The late 1990s were the best time ever for the airline industry. Seats were packed elbow-to-elbow and the airlines made more money than ever before. United Airlines, then the nation’s biggest carrier, saw its stock price jet to more than $125 a share. United’s biggest hub is in my hometown of Chicago. They go almost everywhere out of O’Hare Airport and their fares are usually among the lowest, so I fly them a lot. What I remember most about traveling in that prosperous era was the rudeness and arrogance of United employees.

Jim Olsztynski


The late 1990s were the best time ever for the airline industry. Seats were packed elbow-to-elbow and the airlines made more money than ever before. United Airlines, then the nation’s biggest carrier, saw its stock price jet to more than $125 a share.

United’s biggest hub is in my hometown of Chicago. They go almost everywhere out of O’Hare Airport and their fares are usually among the lowest, so I fly them a lot.

What I remember most about traveling in that prosperous era was the rudeness and arrogance of United employees. Earlier in the decade United pilots had cut a deal with the company to forego some pay raises in return for a slice of ownership of the airline. Once business heated up, they decided they wanted more pay after all, in addition to owning a piece of the pie. When management didn’t give them their way, the pilots indulged in sickouts and slowdowns, leading to epidemic flight delays and cancellations. This attitude reverberated throughout the company. Ticket agents, flight attendants, reservations people - all did their jobs with chips on their shoulder. Smiling faces were about as common as tasty meals in coach. With the airline booking almost all available seats, United employees felt free to treat passengers like nuisances.

Then divine justice intervened - or at least that’s one interpretation. United took a nosedive and ended up in bankruptcy. Thousands of employees lost their jobs and almost all who remained endured steep pay cuts. Stockholders - including many United employees who invested through the company’s 401(k) plan - saw the value of their shares decline from $125 to a big fat zero.

Something interesting coincided with these events. Flyers suddenly saw smiling faces everywhere at United. People desperate to hold onto their jobs got the message that it was good business to be nice to paying customers.

Now airplanes are packed once again. United is out of bankruptcy and has begun to report some profits for the first time in almost a decade.

Perhaps this explains why the sourpusses have reappeared. Maybe I’m wrong to single out that one airline for criticism. Air travel in general has become an ordeal thanks to financially strapped airlines cutting back flights and personnel. Flights are packed, delays and cancellations routine. Passengers are in a foul mood, and it’s hard to keep smiling when faced with abuse throughout the working day. United personnel may not be any worse than those working for most of the other airlines. I’m just more familiar with their lousy attitudes.

Counter-Cyclical Manners

Plenty of contracting companies fall into this pattern as well. When business revs up, business manners tend to head in the opposite direction.

That’s when you and your people get too busy to return customer calls. Complaints get ignored or challenged. Everyone is pushing hard and tempers get short. So what if your crew shows up late or not at all on certain days. Your competitors are just as busy as you, so it’s likely your customers won’t find anyone else to do the work, and even if they do, so what. There’s more where they came from.

When business is booming, it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that customers need you more than you need them - that you are doing them a favor by doing the work they pay you to do. It’s easy to fall into this trap when your biggest problem is finding the people and the time to do all the work you have access to.

When times are good, you can even get away with it. Heck, it makes good business sense to turn your back on troublesome jobs. All the consultants say so. It sure feels good to say to whining customers, “Who needs this crap? Take your business elsewhere.”

Construction industry fortunes have been riding high for more than a decade. The residential sector has been hit hard by the new housing slump, but commercial-industrial-institutional markets are still going strong. Throughout this era many contractors enjoyed more work than they could handle.

But this is coming to an end. A slowdown has hit many markets, and the economic signals suggest it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. All of those customers who were mistreated during the boom times have long memories.

Despite lousy treatment, I continued flying United because in many cases I had no other choice or lousy alternatives. Plus, I’m hooked on United’s frequent flyer program, which is as addictive as heroin. It’s hard to pass up free trips and first class upgrades.

Your customers can be more selective. Yesterday you were the bat, but tomorrow you’ll be the baseball. When the phones slow down you’ll find yourself wanting to talk to the people whose calls you were too busy to return before. You’ll also wish you had given them reason to recommend you to other people.

Friendliness Comes Easy

Your business is not an easy one to master. It requires technical know-how and capital investment, and competition swarms like stinging bees. But anyone has the ability to instill good customer manners. You and your people do not require any special technical aptitude or know-how to master the art of friendliness. You don’t need to buy expensive tools and equipment, nor do you need to spend a lot of time and money on training programs or consultants.

A lot of it just has to do with The Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated. Understand that kind words generate better results than harsh ones. Remember that the customer is always right, and if the customer speaks harshly to you, you need to resist the urge to reciprocate. Also remember that nobody ever wins an argument with a customer. The best that can happen is you’ll prove yourself right, and the customer will resent the hell out of you because of it.

I spoke with a plumbing wholesaler recently who told me of company research revealing what contractor customers expect out of their inside salespeople. Three issues topped the list by a wide margin:
  1. Be readily available.
  2. Be eager to help and knowledgeable.
  3. Be responsive. Return phone calls and respond to backorder status.
That’s what contractors expect from their suppliers. Isn’t it also pretty much what your customers want from you?

Another friend of mine in the plumbing supply business wrote a book titled The Art of Supervising & Motivating People. In autographing my copy, he wrote the following inscription that is worth taking to heart: “People will forget what you say or do, but they never forget how you made them feel.”

Rudeness stems from something dark within the human soul. Don’t succumb to it.