Lost Pants, USA Today and Succeeding in Business

Complaints do spread far faster and far quicker than compliments.

We all know that customer complaints spread faster and farther than customer compliments. But I have to admit my astonishment when a relatively minor horror story that happened to me ended up on NBC Nightly News, on the front page of USA Today and in newspapers ranging from The Cincinnati Enquirer to The Peninsula in, of all places, Qatar.

To avoid having to go through the hassle of getting copyright clearance to record an incident from my own life, here's a paraphrase of the way the incident appeared in The London Times.

Author, Barry Maher speaks and trains on topics like leadership, communication, management, motivation and sales. On April Fool's Day last year, he flew across America from California to Virginia to give a presentation on customer service.

The airline, Delta, surpassed itself, losing his luggage first on the outward leg and on the return trip as well.

Arriving late the night before his presentation, Mr. Maher waited fruitlessly at the luggage carousel at Roanoke airport in Virginia. His laptop and presentation notes were in his carry-on. But the missing bags contained the clothes he was to wear for the presentation the next day along with copies of his books to autograph for the attendees.

The baggage office was closed, so Mr. Maher trudged off to the Delta ticket counter. No one was there either. He did see a pile of luggage stacked behind the counter. After waiting for five or ten minutes, he started to step onto the baggage scale to get a better view of whether or not any of it was his.

"Suddenly a scream rang out," Mr. Maher told the Times. "And a man in a Delta uniform comes running at me as if I were Osama Ben Laden and armed and dangerous. This was the person I had to deal with about my lost luggage. As I said, I had flown there to do a communications session. He taxed all my communication skills. And then some.

["To this guy, I was clearly the one at fault. And the minor fact that Delta had shipped my luggage, to Rangoon or Burma or Transylvania, was nothing compared to my violation of some secret rule about the sanctity of the baggage scale."]

It soon became clear that the luggage would not be appearing any time in the immediate future. And after a cross country trip, the clothes Mr. Maher had been wearing were hardly suitable for a presentation.

Early the next morning, he ran to a men's clothing shop, waited for it to open, bought new clothes and dashed back to the conference hotel in time for his presentation. The next day, the luggage finally arrived. Just before he was ready to check out of the hotel and head back to California. Everything was soaked. The books were ruined.

When Mr. Maher tried to file a claim for the damaged books as he checked in for his return flight, he was told he should file the claim at the originating airport back in California.

When he returned to California, Mr. Maher explains, "the bags were missing yet again. I was amazed. I went to the baggage office to report them missing and to put in a claim for the damaged books. The baggage clerk said Delta couldn't pay a damage claim unless I could produce the books so they could verify the damage.

["When I told the clerk that I'd like to put in a claim for restitution for the lost books. He said that it was too soon. The books would probably turn up the next day. Besides, if the books were truly ruined, as I had claimed, what Delta had lost had no real value, did it."]

That's as far as the story went in The London Times. There's a limit to how much space a major newspaper can devote to a single small anecdote in a much larger story on lost luggage. Since there's also a limit to how much time you want to spend reading about this, I won't go into the rest of the hassle required to get restitution for the ruined books. I'll just say that it wasn't easy. And through most of it I got the strong impression that Delta's customer service reps might just be more concerned with keeping me from getting restitution than with helping me to get it.

But one important detail was left out of The London Times, USA Today and every other newspaper I know of that reported the story. And that was the extraordinary service I received from that men's clothing shop in Roanoke, a store called Davidson's.

The salesperson I dealt with and the owner did everything humanly possible to find me the clothes I needed, then make sure the pants were properly hemmed and pressed, and get me back to the conference hotel in time for my presentation. It was one of the finest examples of customer service I can remember. And I raved about it to the reporters who contacted me about the incident.

Not one story ever mentioned it. Not one story even mentioned the name of the store. But millions of people have now read or heard about the poor service I received from Delta.

And that reflects two simple facts we all of us in business need to remember.

First, the complaints do spread far faster and far quicker than the compliments. Second, every company that gives lip service to customer service but doesn't really deliver it, opens up opportunities those few companies that really practice extraordinary customer service.

If you're ever in Roanoke and you need men's clothing, check out Davidson's. You won't be disappointed. Even though it didn't get in front of millions of people in USA Today, The Indianapolis Star, NBC Nightly News, The Qatar Peninsula, etc., I have told literally thousands of people about Davidson's. And now I've told you.

Author, Barry Maher is also a motivational keynote speaker and an expert trainer with expertise in leadership, management and communication. His book, Filling the Glass was honored as "[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books." Contact him and/or sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.barrymaher.com.