The Customer is Always Right (Except When They Aren’t)—The Case for Conflict Resolution HR Style


Last week I flew to Dubai for a speaking engagement and learned so much about human nature I couldn’t help but share it with you.  Imagine for a moment you’re flying eight thousand miles to an amazing destination where you will speak six hours after touching down.  You want your rest.  You need to make the most of that business-class flight and practice your speech a few times before getting at least a couple hours of sleep.  To be fair, my journey had one stop in London where my plan was thrown out the window and what followed was absolutely magical. 

As I was familiarizing myself with my surroundings in seat 17G in walks a most handsome gentleman approximately 6’2” with a brooding personality akin to the king slayer on Game of Thrones.  On the face of it, he seemed like the kind of guy women love and men want to be.  He was the modern-day Mr. Darcy brooding with elegance and pre-supposed charm.  All this was true until he uttered one sentence as he accommodated himself in seat 18J.  I was ripped from the early stages of slumber with one word—“SH&T!!!!” 

You see, Mr. Darcy was livid because as he settled into work nothing irked him more than having a North American power outlet instead of a universal power outlet.  He found the first flight attendant in sight and growled, “Is this bloody British Airways or American Airlines!?!? How am I supposed to work when I can’t even power my laptop!?!”  The flight attendant was not even off the ground and this gentleman’s temper was sky high.  The flight attendant apologized and offered him an adaptor which he snatched out of her hand as he snarled. 

Then came dinner service.  During the meal, Mr. Darcy (aka Mr. 18J) grew increasingly truculent slamming his fork into every piece of salmon as if he enjoyed impaling it.  Enter flight attendant #2.  The second flight attendant offered Mr. 18J wine, a taste of a “delightful Spanish Rioja” as she put it.  Mr. 18J huffed as the wine was nowhere near his exacting standards for quality Rioja.  He resigned himself to the sub-standard wine but only if they offered him two heaping airline glasses of it.  They did so begrudgingly.  After all, he was such a peach when not fueled by booze; one could only imagine what he would do or say when completely liquored up.

As dinner service was ending, 18J (can’t even call him a mister at this point) reaches over to hand the remains of his meal to flight attendant #3.  As he does so, he flicks his wrist indignantly as if having to hand his meal tray was unbecoming.  This catapulted the tray tossing the second glass of Rioja all over the passenger to his left.  The passenger was doused in sub-standard red wine ruining his clothing indelibly.  18J snapped.  He barked at the flight attendant and at the passenger, “This would never happen on Virgin! Are you so untalented that you can’t even balance a glass?  You must be the class of dimwit only British Airways would hire! You…”

Suddenly an unusually calm voice spoke with the confidence and ease found only through decades of experience wrangling the most unpleasant of characters. “Sir, I am sorry this flight is unsatisfactory.  We strive to please all passengers and are extremely disappointed when we don’t. Although we typically meet our top standards every chance we can, we’ve failed you.  Perhaps we can offer you a solution.  Our mid-flight customer remediation program includes immediate flight termination with parachute departure and the hopes we can serve you again soon,” said flight attendant #3.  “Now, while we don’t want to employ such an intervention often, I strongly suggest you take heed of your fellow passengers’ dismay over this scene and focus on settling in for the evening without further disturbance.”  18J looked left and he looked right.  All others were mortified by his behavior but even more impressed with flight attendant #3 and her skill in managing conflict.  18J slumped quietly in his seat crimson with shame and yellow with fear.

Albeit it harshly done, flight attendant #3 had employed three basic principles for conflict management with moderate success (three tips I always espouse in conflict resolution):

1)      Be firm and demonstrate a shared understanding of the problem areas.

2)      Use a stern but quiet voice when responding to the insanely angry and crazy loud.

3)      Delineate the consequences of continued conflict without resolution.

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that these three tips help greatly in resolving the majority of conflicts.  I learned this from years of studying HR and other professions deeply steeped in conflict.  18J had been defeated and as the flight carried on, I wondered to myself—how did she know how to handle that situation?  Midway through our travels I stood and scampered past 18J toward the restroom praying he would not awaken with a roar.  As I stepped toward the restroom, I bumped into flight attendant #3.  My curious nature got the best of me.  I asked awkwardly, “Where did you learn to handle angry jerks like that? I have to know.”  She shrugged me off with a humble grin and said it was all part of her job.  I responded with another query, “Seriously, where did you learn those tricks?”  She said, “Bollocks!  Truth is I spent 18 years as an HR professional for a manufacturer before becoming a stewardess (her words not mine).  If I can handle managing human resources for manufacturing in Sussex, I can handle that right foul git. HR prepared me for every situation and thank goodness for it.”

HR 1, 18J 0.  That’s a win in my book.  How has a career in HR sharpened your conflict resolution skills?  What have you learned over the years when dealing with prickly personalities?  How do you flex your HR relationship management muscles?



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