How to Convert Cranky Customers to Happy Ones

When employees feel empowered, amazing things can happen.

Just ask Frontier Airlines Captain Gerhard Brandner.

Last week, Brandner found himself in a challenging work environment. With a delayed plane packed with tired and frustrated Frontier Airlines passengers, Brandner faced a potentially angry mob.

His Denver-bound plane landed unexpectedly in Cheyenne, Wyo., due to severe weather and sat on the runaway awaiting its fate from the airline’s maintenance team. Sensing his passengers were tired, restless and hungry, Brandner took matters into his own hands.

He called Domino’s and ordered about 50 pizzas.

Word spread quickly as passengers shared the tasty news on Facebook and Twitter. Social media channels erupted with praise and cheers. Brandner’s quick action instantly became PR gold.

TV crews, like KTLA and FOX News, took notice, and so did People magazine, which proclaimed Brandner as “the Greatest Airline Captain of All Time.” (Captain Sully Sullenberger, who safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, seems a little more suited for this title.)

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One Frontier passenger later told a TV news crew, “the captain said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Frontier Airlines is known for being one of the cheapest airlines in the U.S., but your captain is not cheap. I just ordered pizza for the entire plane.'”

Clearly, Brandner is one highly engaged employee, even if he reportedly called his employer “cheap” and paid for the pizzas himself. He felt personally empowered to make a difference for his customers. He later told news media, “[the passengers] are my responsibility the moment they step on the aircraft until they get off the aircraft.”

Companies that understand this customer service mentality and empower their employees to take action are going to have more engaged customers. Note to Frontier Airlines: It’s even better if your employer gives you the budget to help make the situation right.

In the retail and service business, exceptional customer services means giving front-line employees budget control to make decisions without having to check with a manager.

Not every airline can pass out free pizza during a delay, but the positive attitude and caring gestures by employees can turn unfortunate situations, like delayed flights, into memorable ones.

It’s the small stuff that customers typically remember … the warm smile, the eye contact and the friendly conversation. A slice of hot pizza also helps.

Jonathan Rhudy first learned customer service as a bag boy working at Ukrop’s Super Markets in Richmond as a teenager. Today, Kimpton Hotels continually wows him with unexpected and creative gestures when he’s on the road.