Extreme Customer Service: A Lesson from the Cockpit

What does a hijacked commuter pilot have in common with a business owner faced with a disgruntled customer? Both are dealing with highly emotional situations where the outcome – positive or negative – depends on their response.

In 1981, Mike McNeill ran into an “unreasonable customer”.

As a Captain on a DeHavillan Dash-7 aircraft, Mike was making a routine flight from Killeen, Texas to Dallas. A 45-minute hop. Shortly after the airplane leveled off, a passenger came into the cockpit and suggested a new destination: Cuba.

When McNeill turned around and saw an Uzi machine gun leveled at his head, he knew he would need more than just flying skills to keep things cool. At the trigger was a hyper young man in his 20’s. Like a cobra out of its cage, the man was agitated and unpredictable.

Mike knew the 4-engine DeHavillan didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Cuba, yet he had to be careful in rejecting the hijacker’s request out of hand. Therefore, McNeill and his co-pilot began to unwrap a subtle counter-offer – their friendship.

The two pilots slowly changed the climate in the cockpit. Being careful not to patronize the young man, they worked to befriend and empathize with him. They brought out pictures of their families. At one point the co-pilot even suggested they return to Killeen because he had to baby-sit the kids!

The harshness of the hijacker’s demands began to soften. He made a concession. Forget Cuba. Mexico would do. Mike obliged him. They turned the aircraft toward Laredo. By this time, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI were notified and positioning themselves at the airport.

Enroute, the three men talked. After they landed, they talked some more inside the cockpit. Hours passed. It took time and patience but the hijacker was finally persuaded to lay down his Uzi and surrender to the Mexican authorities.

Well how was McNeill able to calmly handle such a potentially explosive situation? In a word, Mike was prepared. He had gone to work prepped to deal with numerous variables. Turbulence, changing weather, mechanical malfunctions – even disgruntled customers. When the challenged presented itself, Mike’s mental preparedness worked to his advantage.

Hardly a day goes by where we do not have to deal with some type of problem that demands our immediate attention. Whether it’s a work-related conflict or personal dilemma, your ability to manage that difficulty will have a profound effect on your journey through life. The problem is, you never know when or where trouble will hit.

Let’s revisit Mike McNeill’s problem for a moment. One thing is his favor; Mike didn’t have a fanatical terrorist on his hands. Instead, he simply had some kook who wanted to cruise to Cuba. The fact that he had an Uzi as a boarding pass made things more interesting.

If you were in Mike’s position, what would you do? How would you respond? Would you fight? Draw your Smith and Wesson and start shooting? Would you refuse the demand, or simply comply and fly…until you ran out of fuel?

These are tough questions, each with potentially fatal consequences. But believe it or not, you are hijacked all the time. For example, a loyal customer may take you “hostage” as he threatens to cancel an account. Your spouse could suddenly demand a large amount of cash – to pay bills. Your teenager might hold you an emotional hostage – until you meet his demand for passage to Mexico during spring break.

Each of these scenarios is a potential hijacking. And it’s the way you choose to communicate with your hijacker that will determine the successful outcome of your negotiations, whether it be with a stranger, co-worker, friend or family member.

So how do you deal with the proverbial tough guy who threatens your tranquility? By applying some McNeill Magic to the mix. To do this, let’s consider a simple four-step process. It will go a long way to defuse tensions, resolve problems and keep you on a passionate and positive track. Try it the next time you meet an “unreasonable customer” who threatens to hijack your day.

1. Listen calmly.
This alone can defuse a lot of energy and anger from someone who is irate. As they talk with you, breathe deep, relax and simply listen. Do nothing to agitate them. Above all else don’t become angry, irritated or patronizing. Like a busted steam pipe, let the pressure vent.

2. Empathize.
Walk a mile in their moccasins. Try to find out how they feel. Refrain from harsh and immediate judgments. Ask yourself not just what they want but why they want it. Determine their needs no matter how far gone they may appear.

3. Assess the situation.
Agree with them initially so as to buy time and think. What are your options? What are their options? How could you best negotiate and turn this into a win-win situation? If their rationale is totally whacked-out, agree with them anyway. Let them see you as an ally. Then silently consider what’s acceptable in this situation and strive for an objective balance.

4. Downsize your differences.
Find your common interests. Find those points in which you both agree and highlight those areas. Become personable. If you need to point out corrective action, give a compliment first, offer your suggestion, then follow up with a sincere but complimentary observation. This is sometimes referred to as the “sandwich” approach (compliment, correct and compliment).

Keep the overall exchange friendly and light. Avoid further confrontation. Your main objective is to be a positive, non-threatening change-agent in the process. In doing so you will open up the other person to solution-oriented dialogue.

To help you remember these four points think of the word “L – E – A – D”.

  • Listen
  • Empathize
  • Assess
  • Downsize

Consider honing this skill with a friend. Allow him or her to role play the hijacker, complete with complaints, criticisms and unreasonable demands.

After a while, trade places. Now you become the cantankerous, uncooperative customer, co-worker or even an unreasonable, ranting spouse while your partner assumes the role of the even-tempered negotiator.

Use some McNeill Magic. Be creative. Consider all the angles to address the dilemma as long as they somehow lead to resolution.

This exercise will not only lubricate your negotiation skills, but provide some fun in the process. After a bit of practice you’ll find this exercise helps keep your stress level in check as you deal with this kind of “extreme customer service” issue.

(Dramatic audio version of this story and others available at our “Helltrains” website below.)

John Tillison is a flight instructor, business speaker and author of “Hell Trains, Planes & Parachutes”. His powerful aviation theme has recently garnered front cover status in Toastmaster Magazine as well as being published in other publications world-wide. For more articles, tips and free studio recorded versions, go to http://www.helltrains.com

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