Facts, interpretations, storytelling and the customer experience

Brian Shapiro by Brian Shapiro | Feb 28, 2020

As airports continue to dedicate resources to improving the customer experience, there is one skill in particular that can make a real difference:  storytelling.  We are all master storytellers.  In fact, it has been suggested that what we call experience is in fact generated by the stories we tell ourselves about any given set of facts.  For instance, when a passenger arrives at an airport and discovers their flight has been delayed, a fairly common situation, what does that passenger tell themselves about this delay?  Is it a small inconvenience?  Is it another example of the bureaucratic ineffectiveness that airports represent?  It could be either, or any number of other possible interpretations, but the key word here is “interpretation”.  

The passenger experience interpreted through emotions

Dr. Albert Ellis was a cognitive psychologist who developed a theory that helped explain why humans have the emotional experiences they have.  These experiences are shaped primarily by the manner in which we interpret any set of facts before us.  To go back to the flight delay, there are any number of reasons, or facts, as to why flights are delayed.  For a passenger, the most important fact is that the flight is not leaving at the time scheduled, and in most instances this will result in the flight arriving at the destination later than scheduled.  How the passenger interprets this fact is key. 

The interpretation is the story we tell ourselves about the fact or facts.  In this case, the flight is leaving later than scheduled.  If the passengers mind, they are telling themselves a story about this fact.  It could be they are telling themselves that airlines are incompetent, or that airports are poor contingency planners, or they could be telling themselves this is just how air travel is.  Whatever the story, what results is what Ellis calls “experience”, or the emotional sensation we experience based upon our interpretation of the facts.  So, if a passenger tells themselves that this is just how air travel is, chances are they are less upset about the delay than someone who tells themselves the story that airlines are incompetent.   Again, it’s the interpretation more than the fact that leads to the experience.

Effective communication at every touchpoint

How is this useful?  Well, when airports focus on the passenger experience, one key area to focus on is how well equipped their workforce is to help passengers tell better stories about the facts they encounter at the airport.  One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that the employees have developed highly effective communication skills.  When passengers encounter an airport worker, they are telling themselves stories about how that worker is interacting with them; are they nice or not, are they helpful or not, do they care or not?  One factor that can strongly shape that story is how skillfully that worker interacts with that passenger, and that best way to do that is to help instill effective communication practices throughout the airport. 

Unfortunately, most people have had few opportunities to develop highly effective communication practices.  As a result, a person’s ability to adapt their communication style is also limited.  In the case of an airport, where conditions are regularly in flux, developing an adaptive communication style can allow airport workers to better address the ever shifting needs and concerns passengers have.  In being more adaptive, airport workers are in a better position to transform what could be a crisis into an opportunity to deliver an outstanding experience. With all this in mind, ACI has developed a course offering “The Exceptionally Human Airport Customer Experience”.  Focusing on the specifics of developing core communication skills that allow airport employees to help shape the stories passengers tell about airports, which ultimately are the stories that create the experience passengers have with the airport.

The Exceptionally Human Airport Customer Experience
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Airport customer experience

Airports are places where people from all walks of life gather to work, travel, and feel taken care of – and what better way to express care than through our day-to-day interactions with passengers.  Communication is how we connect, express our feelings, and show people we care. Strong communication skills can achieve all this and more in an effective environment. In a potentially stressful situation, positive feelings can be in short supply, using expansive communication practices brings more positive experiences into the world.

Brian Shapiro

Brian Shapiro

President of Shapiro Communications
Brian Shapiro is the author of Exceptionally Human: Successful Communication in a Distracted World and president of Shapiro Communications, an organizational communication training and professional development company serving the airport, transportation and hospitality industries.
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