A few years ago I left a book in my seat on a United Airlines flight. I’m sure it happens all the time and in most cases the books are never reunited with their owners because, let’s face it, they’re relatively cheap and easy to replace. I bet most passengers don’t even contact the airline’s lost and found department to determine the fate of their books.
Even so, there are occasions when there is a bit more motivation to recover the book. Perhaps it’s a rare book that’s no longer in print. Maybe it’s a business book and the reader scribbled lots of notes in the margins. Or, possibly, it was an autographed copy that the reader picked up at a conference or book signing.
In the case of my missing book, I had purchased it three years earlier in New York City together with about two-dozen other books in a limited edition printing of Barnes & Noble Classics. So, even though the book was easily replaceable, finding this particular edition would take a bit more work.
So I called the United Airlines lost and found department at Denver International Airport the next day and learned that nothing had been turned in. The representative suggested that, since I had a flight out the following day, I should allow a few extra minutes to check with lost and found at the airport and also to stop by the gate area where I had last deplaned.
The next day I arrived early at the airport and checked with both lost and found as well as the gate area where I had last deplaned. Nothing. By now, I was disappointed in United Airlines and began to craft my complaint letter to its customer service department in my head.
Now, before you lecture me on the fact that it’s my responsibility—not the airline’s—to keep tabs on my personal property, allow me to share just a bit more…
- I had upgraded on the flight in question and was seated in one of perhaps five or six occupied seats in first class. As we deplaned, we went out a door behind the first class cabin. This means that if the book was taken by a passenger, it would have been one of the handful of first class passengers who deplaned with me. Unlikely.
- I recall setting the book down in my seat in order to assist another passenger with her luggage in the overhead compartment. The flight manifest clearly indicates who sat in seat 4B where I laid the book. By simply looking at the manifest, the book could have easily been traced back to me.
- Finally, I have a habit of using boarding pass stubs as bookmarks. Since I was two-thirds of the way through the book, I bet I had 5 or 6 stubs in it—each containing my name and frequent flyer number. By simply looking up my Mileage Plus account, the book could have easily been returned to me.
The tone of my letter to United Airlines was not one of avoiding my responsibility in maintaining possession of my belongings. I acknowledge my role here—really, I do. In my letter I told United Airlines that I viewed our relationship as a partnership. In a partnership, each party takes responsibility for the success of the relationship.
There are times, for instance, when I make allowances for the scheduling or maintenance oversights of the airline. This usually results in a delayed or canceled flight. Sometimes the lapse involves the handling of my luggage and I have to wait in line to report my missing bag, complete paperwork, and then get by with what I have until my luggage finally arrives—assuming it does arrive…
These are examples of when I, the customer, make allowances for the service lapses of the airline. I’m not happy about the delays, cancellations, or mishandled luggage but I understand it’s one of the unpleasant realities of frequent travel and continue flying United Airlines nonetheless.
So now let’s consider United’s responsibility in our partnership. I would expect that the airline reciprocate with their customers and assume some responsibility when passengers inadvertently leave behind a book, cell phone, or some other possession.
Although it’s clearly a lapse by the customer, the proper handling of lost and found items (whether found by a United Airlines employee or even a contract employee whose job it is to clean the cabin) demonstrates the reciprocal nature of partnerships. The items should be catalogued and secured in the airline’s lost and found department and the airline should make every reasonable effort to reunite passengers with their belongings.
I pointed this out to United Airlines in my letter and they graciously responded with a sincere letter of apology and a $50 AMEX Gift Cheque. In the end, United Airline’s customer service department did the best it could to remedy a situation that, in my mind, was avoidable.
Now, ask yourself, “How does the premise of a customer-supplier partnership apply to my business?”
Consider other questions like, “What allowances do we ask—or even expect—our customers to make for our lapses in product or service quality?” and, “In what ways can we reciprocate with our customers to demonstrate that we recognize that partnerships require the sincere efforts of both parties?”
By addressing these types of questions in advance, you demonstrate to all stakeholders—customers and employees alike—that you’re in a partnership where each party takes responsibility for the success of the relationship.