What Does Everyone Need to Know?

“But I had no way of knowing that.”  

It had been a pretty good day for airline travel up until that moment, considering that a storm had brought another round of delays, diversions and cancellations. My return flight to Little Rock from a client visit in Atlanta was one of the many that had been pushed a day behind. 

I had taken my seat and a steady stream of groggy yet grateful passengers was filing in. I noticed a middle-aged man, a few rows ahead of me, place his small rolling bag into the overhead compartment. A flight attendant quickly came up to the man and said rather sternly, “You’ll have to take that back onto the jet bridge as a valet bag.” “Oh, it fits just fine,” said the passenger. “It isn’t whether the bag fits,” snapped the flight attendant, “It is an FAA regulation for this aircraft. The flight crew and passenger can be fined $25,000.”

The airline passenger’s demeanor changed. “I asked the gate agent whether this would go into the overhead bin. She said for me to try and see.” The flight attendant wasn’t interested in an explanation. “You must comply with the FAA regulations.” The passenger was staying pretty calm, simply noting that he had no way of knowing the rules (and was acting on information from another airline employee). As the now-aggravated passenger had to walk against traffic back out to the jet bridge the flight attendant said, loud enough for others to hear, “There’s one idiot on every flight.”   

And here’s the punchline: This happened in the First Class section… you know, the area where the airline’s very best customers tend to be.

This incident Illustrates clearly and painfully an essential component for good customer service—namely, what I call “literacy” (or “the things everyone needs to know and be able to convey in customer conversations”). What belongs in your organization’s “Need to Know” list? I recommend keeping it short, limited to those things that (1) help consumers make good decisions, (2) are inherently interesting to others, (3) show the benefits of doing business with you, and/or (4) define the customer’s experience.

The uncomfortable exchange in the First-Class aisle violated the fourth criterion. Even without the unnecessarily confrontational tone of the flight attendant, the fact that a gate agent gave a passenger incorrect guidance showed that two customer-facing employees weren’t on the same page with important information. The negative result would, at the very least, include aggravation of a priority customer and delays in boarding (as if anyone needed that).

The mistakes I most commonly see in What to Know lists include:

  • Piling on too much. People can only keep so much information in their heads. Your list is designed to prepare your people for real-time conversations with customers; the granular details can stay on your website or collateral.
  • Making it about the organization. Your history, growth, and the like are important must-knows only to the degree they match the criteria above; anything else is chest-thumping.
  • Making it about products and services themselves. Everyone need not know the detailed features and functions of your stuff—but everyone should know examples and stories of how your organization has provided value. 

Everyone knows that, right?

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