I was on a flight within the Caribbean, and observed a very interesting exchange between a Flight Attendant and a young mother, which could be used as a case-study in Customer Service training programmes.

The young mother was travelling with a 15-month-old toddler, who had been keeping her very busy for the duration of the four-hour flight.  She had to use various means to keep him entertained. He just would not fall asleep…..and why should he? It was the middle of the afternoon and there were much more interesting things to do and see than sleep!

Midway through the flight, the passenger took some sweet biscuits from her bag and gave to her son.  Not even 20 minutes after, he threw them all up.  Immediately, the section of the plane we both were in, reeked of vomit.  The two male passengers beside her seemed to be taking it in stride.  From my vantage point behind them, there was no adverse reaction from either of them, and they even seemed empathetic towards the mother.

Responding to the Call Button, the flight attendant came to see what the problem was.  The passenger told her that her son had thrown up. She also mentioned that it needed to be cleaned up. 

I thought I was the only one who noticed the unpleasant reaction of the flight attendant in response to this.  Apparently not, because about 10 minutes later when she came back to try and get the mother to take her son to the toilet area, the mother let her feelings known.

“The way you looked at me, doesn’t make me feel very good as a mother right now,” she said. I thought some tears may have followed the statement but she kept her composure and continued to express her feelings, including the fact that ‘the look’ made her feel as if it was her fault.  She also told the flight attendant that if she wasn’t going to assist in the clean-up operation, give her some papers and a blanket and she would do it herself.

The flight attendant explained that she only wanted her to take him to the toilet as quickly as possible, apologized immediately and offered to take the toddler’s hand to lead him down the aisle. He politely refused, perhaps sensing his mother’s distress and less-than-positive feelings toward the flight attendant.

What happened there?  This is a simple case of the customer service provider not putting herself in the customer’s shoes. It also is an example of why it is important to be conscious of one’s body language during the Service Encounter.  This was not happening to me, but I felt the same thing which the mother felt, all because of the flight attendant’s facial expression, which portrayed to me a feeling of disgust.

In trying to analyze the flight attendant’s reaction, I thought that perhaps she did not have any children and so would not understand what it is like to travel with a toddler, and worse, have the toddler puke in a public place. If she had children, the first thing she might have done was said something which showed that she empathized with how the mother was feeling in what had to be an embarrassing situation.

Another flight attendant did that, and even told the mother she was brave to be travelling alone with one so young.  The employee said when her child was that age, she parked him with relatives whenever she wanted to travel.  Pleasant banter ensued from that exchange, all because the “I understand how you feel” rule of Empathy in Customer Service was applied.

To her credit, the offending flight attendant did not seem to hold a grudge against the passenger, and did all she could to help after that.  They even had non-baby conversation regularly for the rest of the flight.  Good Service Recovery, but it need not have been required if the flight attendant had taken a moment to put herself in the young mother’s shoes.