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Burnout on the Road to the Happiest Place on Earth

June 28, 2019 1:22 PM | Anonymous

By Stefan Mecke, Esq.

                My professional journey has led me into two specialized industries.  Both require a significant amount of knowledge specific to those industries and I am asked by my clients to attend national seminars to stay on top of industry trends and regulatory changes impacting these industries.  I was recently asked to attend such a seminar in Orlando, Florida at a conference center next to Disney World (there was a free shuttle running all day to and from the Disney parks). The location was far from my home in Tulsa but when my clients ask for something, I like to deliver, as difficult as it may be. After hearing of the close proximity to the parks, my young boys and wife (a schoolteacher) were out of school and expressed some interest in accompanying me on this particular work trip. 

A “Fine” Experience

                Like many other family adventures, our trip started at Fine Airport Parking, a parking facility just off the Tulsa Airport, then owned and operated by local Tulsan Mike Fine.  A visit to Fine always brings back fond memories for me. Some of the first friends I met during my first year of college recruited me to drive a shuttle van for Fine.  The job consisted of driving the same single circle to and from the airport and Fine lot hundreds of times per day. The job didn’t sound very exciting but my friends assured me that Mike Fine ran a great organization and “took care of his people.” Fine turned out to be a perfect place to work for a busy college student in constant need of funds.  The hours were perfect as the need for airport parking/transportation services surged during weekends, holidays and summers when college course loads were less demanding.  

                The job at Fine also introduced me to my first workplace mentor and leader, Mike Fine.  Mike Fine exhibited true excellence through his customer focused vision, pride in his company and compassion for his employees.  Through his daily actions, Mike Fine led by example and taught so many college students in a way that could not be achieved through any college textbook; the powerful impact one can have by leading others with motivation and encouragement.  Mike Fine was hands on and was quick to personally visit with team members about (i) how our day was going, (ii) how our school program was going, and (iii) how our family or dating relationships were fairing. The airport environment was fast-paced and hectic but Mike Fine would often pull a driver out of circulation or meet employees in the breakroom to check in and make sure everyone was ok, on and off the job. 

                Travelling business leaders and consultants would often ask me (as a shuttle van driver) what I thought made Fine such a special place. They would comment that they supported organizations throughout the US but struggled to duplicate the high (i) level of teamwork, (ii) motivation and commitment they experienced while parking at Fine. I always had the answer, it was Mike Fine.  Before the introduction of academic customer service related terms like “moments of truth,” (delivering on a customer experience that will forever change the customer’s satisfaction, positively or negatively) “wow experiences” and “journey mapping” (tools used to orient organizations to the customer’s point of view), Mike Fine was delivering on these customer focused concepts.  Customers were fanatical about Fine and would often comment that the airport travel experience, which could be so painful and demoralizing, came to a pleasant end once they saw a fine shuttle pull up to whisk them back home.  

Baby on Board

                I experienced Mike Fine’s warmth and compassion during a particular low point in my shuttle driving career. A day I thought would be my last at Fine.  The day started with an ice storm and the fine lot and airport drive was treacherous. I eagerly picked up a young couple at the airport delicately carrying a newborn baby in their arms.  After safely securing this precious cargo in the shuttle van, I proceeded to the fine lot.  Concerned with the baby’s safety on such a slippery walk, I suggested pulling the shuttle van directly up to the front door of the Fine lobby to drop off Mom and Baby while Dad warmed up the car and returned to pick them up.

                The unfortunate detail I had forgotten while preparing this careful plan was that the roof above the lobby was only tall enough for cars, not shuttle vans.  I approached the lobby and felt a hard jolt and loud crash. Mom and Baby were rattled due to the impact but fortunately both were unharmed, physically anyway. The shuttle van and the roof did not recover as well and there was significant visible damage.  I was devastated that such a great career had come to such an abrupt end…or had it?

Within seconds, Mike Fine, although this was a Saturday morning, appeared in the lobby and greeted me like a father greeting a college-aged son that had been in an accident. He asked me two questions:  (i) was I ok? and (ii) were the customers ok?.  That was all Mike Fine cared about, was everyone ok.  Mike Fine ushered the family into his office and met with them privately.  He asked me to meet with him afterward and assured me that the family was appreciative of my extra effort to protect their baby, even though my plan had gone terribly wrong. He also told me not to worry about the damage to the van or the roof and that his insurance would take care of it.  Finally, he told me to grab a soda and some popcorn and make sure I was ok before I went back in circulation with another van that he had waiting for me (when I was ready). 

I was not fired, or even disciplined after all.  I was picked up and encouraged, even after failing so miserably.  I had been trying to make an extra effort for a customer and that was what Mike Fine chose to focus in on.  I am certain that family remained loyal to Fine Airport Parking after that unfortunate event, in large part due to the quick actions of Mike Fine.  Later in school I learned of the term service recovery (the concept that businesses can actually achieve more loyalty from a customer after a serious mistake or mishap, based on the way they recover for that customer).  I could have skipped that section in the book, as I had learned all I needed to know about “service recovery” and positive leadership from Mike Fine. 

“Just Go Home”

After ample time reflecting on my Fine experiences, my boys loaded up on complimentary popcorn, sodas and cookies and we boarded the shuttle van and quickly arrived at the Tulsa Airport.  Many readers are intimately familiar with the airport entry and boarding process, in particular, when travelling with kids. After making it through that process, we checked the board and confirmed our flight to Orlando was still on schedule. Suddenly and without warning, our trip took a dark and drastic turn about 5 minutes before our flight was scheduled to begin boarding passengers. The flight had been delayed for unclear reasons.  We raced up to the ticket counter to be greeted with an uncomfortably long line of some pretty frustrated people.  When we got to the counter clerk we pleaded our positions (our kids put on their saddest faces as we plead for assistance or some kind of mercy).  We received none of these things from the clerk who very quickly gave us his advice:  “Just go Home”. 

Dreams of sitting in classes while my family took Disney Park by storm started to quickly fade.  We informed the clerk that we were at the airport to go somewhere.  To go away from our home and have an adventure (and in my case, get a much needed industry educational update). This clerk was no Mike Fine.  This clerk was not warm or compassionate.  This clerk was burned-out.  I wondered if this clerk started the day burned-out or if it happened slowly with that long line of frustrated customers. I also wondered what the airline was doing to train its people and if they had tools in place for employees to help them manage the stressful environment they were inevitably put in from time-to-time. 

Regardless of whether it was the airline or the clerk that was burned out and didn’t care, it became clear that there was nothing the clerk and/or the airline was prepared to do for us.  No other planes, no other flights, just the cold reality of returning to the Tulsa suburbs when we thought we would be in Orlando.  After aimlessly waiting at the Tulsa Airport for four hours we realized we were not getting out of Tulsa by plane.  We were on our own.  We grabbed a rental car and drove to the Oklahoma City airport where we were placed on a flight and finally on our way to Orlando.  My client would be pleased to know I did not miss a minute of the industry conference.

                “Just Hook a Ride with a Friend”

                Orlando was breathtaking and the variety of options for a family with young kids was absolutely endless.  How could anyone not love every minute of Orlando we thought, and then we met him…Sieve the Shuttle Driver.  My family was thrilled to learn that the hotel shuttle van had virtually endless destinations, they were set.  Unfortunately for them, Sieve did not appear to have been trained by someone like Mike Fine on the fine art of shuttle driving.  He presented as a burnout.  He didn’t greet my family, he didn’t engage or otherwise talk to my family and he left them stranded at the parks on many occasions. 

                Sieve left my family sitting at the designated pick up location after a full-day at the parks.  They had been waiting for the shuttle at the designated time and place for about 40 minutes.  Fearing something was wrong they called the number associated with the van.  Sieve proceeded to inform my wife that he had been at the pick-up place and no customers showed, so he left. More importantly, he was an independent contractor and not contractually obligated (or paid) by the hotel to return to pick her up.  Sieve’s single solution:  “Hook a Ride with a Friend.”  We had no friends in Orlando, my family was on their own again.  I was little help from the conference center classroom. 

My wife, distraught and stranded was approached by a Disney Park employee asking if he could do anything or assist them in any way.  He was horrified that one of the nearby hotels would strand a mom with young kids.  He phoned others within Disney inquiring into complimentary transportation, taxis or other options for my family. This park employee approached them, inserted himself into their unfortunate situation, and was actively trying to help.  He presented as a hero, not a burnout.  Ultimately, he secured a cab for my family but did not stop there.  He left them with several highly coveted “fast-pass” tickets for Disney parks, an organization that had no part in or responsibility for stranding my family.  At that point, our boys were thrilled that they had been mistreated and the ordeal quickly turned from demoralizing to uplifting.  In fact, the used the fast-pass tickets the next day to avoid long lines at “Soarin.” (a ride that suspends guests in air while soaring around the world).  

Another “Fine” Experience

                While there were some significant challenges associated with our Orlando trip, overall our boys had a wonderful time.  Eventually it was time to return to Tulsa and we found ourselves walking on to a Fine shuttle van that was waiting for us outside our gate at approximately 2 am.  The driver greeted us, visited with our boys about their Disney experience and hustled our bags onto the van.  When we arrived at Fine he invited us in for coffee, soda, popcorn and even roses for my wife.  The Fine experience was once again a unique experience compared to many of the service providers we had experienced while on the road. 

                There have certainly been more recent, public and outrageous ordeals experienced by others while trying to travel from one place to another by plane.  There are important lessons that can be learned from these experiences that can be applied to our profession as service providers.  Many failures by service providers manifest themselves on the front-lines with employees that are likely overly stressed or burned out from their environments.  These problems often stem from operations and cultures well beyond the front-line customer experience that can be negative, stressful and counter-productive. I encourage employers I meet with to consider the impact of negative employee experiences with the same passion as the impact of negative customer experiences.  To truly take care of our customers and clients, we must take care of our employees that are interacting with them on the front lines as well as support staff and leadership behind the scenes.  Are they all ok?  If they are, there is a good chance your customers and clients will be ok…if not, they may be left feeling stranded and seeking help from other service providers, like your competitors. 

                Are your front-line employees, supervisors and leaders presenting as the equivalent of the Fine Airport Parking shuttle driver in Tulsa or Sieve in Orlando? 

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