Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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A Lesson About Customer Care: Sunday musings…12/15/19

As hard as it may seem to believe this, I learned a valuable lesson about taking care of patients from an airline. Granted, this occurred because I had an unpleasant (for me) interaction on a rather long flight because a flight attendant had an unpleasant interaction (because of me) at the very beginning of that flight. My lesson can be applied any time one finds oneself on either side of the service continuum.

We should give a patient who may be having a hard day the benefit of the doubt.

This weekend I was in Las Vegas for a meeting with my very favorite people, fellow members of the small professional group called CEDARS/ASPENS. It’s a lousy time of year to be traveling, to be away from home. At my best I am a reluctant traveler when I am away from Beth, and at this time of year I’m also a little tired and cranky. Couple all of that with a late night prior to a very early morning flight (and a 3 hour time change to boot) and I was pretty much one big exposed nerve getting on the plane.

Knowing this would be the case Beth had helped me out by booking a bit of extra leg room, purchasing a carry on slot, as well as early boarding. On the outbound leg I had all of this too; I arrived at the gate a bit tardy and ended up with my roller bag 7 or 8 rows behind my seat. My bad, since I was a bit too casual getting to the gate. But on my return flight I was chilling in the gate area for area for an hour; when I got trampled by folks rushing to get on board first in that early boarding group my mood started to darken. Naturally all of the overhead bins around my seat were filled. My attempt to jam my bag in was unsuccessful. Once again I ended up with my bag several rows behind my seat. The flight attendant asked if that was OK and my instant, out loud response was: “nope. Not OK. Not even a little OK.”

I instantly regretted it.

You see, my tiny moment of petulance, during which I was admittedly behaving like an entitled brat, resulted in that flight attendant punishing me for the rest of the flight. For the next 4 hours she effectively ignored me. Not subtly, either. I sat with a credit card out to buy a drink and a snack while my row mate got a coffee. She failed to acknowledge this obvious cue that would otherwise have had her jumping to sell me something (and garner a tip). Newspapers piled up around me as she scooted by with the trash bag, and the beverage cart glided past my row during each trip down the aisle. Thankfully one row mate was sound asleep for the whole trip and the other only had that one coffee request. They did not suffer for my transgression.

Was I badly treated? Yes, of course I was. But I knew in a nanosecond after my micro-tantrum that it was going to happen. The flight attendant was not having any of it, and she was either unaware of the downstream risk she might be creating, or was willing to use her position of power while in flight to deal with any reaction I might have had to being “shunned”. Why didn’t I assert myself and request the same service offered to those around me? After all I was hungry, thirsty, and under-caffeinated. Looking back I am sure that I did not “raise my hand” because it was ¬†obvious that my flippancy had created an enemy. I have spent so many years evaluating the micro details of the customer care experience from both sides that my reaction was to observe and analyze.

Which of course leads us to the question of where does the lesson lie and for whom is it meant? There is certainly a lesson for the young flight attendant but it is not for me to provide. I will tag the airline when I link this on Twitter in the hope that the lesson I learned might be shared with all of their flight attendants. I will not identify my flight; after all, the “original sin” was mine. Rather, I will look at this for an insight into how we as physicians and our staff might be better able to serve our patients when circumstances may not be optimal. Realizing how hard it is to be always “on” for passengers I am almost always solicitous and bring minimal demands to flight attendants. Most of our patients behave like this when they come to see us.

It is where a patient, the “served” individual in the service continuum, behaves less than perfectly that the lesson for me lies. An edgy or unhappy person should be given the benefit of the doubt as long as they do not persist in angry or unhappy behavior. ¬†The young flight attendant whose job it is to provide a service did not give me the benefit of the doubt. My behavior after being seated was impeccable. I neither pouted nor complained. How often do we see a patient who comes into the office and instantly pops off to the reception staff about something trivial like filling out a form? You know, the equivalent of having to place your carry on a few rows behind your seat. Or in the exam room is a little aggressive with the first question? Do we as healthcare providers, doctor and staff, treat them from that point on as if they are the passenger who won’t hang up their phone, put their seat back up, or stay out of the aisle for the entire flight?

Or because we don’t know anything about what else is going on for them do we instead give them the benefit of the doubt? Allow them a few moments to demonstrate that their first little outburst was just that, a trivial anomaly, and not an indication that they are going to be an ongoing problem?

That’s the lesson I learned from the 4 hour punishment for my tiny, brief moment of pique. When presented with a patient who is on edge, who may be less than cuddly on first blush, we should offer them the benefit of the doubt. At least until they demonstrate that they are going to double down on their petulance rather than move beyond it. While I was pretty hungry by the time we landed, in the end I am thankful for the tiny lesson in customer care I received while flying home from Las Vegas.



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