed to get on the wrong train in Japan and it terminated in the middle of nowhere at 10pm. There were no taxis running, no trains, and we had no idea if there was even a hotel in this town. Our Japanese wasn’t very good and the English spoken in this town was equally as bad. Luckily a kind man who was merely there to pick up his wife saw our prediciment and bent over backwards to help us. He took an hour out of his life to drive us to a hotel and organise us a room. He even worried about us getting the wrong train the following day, so much that he insisted he pick us up from the hotel 9am the following day and take us there personally. Oh and he bought us a coffee… and that wasn’t even his job.

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