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How poor communication stole a day of my life.
How long does it take to fly from Seattle, Washington to Orlando, Florida?
It’s not a riddle. It’s a simple question with a simple answer. According to Travel Math, a direct flight between Seattle and Orlando takes 4 hours, 58 minutes. Let’s round up to 5 hours for simplicity.
Then why did it take me 26 HOURS to get home a few weeks ago?
I was in Seattle to host the first day of Future Stores. The conference explores the modern retail store and features speakers from companies like Starbucks, Lush, Floor & Decor, IKEA and Hudson Group. It was my job to kick off the day, transition between speakers and host a few panels. It was a straightforward gig, but I wanted to take it up a notch.
I spent the days leading up to the conference building a detailed narrative about my two-week road trip from Orlando to Seattle to host the event. Along the way, I visited stores from the brands represented on-site. The trip gave me a chance to learn about the modern retail store by experiencing it in real life. I then sprinkled my collected stories into my script throughout the day to reiterate key points and connect with the audience.
It worked great! Each story landed as planned. People approached me between sessions to find out if I’d visited their stores too. Most attendees believed I’d completed this extensive road trip when I’d actually curated my stories with the help of teammates from across the continent over the preceding weeks. I was fully committed to the bit, but I didn’t want to spend that much time traveling for the conference.
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I boarded my flight - my first-ever red-eye - after midnight on Thursday evening / Friday morning. I’m incapable of sleeping on airplanes, so I already knew I was going to be a mess by the time I arrived. Plus, the flight was delayed multiple times in Seattle. This included a gate change that required every passenger to cram onto a subterranean train to get to the other side of the airport (where we waited even longer).
We eventually took off, and the trouble was over. Or so I thought. 5 hours later …
We ran into a weather-induced ground stop in Orlando. Would this have happened if we left on time in the first place? That’s up for debate. Nonetheless, we circled for 30 minutes before rerouting to Jacksonville, which is a 3.5 hour drive from Orlando. First, the pilot told us we’d be chilling on the runway for a bit until the ground stop was lifted. Then, he returned to the mic saying we needed to refuel before taking off. Finally, he informed us we were heading to a gate. As a frequent flier, I knew that was a bad sign.
We deplaned. The flight crew had timed out during our delay, so we needed a new team to get us home. But there was a problem. This airline doesn’t service this airport. There wasn’t another flight crew in-town … or gate agents, baggage handlers or anyone else that could resolve this situation.
The crew was gone, and we were stranded.
I’d already been awake for 23 hours by the time I got off the plane. I was physically incapable of accepting an offer for a free rental car, and I refuse to Uber for that long. I was stuck along with the plane and everyone’s luggage until the airline figured something out.
I did laps around the airport, not going beyond security because I was a non-existent passenger in this foreign land. I hung out with the airport’s official greeting dog. I did everything I could to stay awake as I waited for an update. I received 3 text messages over the next twelve hours.
“We’re sorry your flight was diverted due to weather. Your new departure time is 3pm.” It wasn’t.
“We’re sorry we let you down. Let us make it right. Expect an email with a $150 discount for a future flight.” HAHAHAHAHA!
“We’re deeply sorry for the delay. Your new departure time is 6pm.” It wasn’t.
Our makeshift gate slowly emptied as the day went on and passengers found alternative means of ground transportation. I didn’t have a choice. I was going to see this through. After all, that plane had to move at some point. The longer it sat here, the more flights were being canceled elsewhere.
We’d been on the ground for 9 hours by the time gate agents arrived from Orlando, having Ubered their way across the state. We were in the air 3 hours later for a 30-minute ride that ultimately lasted 3 additional hours. All told, it took 26 hours to get home and 3 days to recover from the experience.
I fault the airline. I know - weather happens. But this whole thing could still have been avoided, or at least expedited. As the second flight crew explained repeatedly to the few dozen people who finished the journey, the company took FOREVER to make the decision to get a crew to Jacksonville. Seeing as their plane (and a few hundred passengers) was on the ground and crewless, that’s a bonkers operational gaffe!
Poor communication was my biggest gripe throughout the entire escapade. The airline failed to get someone on-site to assist passengers for hours. Their entire communication strategy was a handful of “do not reply” text and email messages. Friends texted me about my changing departure times before the airline because they were tracking me online. If the situation was clearly articulated from the moment we landed, I would have asked someone to pick me up. Instead, I was left hoping the situation would resolve itself without the need to inconvenience someone else.
This was a hard problem. An airplane went to the wrong city. But this also isn’t the first time. There should have been a plan in place to take care of everyone involved - passengers and crew. And that plan should have been based on solid communication principles:
Be honest and authentic. People are smart. They know when you default to standard talking points, send automated messages and blow smoke. Communicate like a person, not a brand.
Even if it’s not your fault, it’s still your problem. Accept responsibility and address the issue head-on. Fix the problem instead of dwelling on why it happened.
“No update” is an update. Over-communicate with your audience, even if you don’t have much to report. Don’t leave people guessing. Get them the information needed to make informed decisions.
Communication is two-way. Give people a simple, reliable, familiar spot to get updates and ask questions. Don’t require extended phone calls with lengthy hold times when people are already frustrated.
Surprise and delight. Never do the minimum. Exceed expectations in simple, meaningful ways - even when dealing with complex problems.
I don’t think I’ll be using that flight credit anytime soon. I’ll stick with Southwest for a while instead.
We need to talk about AI!
There are LOTS of webinars and articles and ebooks about the potential for AI to transform workplace learning and performance. However, there’s not much room between the buzz and hype for open, honest, frank conversation.
Why is it important for an organization to develop a vision for AI-enabled work?
How will patchwork AI regulation impact our technology decisions?
What guiding principles should we apply when implementing AI-powered tools?
Join me for an open discussion on AI in L&D on Thursday, July 20 at 1pm ET.
No slides. No demos. This is an opportunity to ask questions and share perspectives on how this revolutionary technology will transform the concept of learning at work.
Until next time, be well. JD