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Turning passengers into guests

Recently I was talking to the CEO of a small local airport. He had been brought in to turn around the declining fortunes of this airport, which had seen passenger numbers halved over three years of mismanagement. He had a huge and multi-faceted job on his hands, not least of which was the culture of his organization.

Staff at this airport were both long-serving and dedicated. He did not believe that the issue was about trying to get them to work harder. They all knew there was a huge job to be done to restore the airport, and therefore the security of their own employment. There was no doubt they were willing to change. The problem was that they didn’t know how. There was one significant barrier to change – and that was that they tended to think of passengers as ‘hostiles’ who needed to be herded as quickly and as efficiently as possible to their boarding gates. Families and relatives dropping them at the airport were to be managed out at speed so as to prevent the system from clogging up.

No matter what he did, he could make little headway in changing staff attitudes. He tried calling passengers ‘customers’, in the hope that this would signal to his staff that they were not sheep and that they were valuable to the airport. ‘This caused my employees to pause for a moment, and I could see them wondering what on earth I was on about. But it had no effect on their attitudes and therefore no effect on their behaviours,’ he said.

‘We realized that we had to put staff through some training to help them become more customer-friendly, and we discussed with the trainers how we might do this. As we argued, one of managers suggested that the key issue was that we wanted our staff to be more hospitable. That was the breakthrough. What we really wanted, was for our staff to treat all visitors to the airport as they would guests in their own homes.’

This small but subtle change had a remarkable effect. ‘Suddenly our staff realized exactly what we meant and many spontaneously began behaving exactly the way we would have wanted them to – without any training.’

Just one word provided the launch pad for a change programme that has – among other things – turned around the fortunes of the airport and once again enabled growth.

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