There are four things that I have learnt in building a leadership consulting practice across the globe that are related to Customer Service. They are:

  1. The customer is not always right but the customer is always the customer.
  2. All rules related to customers must be clearly for the customer’s benefit.
  3. Good recovery after service failure results in more customer loyalty than good service which never fails because most people take good service for granted.
  4. A customer who complains is not a nuisance. He is someone who is interested in helping you to succeed by engaging with you when it would have been far easier simply to walk away.

I teach customer service to all kinds of global and local organizations which include, airlines, IT/ITES companies, hotels, hospitals, all kinds of service organizations, NGOs and the Police. In this connection, I collect real life stories of both heroic service excellence and failure. They help me to bring alive the lessons and to build credibility for myself, that I know what I am talking about. It also ensures that those mentioned in the stories get global exposure. I tell the story. The kind of exposure depends on what the actors in the story did. From my perspective therefore, both good and bad customer service experiences are useful and so I take them very seriously.

Below is one such story that happened to me in the last two weeks. I will leave you to decide what it was an example of.

On August 17, 2017, my cousin Mohammed Ahmed, I went to Abuja, Nigeria, to speak at a conference on leadership. My hosts kindly sent me a Business Class ticket on Turkish Airlines. Both of us normally travel only on Emirates but welcomed this change because it would give us an opportunity to stop over in Istanbul on the return journey. This was a ‘first’ for me all through; first time on Turkish Airlines, first time in Nigeria and first time in Istanbul. So, I was looking forward to it very much.

We left Hyderabad on August 16 by Jet Airways, reached Mumbai at 11 pm, spent the night at the airport and reported at the Turkish Airlines check-in counter at 3 am on August 17 for the Mumbai – Istanbul flight (TK 721) at 620 am. I am 63 years old and have a chronic back problem and am in almost constant pain, especially if I stand or sit for too long and if I lose sleep. The scheduling of this trip almost ensured that. The flight took off and 7 hours later, I was in Istanbul at 1035 am local time. I headed for the lounge and reached there after negotiating the milling crowds at about 1130 am.

Istanbul airport is clearly one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the most disorganized. The scene of people of multiple nationalities and races, some loitering, some parading, some taking the air and others rushing to catch flights is delightful to witness if you are a fly on the wall. But when are one of those milling, parading, loitering or rushing, it is anything but delightful. Clearly much can be done to channel traffic so that the movement of people is smooth, but that requires one presupposition; that Turkish Airlines believes that change is necessary. This story after all is about this, so read on.

We reached the Business Class Lounge, exhausted from lack of sleep and with my back aching badly. But I was not worried because my connecting flight to Abuja, TK 623 was at 6.20 pm, so I was looking forward to a good 4-5 hours of sleep in the lounge. Turkish Airlines proudly (and quite inaccurately) describes their Business Class Lounge as the ‘most luxurious and best’ lounge in the world. As I walked in, I thought to myself, ‘That’s because they haven’t seen the Emirates Lounge in Dubai.’ I know this will touch a lot of raw Turkish Airlines nerves, but seriously, they should take a look.

We headed for the Sleeping Suites. There is a plaque on the wall saying that these are for Business Class passengers only and only if you have a layover of 4-7 hours. I thought that the first condition was totally unnecessary to state because who, other than Business Class passengers are in the Business Class lounge, the entry to which is controlled and only on the basis of your boarding pass? Anyway, we felt confident as we satisfied both conditions. We were Business Class passenger and we had our boarding passes to prove it and our layover was from 11 am to 530 pm, when we would have to head off to my gate for the next 6-hour flight to Abuja.

I asked the lady at the desk if I could have a room to sleep. She pushed a laminated sheet of paper towards me and said, ‘Is your country on this list?’

‘I am from India and I came from Mumbai. They are not on this list.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Nigeria.’
‘Is Nigeria on the list?’
I looked very hard. It wasn’t. ‘No, Nigeria is also not on the list.’
‘Then you can’t sleep here.’
‘Madam, do you think Indians and Nigerians don’t need sleep?’
‘Vat?’
‘I am asking why Indians and Nigerians are not allowed to sleep in your suites.’
‘That is the rule. Is your country on this list?’
“That is the rule”, is a phrase that I heard a lot more of and learnt to appreciate as being in the nature of ‘inscribed in stone where reason, compassion, logic or God forbid, initiative, must all bow in submission.’ That is the rule.

I tried to explain to her that my flight from India was not 8 hours long but 7. But I am 63 years old with a bad back and had been traveling from 10 pm the previous night and desperately needed to lie down. If I sat for another 7 hours in the lounge and then a further 6 on the plane on the next leg of the flight, it would be disastrous for my well-being. But needless to say, my well-being was not on her priority list. She was the enforcer of ‘THE RULE’, no matter what it cost me or Turkish Airlines or anyone. While I admired her slavish devotion to her task; (I have always been totally incapable of slavish obedience to rules – strongly believing in using the brain that I have been burdened with) I was markedly incapable of appreciating it when it was being applied to me that day.

I tried one last time to appeal to any vestigial pity glands that she may have had and pleaded, ‘Madam, I am an old man with a very painful back. Can’t you relax your rule a little and allow me to lie down? There is nowhere else in this lounge for me to do that. Please!!’ That is when I discovered that if she’d had any vestigial pity glands, they must have been removed when they removed her appendix (my assumption), in a package deal – buy one and get one free – pay for the appendix and pity goes for free.

I decided to accept defeat. I don’t think I am capable of actually slinking away, but I did whatever was the next best thing and tried to find an easy chair at least, so that I could recline, if not lie down. There were none. There was the floor of course but there was also my ego and the ego won. So, I sat in a chair and contemplated life. It was then that I decided that I wouldn’t simply die without a fight and so recorded my experience on WhatsApp and sent it to a few friends. I have good friends. They sent it out of their social networks and called Turkish Airlines offices in their countries.

Very soon, as I finished some excellent mushroom soup, followed by Turkish coffee, I started getting many messages of support.

[8/17, 1:47 PM] Mirza Yawar Baig: The Delhi Turkish Airlines manager called me and told me to go there again and apologized for the refusal.

I went there again and they refused again.

[8/17, 3:35 PM] Delhi Turkish Airlines manager: Sorry for inconvenience. I think the flight timing is less than 8 hours but they were not able to explain you the situation correctly. (Meaning: It is your own fault you old goat!)

[8/17, 3:36 PM] Delhi Turkish Airlines manager: Please let me know when you fly next time so that we can make it up to you

[8/17, 3:43 PM] Mirza Yawar Baig: The issue is not about how long the flight is. It’s about how long the wait is and how tired you get. I’m 63 years old with a bad back. To sit for 8 hours is very tough. Then I have another 7 hours flying ahead of me. I’ve been up since 3 am yesterday and won’t reach my destination until 11 p.m tonight. Given a five and a half hour time difference you know what that means. That means almost 24 hours without lying down. I always travel Emirates. In the Emirates lounge, if there’s place in the sleeping suites, you can sleep. Nobody tells you rules. What’s the point of such a rule? Nobody sleeps unless they are tired and need the sleep.

As for making up to me on another flight, I appreciate your intention but I don’t think I’m going to take that chance again.

I tried once again to appeal to reason: [8/17, 2:12 PM] Mirza Yawar Baig: Please explain to your people that rest is a factor of age and strength. Not of the duration of a flight. When I was 24 years old, I took a flight from Hyderabad-Mumbai-London-New York-Miami-Georgetown, Guyana and I was bright like a light at the end of that. I traveled economy and it was in 1979. I traveled in a Caravelle, then Boeing 707, then a McDonnell Douglas DC10. I doubt that you’ve even seen those planes. I didn’t need sleep or a bed then. I do now but your airline has this rule of 8 hours flight. Makes no sense at all. What does tiredness or sleep have to do with the country or duration of flight? We’re all paying for Business Class. 
They’re not doing us a favor. So how can they discriminate?

But to no avail. I got the standard answer, ‘But that is THE RULE.’

A couple of hours later a man came searching for me, introduced himself as the Manager of the lounge and said, ‘We are very sorry for what has happened. I apologize to you.’ I was delighted at the fast result of my voice mail. ‘So, can I go there and sleep now?’

‘O! No. You see, that sleeping suites facility is handled by an independent contractor. Not us. All this is their fault.’

I asked myself if I was hearing right. I took three deep breaths and counted to ten. ‘Can you repeat that please?’ I asked him.

‘The sleeping suites facility is handled by an independent contractor. Not us.’ So, I was not hearing things. He did say that. I counted to ten more and another ten. He had a silly smile on his face as if to say, ‘You see, it was your own fault and now that you realize it, God is in Heaven and all is well with the world.’

‘I am sorry, I don’t see’, I said. ‘What I do see is that you are trying to pass off your service failure onto someone else. What do I care who you employ? Whose lounge is this? Turkish Airline’s or your contractor’s? As far as I am concerned, you have an illogical rule that must change. And your apology has no meaning because it doesn’t change anything for me. I still can’t rest my back. I still have to suffer the pain and indignity of facing discrimination, albeit now, knowing that you are ‘sorry’ about it. Who cares if you are sorry or not? Not me. Goodbye.’ He buzzed off and I sat for another two hours. Then I went to the gate for my flight.

In Abuja, I was met at the doorway of the plane by one of the smoothest talkers I have ever met, the Turkish Airlines Commercial Manager, Mr. Ahmet Murat Kanturk. He said to me, with great authority as if he had been an eye witness to what had happened, ‘We are very sorry for what happened, but you see, you didn’t understand the lady. She didn’t say you couldn’t sleep because you are Indian. We have to follow rules.’ And then he disappeared, having parked me on a bench before the office of the Immigration officer. It was 11 pm. I had been traveling for over 24 hours, given the time difference and had neither the energy nor the motivation to argue with him.

‘Ah!’ I said to myself. ‘They are sorry but the fault is mine. Not theirs of course. They have THE RULE to follow. Now why can’t I see this? Why am I being so stupid and blind. The fault is mine. It is always mine.’ But did I see it? Do you?

I had a lovely five days in Kaduna where we went from Abuja for the conference. Met some lovely people, ate great food and enjoyed some lovely weather. Then we were back in Abuja airport to take our return flight to Istanbul. Meanwhile my friends were not willing to let this thing go and they continued to put pressure on Turkish Airlines not realizing how tough and change averse they are.

Abuja airport is chaos in progress. It is an experience to be had at least once in your lifetime. I am sure it results in the forgiveness of sins. We had our dear friend whose name shall remain confidential who helped us to run the gauntlet of fire. We emerged unscathed at the other end which opens in the Business Class lounge. The first thing I saw there was a section partitioned off to one side with beautifully made, clean beds with pillows and blankets for anyone who needs rest. Curiously, though there were many of us in the lounge, it was only a mother with a baby who was using that section. No RULE, no list of approved countries, no restrictions on fight durations, nothing.

‘How boring!’, I thought to myself. ‘Turkish Airlines can teach these Nigerians a thing or two.’ Suddenly the Turkish Airlines manager appeared with his assistant in tow. He said to me in an accusing tone, ‘You have a lot of friends. I didn’t know you had so many friends. I told you we are sorry for what happened. Now send out a message saying that everything is settled and that you are happy.’

‘You want me to send a message that everything is settled and I am happy when nothing is settled and I am not happy?’

‘Ah! I told you we are sorry. Now listen, let me take a photo with you. I want to post it on my Facebook to show that you are happy.’ He promptly did that. I made a face. I said I was not happy, but he talked and talked. I pointed out the sleeping section in the lounge and asked him why they didn’t do that in Istanbul. He said to me, ‘There are ten thousand people landing in Istanbul. How can we give them all beds?’

‘You don’t need to give beds to ten thousand. Or even ten. Just give whatever beds you can and let people use them if they need them. What’s the problem? Why put rules that make you look bureaucratic (which you are) and racist (which you appear to be)? Nobody goes to sleep just for the heck of it, if they are not tired or sleepy.’

But deaf ears and an arrogant attitude which never accepts that you can possibly be at fault, are both incredibly effective in creating suicidal blindness which prevents all development or beneficial change. Having lectured me and refusing to see a good example of effectively dealing with the beds problem right under his nose, he disappeared, wishing me a good flight.

He said to me in a cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die tone, ‘I will call everyone in Istanbul. Tomorrow they will meet you with a limousine, when you land in Istanbul. And now I must go. I will see you at the plane’. I looked for a bookie to place a bet of 1000:1 that I would never see him again. Sadly, there are no bookies in Abuja airport or I would have made a nice bit of money. It is beyond me, how people go through life, imagining that they have fooled others, when the only one they fooled is themselves.

The flight was scheduled to depart at midnight. We boarded. It was a Boeing 737, a small plane for a 6-hour flight. It departed late. We had dinner. At about 3 am, I started a nasty headache. I usually carry headache medication in my bag but didn’t feel like taking it out of the hat rack for fear of disturbing the sleep of my fellow passenger. So, I quietly got up and went into the galley and asked the steward if he had an Aspirin or Tylenol. He said to me, ‘I have the medicine but can’t give it to you.’

‘Ah!’, I said to myself, ‘looks like here we go again.’ ‘Why not?’, I asked him.

He said to me (yes, you guessed it), ‘According to our rules, I have to announce to see if there is a doctor on board. If there is, he will come here and prescribe the medicine.’

I asked him, ‘You mean that you will wake up the whole plane calling for a doctor to come and prescribe an off-the-counter medicine which you already have here?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I looked deeply into his eyes to see what he had been smoking. But surprisingly he was sober. So, here once again, was an apparently sane, adult Turkish Airline employee exhibiting his total, blind, unbending loyalty to THE RULE.

I said, ‘If you wake up the whole plane to call a doctor and he comes up here only to discover that I have a headache, he will not prescribe a Tylenol, he will kill me.’

Then I asked him, ‘What if there is no doctor on board? What then?’ To my great delight, that stumped him. I decided that 3 am was not the best time for such esoteric discussions and went to pull down my bag and get out my headache medication which I should have done in the first place. But then I would never have learnt about this brilliant Turkish Airline rule for those who are sick on board. I believe in that case I would have been less of a man than I now am. I also would have missed out a great story to teach for a class of cabin crew about on-board service challenges.

In due course, we landed at Istanbul. Sure enough on the que there was another bright young man, washed behind the ears, shaking me by the hand, saying, ‘We are very sorry for what happened to you when you were here. Do you want to meet my manager?’ I had just had a rough overnight flight and was in no mood to go to meet any Turkish Airlines manager to advise him about customer service. I told him that I would be happy to meet the manager if he would like to descend from his office to where I was. That didn’t produce any result. The man accompanied us out of the airport building and said, ‘There is the taxi stand. You can take whichever taxi you want.’ I was so delighted to know this. Truly as they say, ‘It is a free country.’ I could take any taxi I want. Didn’t know that. I bet you didn’t either.

Final episode, August26, I got to the airport in Istanbul four hours in advance because I had seen the confusion that reigns supreme. I cleared immigration and customs and reached the lounge. Yes, the same lounge. I was well rested after three great days of eating and sight-seeing in Istanbul. I picked up a drink from the dispenser and found myself a nice seat and read my book for the next three hours. Then just as it was time to go to the gate for my flight back to Mumbai, along comes the ubiquitous Turkish Airlines employee – they seem to have an endless supply of these young men who are willing to take the rap for their employers and bosses.
‘Mr. Mirza Yawar Baig?’
‘Yes.’
‘Salaam Alaikum. I was waiting for you at the sleeping suites and showers. You didn’t come. Do you want to come now and take a shower and sleep?’
Pinch yourself you stupid chump? No. I am awake. And I am actually hearing this. Just as I am ready to go to the gate, would I like to take a shower and nap? I think at this point, all comments, speculations and statements are redundant. I rest my case.

Turkish Airlines plays a promo when you board and land. It uses three terms with some very nice photographs of scenery. Wonder! Discover! Broaden your world.

I wondered what Turkish Airlines was like.
I discovered what it is really like.
I shall broaden my world by making sure that I always travel on other airlines.

To close with the final rule of customer service excellence: No matter how big you, the service provider are and how small the customer, in the end the customer decides your fate. Not vice versa.

Turkish Airlines doesn’t seem to understand that, much less believe it.
But that, O! People, is the truth.