Risk and Reward: Where Airport Customer Service and Communication Intersect

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Last week during the 2015 Customer Service Seminar, we took a bit of a departure from what you’d probably expect on this type of seminar’s agenda.  In a tautological nutshell, we got the conversation going on how to get the conversation going.

Rick Kaufman is the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota, and he served in the same role for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado.  In April 1999, Rick led the crisis-response team to the Columbine High School shooting, and it was from this perspective that he led an in-depth, hands-on communications workshop on Day 2 in Reno.

Rick Kaufman leads a crisis communications workshop during Day 2 of the 2015 Customer Service Seminar.

Rick Kaufman leads a crisis communications workshop during Day 2 of the 2015 ACI-NA Customer Service Seminar.

Airports are bustling places for which no day is ever the same, and just like any large and complex company, they’re run by skilled teams with highly specialized knowledge.  Sometimes, though—and particularly in the midst of crisis-type event—the instinct can be to adhere strongly to expected job functions.  In terms of airports, this can mean a pronounced division between customer service and media relations.

Rick’s workshop sought to counteract this instinct, and for a few hours last Thursday morning, the meeting room became the communications command center responding to a hypothetical incident at a fictional airport.  Some groups of attendees were tasked to tweet as concerned citizens or family members, while others were assigned the objective to distract the dialogue with non sequitur memes, tirades, and tangents.  You can follow all the workshop’s tweets here.

But the most challenging role was assumed by the groups who took on the responsibility of what traditionally is in the realm of a public information department: speaking on behalf of an airport as a crisis unfolds.  Perhaps because there is a clear distinction between customer service and public information at many North American airports—and perhaps, too, because these disciplines also are closely aligned—the natural instinct was to defer to the appropriate colleague.  But once this role became comfortable, the conversation fully emerged.

In the end, though, the goal of the workshop wasn’t to cross-train customer service professionals as corporate spokespersons.  Instead, it was for us to gain a better understanding of how honest, direct, and precise communication across all parties and audiences is essential, especially during difficult circumstances.  Similarly, we hope that taking the risk of incorporating this type of workshop provided a richer overall seminar experience for those of you who joined us in Reno.

Caroline O’Reilly
Senior Manager, Communications and Marketing