Thoughts on first impressions

2012

Most of us know the stereotypical mantra of how Americans can be crass when they travel abroad. We're considered rude and demanding. To help counter that, every time I travel (and I've been to 15 countries) I always try to put on a respectful face, striving to be super-polite and working hard to leave people with a good impression about Americans.

Despite the effort of myself and others, I imagine that the "arrogant American traveling abroad" thing is still a problem. But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the Americans working at international airports on U.S. soil who give a bad first impression to foreigners coming to America for the first time.

In the past, whenever I've returned to the United States after traveling abroad, I've always been glad to get home. The people working at America's international airports were usually friendly and helpful, chock-full of a solid customer-service attitude that I'd always found warm and welcoming. In the past, I thought those helpful attitudes were somewhat lacking at foreign airports.

But during my recent trip to and from southeast Asia, those observations changed. This time I found people working in foreign airports to be quite helpful and customer-friendly, and upon my return to the U.S., I found my fellow Americans to be rude, unhelpful and even condescending. Coincidentally, it wasn't just me. Upon my return to U.S. soil, I ran into one of my neighbors at the airport (who is also well-traveled), and he agreed that he's seen a drop in how U.S. airport employees treat the public.

As I made my way through that airport, heading for the final leg of my journey, I was amazed (or should I say shocked) at what I was seeing. The overarching observation was that employees didn't seem to care.

For the first time in my life, I was embarrassed for America, at what the foreigners who were at that airport, visiting America for the first time, might think.

Naturally, that failing attitude wasn't displayed by everyone, but I noticed that employees of many companies were carrying around an obvious "who cares?" attitude. It was like their attitudes, word choices, voice tone and body language were all yelling out, "Don't ask me to care. I'm here for the paycheck. I don't care about your problems, and I don't care about the company I work for or what it's trying to achieve. I only show up to work so I can collect a paycheck."

Obviously, this type of attitude isn't new. But I cannot remember a time when such an attitude was so blatant and spread so far among the various companies that operated at the airport.

During my final plane ride home, I gave this matter some thought. My conclusion was that I should write a letter to some of the ground companies and the airline that I dealt with. My thinking is that if I didn't do such a thing, I would be complicit in the attitude that I observed.

If you're interested, the core of what I intend to tell them (remind them?) is this:

"Is it possible you have lost your pride during your quest for profits? Employees don't do what you want; they do what you expect. Expect better customer service, and you'll get it. Please, stop making Americans look bad to the rest of the world. Cutting out customer service training might be saving you a few bucks now, but in a few years the bad reputation you will have acquired will have will cost you a lot more in terms of lost business, because people don't like being treated like dirt."

I guess the bottom line here is this: companies should not ignore customer service training just for the sake of saving a few dollars. It's kind of a "pay a little now, or pay a lot later" way of doing business. And although I'm emphasizing this advice for American businesses that are "first contact" companies for people visiting America for the first time, the message of investing in good customer service training carries a universal truth.

The world is definitely changing. However, it's both sad and embarrassing when corporate leaders choose a course of action that might save them a little money in the short term, but damages their competitiveness over the long term, and also makes America a worse place for everyone.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

I agree with you, but I don't think it's a training issue. I think its more profound than that. Its a question of respect. If your employer and your manager doesn't respect you - if they view you as a cost overhead, if you're in constant fear of losing your job - that's going to be reflected in the way you treat customers. As far as the airline industry goes, they're reaping what they sowed and now they're caught in a downwards spiral that can only be broken when their leaders start to treat others as human beings rather than numbers on a blanace sheet.

Matt Zubriski