How Far Can Your Employees Go to Help Customers?

If you’ve flown somewhere recently, there’s a decent chance you may have experienced some type of frustration: plane delay; ticket mix-up; unwanted intimacy with a TSA agent, etc. But this story about Jet Blue shows how far they’re willing to empower — and trust — their employees to make passengers happy. While you wouldn’t want one of your staffers to go spending $160,000 without a great deal of deliberation, it does beg the question: How much autonomy does your staff have, and is it enough?

CEOs: look around at the people in your organization and answer me this: how fearful are they?

On a scale of professional courage, with Terrified at 1 and Reckless at 5, where do most of your people fall? Are they 4, Brave? Are they 2, Timid?

Leaders often tell me, "I wish my people were more entrepreneurial!" It makes me wonder. If you’re a leader, ask yourself this: how committed are you to your people really, truly taking risks and sometimes (often?) falling flat on their faces? What happens to them when they do get it wrong?

In its infancy, Jet Blue faced a powerful test of its culture. In theory, in training, in branding, CEO David Neeleman told his staff and the world, my people have the latitude to make grown-up decisions on the spot in order to serve our customers.

Sure enough, not long into operations, one of its planes was grounded by weather in another city, and an entire flight full of passengers was in danger of being bumped. No worries, though! Taking his training at face-value, a ticket agent solved this potential brand-basher the best way he could think of. He walked down the counter to his competition and bought tickets on the next flight for every one of his passengers. To the tune of $160,000.

Stop right there. What would your company do if one of its front-line employees made a decision on his own to spend $160,000 of your company’s funds? Seriously. I think we all know the answer.

…But here’s what his JetBlue supervisors did: nothing. And here’s what Neeleman did when he found out: he teased the agent. That’s it. He just gulped, and laughed, and made a joke of it.

PR: Getting Out in Front Works Again (JetBlue Edition)

By now, you’ve heard the story about the JetBlue flight attendant who quit in an uproar, telling a customer — and many others — to (bleep) off. What’s more, he’s been anointed by some as a hero by angry employees nationwide. The whole incident was certainly unprofessional and not something the company is proud of. At any rate, after a day or so of public ridicule, Twitter wars with comedians, etc., JetBlue finally acknowledged the situation on its own blog and seemed to come off quite well:

Sometimes the weird news is about us…
It wouldn’t be fair for us to point out absurdities in other corners of the industry without acknowledging when it’s about us. Well, this week’s news certainly falls into that category. Perhaps you heard a little story about one of our flight attendants? While we can’t discuss the details of what is an ongoing investigation, plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter. Like, the entire Internet. (The reason we’re not commenting is that we respect the privacy of the individual. People can speak on their own behalf; we won’t do it for them.)

While this episode may feed your inner Office Space, we just want to take this space to recognize our 2,300 fantastic, awesome and professional Inflight Crewmembers for delivering the JetBlue Experience you’ve come to expect of us.

Additionally, they were able to parlay the incident into a compliment for their existing employees.

So let this be a lesson that sometimes it’s best to address a situation upfront, rather than hope it goes away while losing your ability to control any part of the message.