The Most Important Trick for Getting What You Want From Airlines (And Other Large Businesses)

There are several short cuts in life that make things easier and more efficient. Patrick Swayze in the old B-movie Road House used to carry his medical records with him. He explained to actress Kelly Lynch, his eventual love interest in the film, that this “saves time.” (That’s even easier now that medical records are digitized.)

Sam Elliott’s character taught me to work and play hard because “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.”

Road House was filled with life lessons. You see it’s about a bouncer played by Swayze who sets out to clean up a bar and winds up cleaning up The. Whole. Town.

Swayze’s character Dalton majored in Philosophy at NYU. I’ve been a proponent of the Philosophy of “hang up, call back” for many years. When you don’t get the answer you want the first time, hang up the phone and talk to someone else.

  • Sometimes the first agent won’t be very motivated to help you. Sometimes they aren’t trying very hard.

  • They may not know the rules. It’s not worth fighting them, or even trying to teach them. The odds they’ll want to learn from you when they didn’t learn from their training are pretty low. At best you’re going to waste time, at worst you’re going to get remarks made in a reservation that won’t be helpful later.

  • Or maybe they’re right, and you’ll luck into someone on the next call that will do more to bend the rules for you.

Maybe you don’t know whether what you want is possible or not, whether it’s award availability or better flight options, and all you’re doing is relying on an agent on the other end of the line. Since you don’t know how hard the agent is working, or really anything about that agent, my starting point is not to trust the answer until you’ve heard it three times in a row from three different agents (with Delta sometimes more).

One corollary to this is that you have lots of options of places to go for help. If you’re dealing with an airline on the day of travel you have:

  • the check-in counter
  • kiosk, website, or app
  • telephone reservations
  • customer service counter
  • gate agent
  • Twitter (and in some cases Facebook messenger or other social media or messaging app)

If mom says no, go ask dad.

However even though you have lots of places to go for help, you still want to maximize your chances of getting what you want each time. The person you’re dealing with at that moment could be the one most likely to help you. And you may even be pressed for time, running out of options to get where you’re going, why burn the bridge in front of you and have to move on to the next?

There is merit in the old saying “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” It breaks down a bit when you start thinking too hard because there’s nothing nice that you’re ever trying to do with flies when you catch them. All it means is you’re more likely to get people to do nice things for you if you’re nice to them than if you’re a jerk.

The saying dates back, as I understand it, to Torriano’s Common Place of Italian Proverbs and entered the United States via Poor Richard’s Almanac (Benjamin Franklin) in 1744.

Just like Patrick Swayze taught us, I want you to be nice.

Judging from the comments I sometimes get on this blog, I know that some of you need this advice: whomever you’re dealing with is rarely the same person who caused the problem you’re dealing with. They have lots of people complaining to them all day long. You set yourself apart by treating them as a person, with their own emotions and motivations.

If the person in front of you in the customer service line is getting upset and taking it out on the agent, the agent is all the more ready to expect you to do the same. They’re not going to want to listen to your story or spend time working every angle to find a solution. They’re going to want to move you out of their line as quickly as possible. Basic human nature.

So turn that on its head. Acknowledge the difficult job they have. Acknowledge even that you’re adding to it. If they ask you how you’re doing, as bad as your travel day is, it’s probably not as bad as listening to complaining passengers all day. Make them smile. Make them laugh. They’ll be happy to do more to help you.

Even if you don’t care to treat the agent as a person for its own sake (because they’re a human being and it’s what’s due them) if you want to get better treatment you should start by interacting with the person on the other end as a person. From a purely self-interested perspective it’s better not to be a jerk.

To be clear, whether you’re dealing with an airline or working as a cooler for the Double Deuce, there comes a time to not be nice. But that’s not in the heat of the moment or during travel. That’s escalating things to executive management. To the Department of Transportation. It isn’t taking your frustrations out on a more junior employee.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Exactly. Several years ago, at a car rental counter in Frankfurt, the idiot customer in front of me wasted 15 minutes, badgering the agent incessantly, trying to score an upgrade but got squat because no upgrades were available. When I got to the counter, I told the agent that I hoped that he was otherwise having a good day, and he just shook his head. When I went to pick up my Ford Focus, it turned into a very nice full-size Audi.

  2. The line, “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.” is taken from one of Zatōichi episodes when an insomniac samurai turned assassin confides to his target, our protagonist, before his demise.

  3. I actually take this to the next level with the airlines phone agents. No matter what answer I get, I thank them profusely for their help. Who knows, the next person that calls them might be Gary, and if my honey helps out, that is all good.

  4. “Judging from the comments I sometimes get on this blog, I know that some of you need this advice”

    Thank Gary for a nice laugh to start the day.

  5. I landed on a flight from Asia at SFO shortly after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. went to check to see if my flight to SAN was still ok.
    guy in front of me ( big shot in a suit) had slammed his brief case on the counter and demanded a flight out asap. He go told to wait,
    my turn, I asked the harried agent if his home /family was ok, he thanked me for asking, and I was on the next plane to SAN. pays to be nice and genuine.

  6. Having been on both ends of the customer service phone, I can verify that being nice works much better than being a jerk.

  7. Flying out of Reno early evening once, heading to LAX to catch a redeye to DFW when the flight was canceled. RNO-LAX was a codeshare with AS. I was the first in line of 100 people needing to get flight changes, with most of them upset and grumpy. I greeted the agent nicely, and she said she could route me through SEA for a redeye on AS to DFW. I mentioned I had been upgraded on LAX to DFW and how I wished AS and AA were able to upgrade on each other’s flights. She smiled and said, “Hint, hint”. I immediately said, “Oh no, I was not hinting like that — I know there is only so much you guys are able to do, and many times with little thanks.” She said, “That’s true. I have to tell a family of 6 here that they will miss their connection to Japan tonight, and that is no fun.” We chatted another minute, and she handed me a boarding pass and whispered, “I got you that first class seat. Thanks for being so nice.”

  8. There was a weather delay and the self-important guy in line in front of me was ranting and demanding the next non-stop which was 4 hours later. When I got to the gate agent I told her some people just don’t understand the airline doesn’t have any control over the weather. Told her I was flexible and would be happy to take what she could come up with, even a different routing. She put me on a flight one hour later via a different stopover arriving 2 hours earlier than the non-stop. The bad news was she had to put me in First Class.

  9. Good to know they still have discretion. Sometimes it seems like everything is so automated now, that reps really don’t have any flexibility to override the computer.

    it is amazing how untrained reps are though. This past week I called SPG 5 times trying to reserve a second room on an existing reservation, and got 5 different answers. (It’s available, it’s not available, it’s available, we can transfer the points from Marriott for you, we can’t transfer the points from Marriott for you, etc.)

  10. Just like mom always said, smile and talk like you want to be talked to, it really does make a difference. To that I have added, always carry chewing gum. In a face to face situation you can make a friend across all borders.

  11. “If the person in front of you in the customer service line is getting upset and taking it out on the agent, the agent is all the more ready to expect you to do the same. They’re not going to want to listen to your story or spend time working every angle to find a solution. They’re going to want to move you out of their line as quickly as possible. Basic human nature.”

    This, in a nutshell, is why the flight attendants and gate agents on Southwest are friendly and why others can be surly. If you’re at an ULCC or dealing with Basic Economy passengers all day, you have to break the news to people that they have to pay a bunch more unexpected fees for a certain service, along with other indignities. They deal with angry, frustrated passengers all day while Southwest FAs and gate agents don’t have to.

  12. @Gary, Love this article! I concur — mom always said it’s about the honey, not the vinegar, and it has served me well in life! And you provided a chuckle to boot! Thanks!

  13. “They have lots of people complaining to them all day long. You set yourself apart by treating them as a person, with their own emotions and motivations.”

    Best. Advice. Ever.

  14. Truer words hardly ever spoken. #benice. #HUCB

    Another source of assistance are the folks in the airline lounges

  15. One of my most important life-lessons was working retail in a record store when I was in college. I saw first hand that if you — a customer — are unhappy about the service you’re getting it NEVER helps to yell or get angry with the salesperson. Keep your cool and calmly work up the food chain. If the boss sees you yelling, it’s easy for him or her to disregard your complaint as being from “just another jerk”. If your calm and reasonable, they are more likely to wonder if something went wrong.

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