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I knew today would be interesting. But I didn’t know it would start with such a great customer service story.

The May Cohen Award presented to me by AFMC President Dr. Nick Busing

This afternoon at the Canadian Conference on Medical Education in Quebec City I received a prestigious national award. It’s the May Cohen Equity, Gender and Diversity Award presented by the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada (AFMC). It’s a tremendous honour to receive such an award. I have looked forward to this trip and the award presentation for several months.

But when I got up very early this morning in Stouffville, Ontario I saw an email on my phone informing me that my 10 am flight out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport was cancelled! To say that I was upset would be an understatement. Porter Airlines had cancelled my flight and rescheduled me to a later flight. But I would risk missing the award ceremony and the associated reception. At 6 am I called the customer service line to confirm that the flight had indeed been cancelled. I was beside myself with disappointment that I might not make it to Quebec City on time.

People who know me realize that I don’t readily accept the roadblocks that arise in my path. Porter Airlines was about to learn my style. Of course I took to Twitter to express my dissatisfaction with this sudden change of plans. (I have since deleted my grouchy tweet.) Then I sent an email to the Porter Airlines CEO, Robert Deluce. I had always been a Porter fan but I wasn’t at 6 am today! In my email to the CEO I described in a respectful but dramatic manner how distressed I was that they had let me down.

Much to my surprise, in just half an hour (and before 7 am) I received a phone call from Mr. Deluce himself! He wanted to hear my story and promised to find out why the flight had been cancelled at the last minute. Of course I told him how I had been looking forward to receiving this significant award – in front of representatives of every medical school in Canada and some of the most prominent medical education leaders in the country. He listened to the details, expressed his empathy with my situation and promised to investigate and see if there was a solution.

Exactly twelve minutes later, he called back again. He explained the technical and logistical reasons why my flight had been cancelled. But more important to me was the fact that he arranged for me to be booked on an Air Canada flight that would get me to Quebec City in time for the event I had been anticipating. Now that’s customer service. I was both elated and impressed.

I decided this good news story warranted a blog post because it has some great lessons for consumers, corporations – and even health care providers.  These are some of my top lessons from the tale:

  1. Believe in better
  2. Act promptly
  3. Make it polite and personal

“Believe in better” might just be my new personal motto. In this case, the relentless optimist in me was not going to be defeated by a cancelled flight. I believed there was a way around my problem. I pulled out my best ideas and resources – most of them internet-based – and it worked. But I think it also worked because Robert Deluce believes in better. In an article in Entrepreneur magazine that I picked up this morning at Pearson Airport, there’s a short article about Robert Deluce in which he describes Porter Airlines by saying “We’re a customer-service organization that happens to operate aircraft.” So it turns out that the email I sent this morning describing a “failure in customer service” was sent to someone who speaks my language. He believed there should be some way that his company could assist with my dilemma and he set out to find a solution.

The second magazine I read on the flight here was Harvard Business Review, which had a great interview with Sheryl Sandberg, in which she quotes Alice Walker saying that “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I’m not sure that statement is globally true but it reinforced my instinct that most problems have a reasonable solution if we can access the right resources. I’m glad that I did not give up when I heard that my flight was cancelled. I’m glad I didn’t assume that I had no power to overcome the obstacle that had arisen.

Act promptly. At 6 am today it looked like there was no way I could get to Quebec City by early afternoon. But I knew that if I did get my wish for a quick solution, it would need to happen fast. By 6:30 am I had sent off my emails, customer service submissions and tweets. By 7 am the CEO of Porter Airlines was listening to my story. If I wanted an actual solution and not just documentation of the problem, it would have done no good to register my complaint the next day. Mr. Deluce obviously realized the same thing. My problem was solved in less than 30 minutes. My satisfaction as a Porter customer should last for years. Now that I’ve posted this story, it might be read by hundreds of people. I think Porter’s timely outlay of 30 minutes work was a smart investment.

Make it polite and personal. I will spare you the exact wording of the email I sent to Mr. Deluce at 6:27 am. In retrospect it was a little melodramatic. But I think he would agree that it was courteous and respectful. I shared my raw emotion, my personal dilemma and my request for his advice. From my experience in health care, I find that we respond much more quickly to people who share their concerns in a civilized manner. But it also helped that I managed to get my message from one real person to another real person. This is not always possible. But it surely helps. Imagine my delight when my cell phone rang with a call from the CEO himself (with whom I had no previous connection). It makes me wonder about how many conflicts and complaints could be resolved if consumers (and citizens) could always connect personally to the people who have the power to influence change.

It turns out that the theme of the conference I am attending is “The Quest for Quality Improvement: Going for Gold through Medical Education”. I didn’t realized I’d be reflecting on the topic before I’d even left home. But when it comes to Quality Improvement (whether in health care or air travel) it starts with believing we can always do better; acting quickly when things aren’t right; and responding with personal and professional attention to the people we aim to serve.

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