When I got to the end of the jetway at the sprawling Changi Airport in Singapore, a cart was waiting for me. The Singapore Airlines employee sitting behind the wheel knew he’d spotted the passenger he’d been waiting for when he looked at me and said, “San Francisco?” I nodded, knowing that my connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur had arrived late, and I was at risk of missing my connection—an 18-hour marathon of a flight back to the U.S.
I hopped on and sat in the back with my carry-on backpack at my side. As we weaved in and out of a sea of passengers walking through the terminal, my driver filled me in on the plan. “I’ll try to get you to the gate before your plane leaves but I can’t guarantee anything. If not, we’ll get you on the next flight out.”
My heart sank. It was approaching 9:30am and I hadn’t slept the night before—last-minute goodbyes from friends and an early train to the airport for the first leg of my trip made sleeping impossible. I felt exhausted and rushed. Still, I felt confident we had enough time to make it to the other terminal to catch my flight—they’d probably hold the plane a minute or two for me if needed.
“Did you check any bags?” asked my driver.
“Yes, two bags.”
“Well, we can still get you on this plane, but your bags won’t make it. Is that okay?”
It wasn’t okay. I don’t live in San Francisco, and I’d be catching another flight to Phoenix on a different airline shortly after arriving, so my bags would be stranded far from home. I’d rather wait and get on the next flight to San Francisco with my bags.
The cart sped past my original gate and pulled up next to the Singapore Airlines ticketing counter so that I could book a ticket on the next flight out. It turned out to be the same flight at the same time the following morning. I started to fear that I’d be holed up in a tiny airport transit hotel for the next 21 hours biding my time on a twin-sized bed and eating pre-packaged meals.
The art of making it right
I waited a few minutes for the Singapore Airlines staff to get things sorted out and then was presented with a voucher for a hotel, meals, and cab fare to and from the airport. Instead of some average airport transit hotel, Singapore Airlines booked me a room at the Carlton Hotel—a luxurious 4-star business hotel in the center of the bustling financial district.
My disastrous morning turned into a fantastic stroke of luck. I was able to slow my pace, get a hot shower, and take a much-needed nap before wandering around Singapore’s famous Bugis Street for some last-minute souvenir shopping. My meals, served in the hotel restaurant, were excellent. Quite simply, it was the best missed flight of my life.
Diamonds from coal
The business lesson here is that virtually any mistake that causes a customer undue stress can be turned into an opportunity for converting a company skeptic into an evangelist. To err is human, and no company gets it right the first time 100% of the time. The customers worth wooing are aware of and able to appreciate that mistakes get made. We’ve been there. In our own jobs and in our own ways, we’ve screwed up. We know that no one feels worse about it than the employees facing the wrath of a disgruntled customer.
Companies that get this psychology and use it to their advantage are wildly successful—Singapore Airlines is one of them. They managed to turn a failed connection into an opportunity for cultivating customer loyalty. If it’s possible for a company to turn an impending disaster like a missed international flight into a pleasurable experience, there is virtually no end to the potential upside in the art of making it right.
While I still value a good deal and will spend wisely, I’ll always remember the way I was treated by Singapore Airlines in my moment of distress, and I’m certain I’ll fly with them again. We both win, and that’s the way business is supposed to be.