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A trip to South Africa a few months ago reminded me why empathy is such an important element of how an organization supports and provides service to its customers—especially when things go horribly wrong.

We saw the best and the worst of customer service during our visit to South Africa.

For the most part, we experienced high quality customer service. Nearly everyone we met working in stores, in restaurants, hotels, etc. truly appreciated customers. I love that they say “Pleasure” or “My Pleasure” when they bring you something, meet a need or request. I have to say, it sounded genuine too! It’s like they know that you are grateful and rather than saying “you’re welcome,” they say “my pleasure.” It made me smile when I heard it. I’d be delighted for this approach to catch on the US.

I could also tell that the employees felt a sense of pride in their work. And, given the high unemployment in the country, a local friend reminded me that one employed person could be supporting an entire extended family with their job. It was great to feel and hear their pride; it made me feel good interacting with them.

Now for the bad experience, made worse by a complete lack of empathy.

To return home we needed to take 3 connecting flights on South African Airways. We arrived at the first airport in Cape Town about two-and-a-half hours before the first flight to Johannesburg. We then stood in a very long line that moved so slowly that I knew we wouldn’t make our flight. I was getting anxious about how little we had moved in line in the course of an hour and noticed another two lines to the side of us. So I went over to explore.

I heard customers talking about a flight cancellation, but didn’t see it on the flight status board or on the airline’s website. After some time I was able to determine our flight had been cancelled and that we missed the one announcement made over the loud speaker with this news. Shouldn’t they update the flight status board? Well, basically no one on our flight waiting in the line had heard that message, so hundreds of passengers were out of the loop and growing more anxious about their flights and connections. And, come to find out, we were all supposed to go into a line on the side to get rebooked.

After moving to the new line, we realized that the person manning the desk had been gone for a long time—over an hour. Then by asking around again we found out that we should find a person in a red vest and ask them how to get booked onto another flight. The first person we found ran away from us, then another person told us to try to change airlines, and that didn’t work. It went on and on. We did a lot of running around and finally one person pulled just us and one other lady into a new area to get rebooked.

It seemed like there was no protocol for how to handle customers on a cancelled flight. They didn’t seem to know how to inform us, how to route us, or how to rebook us on other flights. It was like air travel had just been invented and they never went through this process before—ever. One South African Airways service desk employee, who was heading home despite the chaos in the lines, told my husband that this situation wasn’t uncommon. Other employees were upset and angry about being asked to help customers who were panicking, etc. Then I learned that anyone who was making at least two connections were given priority. Top priority was also given to anyone from Germany (one of South Africa’s top sources of tourism).

We were eventually booked onto a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where we would catch our flight to New York. We were promised that a South African Airways employee would meet us outside the door of our aircraft and escort us to our connecting flight. But when we arrived in Johannesburg, there was no one waiting for us. We sprinted from one terminal to the next to make our connecting flight and arrived, gasping for breath, just before they closed the doors to the transatlantic flight. (In our original itinerary, we had allocated a three-hour layover in Johannesburg in the event of any delay but we hadn’t counted on this!)

Don’t even get me started on the fact that our entertainment systems didn’t work at our seats on the South African Airways plane on either the flight to South Africa or the flight home—that is something like 32 hours in the air both ways, without some fun stuff to watch. And the air stewards didn’t seem to care much or try to compensate for this issue.

We can all imagine how stressful it must be to be on the South African Airways service desk helping customers rebook flights. But what do you think it feels like to be a customer kept in the dark, shuttling between several lines and running after people in red vests?

What I want to ask you to consider is how to make empathy a vital component of the experiences you deliver customers.

Here’s one way to think about it. What negative emotions are customers feeling at key interaction points? Are they nervous when they first talk with your company? Are they anxious they may be taken advantage of? Or fear they may be kept in the dark? Then then what positive emotion can you help bring to the encounter? Can you help customers feel more calm? Reassured? Peaceful? Or at least confident that you are truly trying to solve an issue? How? These are all important questions.

Don’t forget empathy when you are training employees and considering how to recover from mistakes. Mistakes will happen, customers know that. But how you handle them is what makes the biggest impact.

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