A Customer Service Story

Did I do something wrong? I don’t think so.

Yesterday, for the fifth or sixth time, I offered helicopter rides at an airport event in Arizona. (I’m being vague on purpose here; it really doesn’t matter which event.) Because I’ve been outrageously busy every other year, this year I had a friend join me with his helicopter, a beautiful Bell 47.

Helicopter Rides

Despite the fact that the two of us were running mostly nonstop with a total of five passenger seats between us and the $35 rides weren’t very long, a line soon built. Near the end, folks were waiting about 2 hours to fly with one of us. Not a single person complained to me or the other pilot about the wait.

Sometime during the day, a loader came up to me and asked if I could take a passenger weighing 350 pounds. I said no. My legal seat limit is 300 pounds, but in many cases, the seatbelt simply won’t fit around someone that big, so I set a practical weight limit of 275 pounds. I hate to see people get embarrassed when the seatbelt won’t fit. The scale I’d brought along to weigh passengers — who always lie about their weight — only went up to 250 pounds.

That was the last I heard about it.

Until I got home. In my email inbox was a message from the 350-pound man. I’ve redacted some of the information here; I don’t want to embarrass him by leaving in anything that could identify him, including his profession which really doesn’t relate to the story anyway. Please note that the break he refers to was because the airport shut down for a full hour for an RC aircraft demonstration that we had no control over.

Good Afternoon-

I visited the XXX Air Fair today, February 23, 2013. I purchased my ticket at approximately 11:30am and I didn’t get to the front of the line until approximately 1:45pm, in part due to a one hour break between noon and 1pm. I came to the air fair for the sole purpose of getting a ride in a helicopter, because it’s something I’ve never done before.

However, it wasn’t until I was literally the next person to get onto the next helicopter, that I was told that I was too heavy to fly. I weigh 350 lbs. and they said the seat limit was 275 lbs. This is absolutely understandable. I respect safety just as much as the next person, especially considering I am a XXX. But I waited, as did my wife and XXX month old son, for over 2 hours before being informed that I would not be able to fly. This is unacceptable. I was only at the fair for little over three hours, and I spent a little over two of those hours waiting to fly in the helicopter. My son was getting fussy and my wife was getting frustrated but I was willing to wait so that I could do something that is/was probably a once in a lifetime experience for me, and it never came to be.

Now at the booth, there was nothing whatsoever that explained the requirements for flying. I was never verbally explained any of the requirements either.

Immediately after finding out that I couldn’t fly, I left because I was very upset. Going up in that helicopter was all I wanted to do since finding out about the air fair a few weeks ago.

I did receive my money back, excluding taxes, but I feel that I deserve better than that. I waited for quite a long time, in the sun, with my fussy 15 month old. I don’t know what you can offer me, but it needs to be more than just my money back.

Thank for your time.

XXX XXX

I spoke to the woman selling the tickets, who is a very good friend of mine. She remembered the man and how upset he was. She told me she apologized repeatedly but it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. She told me she thought he wanted something beyond a refund — which was clear in the last paragraph of his email message to me. She also confirmed that he never told her his weight and that although he looked big, there had been someone who looked bigger than him earlier in the day and we’d flown him. I remembered that guy — he hadn’t been anywhere near 350 pounds.

I read and re-read his message and two sentences stood out from the second paragraph: I weigh 350 lbs. and they said the seat limit was 275 lbs. This is absolutely understandable.

I prepared my response:

Mr. XXX,

I’m sorry you had to wait and not get your ride. However, I spoke to the person selling the tickets and got her side of the story, too. She remembers you well, primarily because you were so upset.

In your message, quoted verbatim below, you said, “I weigh 350 lbs. and they said the seat limit was 275 lbs. This is absolutely understandable.”

Okay, so if you understand that your weight could be an issue when flying in a helicopter, why didn’t you tell the ticket seller your weight when you bought your ticket? If you had, she would have told you then that you could not fly with us. YOU know how much you weigh. Do you think that she did? You never told her what you weighed. It wasn’t until the passenger loaders saw you that they realized there could have been a problem.

Let’s face it, as a very large person you must often run into situations where your size is an issue. Both of the aircraft we were flying are considered small. I don’t see how you thought that someone your size could fit into or safely fly in either one. I don’t know any aircraft flying rides at an event like this that could accommodate someone your size. And I honestly don’t think that this should’ve been a surprise to you.

Again, I’m sorry you were disappointed. But to expect me to compensate you for your disappointment — when you could have prevented it by simply telling the ticket seller your weight up front to confirm we could accommodate you — is not reasonable. Take this as a lesson learned. When in doubt, present all the facts up front.

Maria Langer
Owner and Chief Pilot
Flying M Air

Please note that I did not use the words fat or obese in my message. I didn’t see the guy — for all I know, he could have been 7 feet tall and built like a healthy football player. I did not want to insult him and I was very careful about the way I phrased my response. But honestly: 350 pounds? That’s more than twice my size and no one considers me small. How could he not expect problems in a helicopter as small as the two we were operating?

His response came quickly and was incredibly rude:

Wow. Just wow. I wasn’t expecting a response as cruel as this. I don’t know anything about helicopters so why would I know anything about their weight limits?

And for you to be so harsh is unacceptable. So you all can go fuck yourselves. How about that? I will work very hard to get the word out that your company is a cold hearted bitch. How does that sound?

You could have just offered me a fucking t-shirt, something. But instead you belittle me about my weight. Do you know my circumstances at home? No you don’t.

I hope your helicopter crashes!

Wow. Just wow.

What is this guy’s problem? Was my response “cruel” or “harsh”? And did I “belittle” him about his weight? Am I the only person on the planet who thinks 350 pounds is large? I don’t even personally know anyone that size.

He’ll work very hard to get the word out that my “company is a cold-hearted bitch”? What the hell does that even mean?

And how should I know his circumstances at home? Why should they matter?

Do you think this guy gave himself a stroke just writing that email message? I can almost see the veins in his neck pulsating from the blood pressure rise.

Any thoughts on this? Did I mishandle it? What should I have done? In hindsight, I think ignoring the original message might have been a better solution. What do you think?

And, for the record, the few T-shirts we had on hand would not have fit him — we only had sizes Medium and Small.

31 thoughts on “A Customer Service Story

  1. Wow. I honestly don’t understand some people and the way they think. Its quite obvious in the way he wrote his first message to you that he has run into issues like this regarding his weight before and somehow feels its your fault? Seeing his second letter confirms what he said about having problems at home. I’m sorry you had to have this experience but I guess it is a teaching lesson for him and his family. For all you know you may have even motivated him to become healthier! Give yourself a pat on the back. If you honestly did compensate this man, I feel as though you would have something picking at you saying “I did the wrong thing”. Good Actions :)

    • I don’t think I motivated him to do anything except bash me on Yelp. People like him have a permanent chip on their shoulders. It’s a pity, really. I lost 45 pounds last summer in just 4 months and feel like a new woman. He could get the same benefit if he’d just accept his situation and do something about it.

  2. It probably would have been a better idea to apologize, reiterate that the seat limit is set at 275 pounds, and say that you would work with the event coordinator to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

    I don’t think you were rude or did anything wrong. However, I’ve been in customer service a long time and have found out that the longer you go on the more rope you are giving the customer to hang you with.

    On a completely different note, I didn’t realize that helicopter seats have weight limits. On the fixed-wing side there are no weight limits on passengers seats, just overall aircraft weight and balance. In fact we tried to pry a weight limit out of the company that manufactured our medical stretcher system and they said the FAA does not allow them to set a weight limit on passenger seats (including medical stretchers). Our smallest aircraft is a King Air though, so I realize there are some significant operational differences there.

    • I think I probably should have mentioned that future events will include signage that discusses the weight limit. In a discussion with my ticket-seller friend this morning, we both agreed that would be a good idea.

      The 300-pound weight limit in an R44 is based on the seat’s ability to cushion the passenger in the event of a hard landing. The skids spread first and then the seats collapse per design to act as an additional cushion. If the passenger weighs more than 300 pounds, the cushioning does not work. At least that’s how it was explained to me. The 300-pound weight limit is indicated in the POH.

  3. Maria,
    I think his original note was a good clue that he had a chip on his shoulder. Anything except abject apology to someone like that (i.e., actually citing facts) tends to set them off. I think your calm, reasoned response was not actually responding to his note, which was bait.
    Karen

  4. Maria;
    I recommend that your takeaway from this is a realization that it’s important for you to make up and always post a sign at the ticket seller booth, and make sure your seller points out the weight limitations for one of your helo rides.
    The average human doesn’t ever think about aero terms like weight and balance.
    I can see the guy’s point–he wouldn’t have been upset and his family wouldn’t have had to wait for hours to be turned away if the seller had been more assertive about his not meeting your helo ride requirements BEFORE he purchased the ticket.
    My 2 cents worth.
    Best,
    Steve

    PS; You may remember me as the AOPA guy that picked up the Commander in Wickenburg. . . and turned down your offer of a helo ride for our photo shoot. Sorry it didn’t work out. We were very late to get the airplane to the next scheduled event and our photographer had never worked out of a helo.
    Take care,
    Steve

    • I really think this guy knew there would be a problem. I suspect he’d been turned away before and was ready to get turned away again. I think he made a big deal about it because he wanted additional compensation. Really. 350 pounds! How could he NOT know there might be a problem?

      I do remember you, although vaguely. I definitely remember the airplane and my offer. I don’t mind that not working out — I’ve since decided that I don’t really like doing air-to-air work. This was a deciding factor: https://www.aneclecticmind.com/2012/03/24/tips-for-aerial-photographers/

      Hope you’re doing well! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. You did nothing wrong. I looked for it but did not notice – is there a notice about weight restrictions of some sort at the ticket purchase stand, perhaps on a waiver form? If not, that might be a good next move.

    Still, as far as dealing with this guy, I can’t imagine a better way to have handled him.

  6. Hmmmmm…. Well, whenever I get into a conflict with a customer, I try to placate, appease or pacify them as much as possible without admiting any wrongdoing in case they seek legal action. I try to see their side of the situation and see what I can do to make them happy. If you knew that a tee shirt would have made him happy, you could have given him one for his wife if you had one her size or a small for his son to grow into. He sounds like the guy that takes his family out to a nice dinner and when they are finished claims that the meal made him sick and he may have to go to the hospital. You know where that’s going. He was wrong for sure. Dead wrong. I’ll bet that he knows the weight limits are for every airline! He’s the guy that sues MacDonalds for making him gain weight. You were correct in everything that you said, but I wouldn’t have said “I spoke to the person selling the tickets and got her side of the story” as that wording creates a feeling of conflict. I might have said “I’m very sorry for your wait and inconvenience. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?” If he asks for too much, then I negotiate down to a tee shirt or a free ride for his wife the next time I’m giving rides. Can you think of anything you would have done differently, in hindsight?

    • Unfortunately, the person selling tickets was completely overwhelmed by the crowd. This guy took her by surprise with his attitude and she didn’t even think of trying to appease him with one of the t-shirts.

      I agree that he’s the kind of guy just looking for a fight with anyone who has the nerve to comment on his size. And I also believe that he uses this as a tool to get freebies and compensation from people anxious to make him happy. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong person to complain to. I do what I think is right — and paying off someone who whines and complains when it was within his power to prevent the problem is simply not right.

    • You are correct Maria. It is not right, but in the 21st century where Angie’s List and similar sites have great potential for doing your business serious damage, you may find yourself in the position of having to decide if it’s better to be right or rich. Large corporations have entire departments devoted to customer service for that reason. Some are better at it than others. Customer service rep nws2002’s point of view was very interesting as were the other comments. I think that it is interesting to note that the Bell Helicopter model 206B has a minimum pilot weight of 170 pounds.

  7. Well handled and as a pilot myself, I would’ve made the same response. It’s so hard trying to explain to the public how aviation is so different to so many other industries. Sometimes you have to be blunt and I believe you handled it very well. He has obviously got his back up over an issue that he is fully aware of and that only he can resolve!

    This gentleman obviously gets through life waiting for someone to offend him about his weight and then expects large forms of compensation for it. Quite pathetic really.

    Without a doubt, I would’ve done the same thing Maria. Well handled!

    • Thanks, Brett. But in hindsight, I think I would have been better off just ignoring it and letting his steam blow off without a response. I’m sure he would have forgotten about it within a few days.

  8. I agree that you need a sign saying something like “Due to size and weight limits, we regret that we may be unable to accommodate some passengers. Please ask for specific details.”

    That said, your email was correct but probably too frank. It’s fine to be frank with your friends, but I find it’s better to be brief and stick to the facts with customers, especially disgruntled ones. I probably would have written, “Due to size and weight limits, we regret that we were unable to accommodate you. I apologize that you discovered this after a long wait, and we will try to have a sign explaining this for the future so that others do not have this problem.”

    On the bright side, since you’re moving, you probably won’t be at this event again.

    • Perfect wording for a sign, Greg! I will definitely make one up for my next event. But you’re right: because of my upcoming move, this was likely my last time at that particular event.

      You’re also right that I was probably too frank. What is it with people today? Why can’t they handle the truth? When are we going to stop sugar-coating everything (pun intended) to supposedly spare people’s feelings? When are people going to stop expecting the world to revolve around them?

      Maybe I’ll hand off any future complaint emails for you to handle. I bet you’d do a much better job. ;-)

      As for this guy, his “I hope your helicopter crashes” comment slammed to door on any future attempt to appease him. A man with an attitude like that simply does not deserve anyone’s serious attention.

  9. HI Maria,
    I don’t think either one of you intentionally meant to insult or irritate one another. I think you were trying to get a point across to him about taking SOME responsibility for the situation. I do agree that there needs to be something CLEARLY posted for all potential passengers to view it is possible that he really did not have any idea about the passenger weight restriction. He said he did not know anything about flying,and i could imagine that he sees a beautiful MACHINE like that and thinks it could handle lots of weight. even 350lbs. You know because you are familiar with the information. I cant really imagine someone standing in line for that long, especially with a fussy kid and a frustrated mom and be aware he was not getting on the helicopter. WHY? why would he do that? He was clearly disappointed that he was unable to fly and nobody seemed to really feel or care about his disappointment. He was a demanding and was down right rude about saying he hopes your helicopter crashes!!!!!! UNEXCEPTIONABLE!!!!about being compensated. He clearly does not deserve anything more than his money back and a sincere apology. I think an explanation that the weight limits will now be posted, a sincere apology that you could not accommodate him, would have easily done the trick. Personally, i think you were a little harsh You get to experience the joy of flying everyday which is very cool, he probably also thinks it would be very cool….I wonder if you would be upset if your dream and love for flying you could do no more. just something to think about….

    • You’re mostly right. But we DO care and I’m sure my ticket seller was very apologetic. She’s not a cold-hearted person. She was definitle overwhelmed by the crowd, though. The event was huge this year and well publicized. Our ground crew was twice the size (4 vs. last year’s 2), and the line was enormous. I’m certain she did everything she could think of to ease the man’s disappointment in the stressful circumstances she was operating in.

      I certainly didn’t mean to be harsh — and most folks seem to think I wasn’t. I was being honest, as I usually am. When will I learn?

      As this point, there’s no appeasing the man. His line about hoping the helicopter crashes is pretty indicative of his attitude. There’s no reasoning with people like that.

    • Yeah I soooooo get it Maria, I have dealt with many irate, rude, demanding customers for the last 25 yrs..some of them to the point of seething and smoke pouring out of their ears. Lol! And yes it irritates me and frankly piss me off at times..(oh…the things I could say to them running around in my mind) BUT guess what? I remain calm, professional, and I handle the issue appropriately! And it gets resolved properly! I am as frank as they come as well AND I am also as professional as they come. :) just sayin….

    • Fortunately, I deal with complaints so seldom that I just don’t have the experience that you and others commenting here might have. The vast majority of my clients and customers are not just satisfied, but genuinely happy with my services. I get a lot of work through referrals. And I get a lot of repeat business from certain charter, survey, photography, and agricultural services clients.

      Keep in mind that in the usual course of my business, I might work for only 5 to 10 people in a month. Rides events like this are different. But this was the only person to complain at this large event, so I still think I have a pretty good satisfaction record.

      As one of the other commenters mentioned, I think this guy has a chip on his shoulder about his size/weight and was either looking for a fight or, more likely, a freebie. I suspect he’s done things like this before. It’s a sad fact that overweight people are often poorly treated — I’ve blogged elsewhere about the difference in customer service that I’ve experienced since losing 45 pounds. Perhaps my response to him was fed, in part, by my subconscious trying to tell him that it’s within his power to help himself avoid these situations in the future. I believe we need to be frank with people to help them face their problems. He refers in his second message to a situation at home. Maybe instead of lashing out at others who are simply trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability, he should address the root of his problem? And yes, being 350 pounds is a problem, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not.

      And I do want to put this in perspective: these were $35 rides. Normally, the shortest, cheapest service I provide is a $495 tour of Phoenix for 3 (weight limits apply, as mentioned on my website). While I’m not saying that a rides customer should be treated differently than a tour customer, I can also attest that rides customers never become tour customers. In other words, I don’t do rides to build my business. I do them to offer and affordable helicopter experience to people in a budget — especially families with young kids. I’m sorry he was disappointed — as I said TWICE in my response to him. What else can he honestly expect of me?

    • He has no idea how much happier he’d be if he could lose 100-150 pounds. Happier, healthier, more energetic, and better able to enjoy his life with his family.

  10. Far as I can see you did everything in a nice way. None of this is your fault. Maybe this is why they have the old saying, “Never complain…never explain.” No matter how nice you are and how clearly you explain things, there is always someone who will twist what you are saying and see it as a personal attack.

    • People who are always seeing personal attacks from others — where there clearly isn’t any — have problems with paranoia that could probably be ironed out with therapy (or drugs). This guy seems to have more than just one problem. I honestly didn’t mean to offend him. I was just being frank.

  11. It seems to me like the key issue here is that he said he understood that there are weight limits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he understood that BEFORE coming out to the airport, if he is not an aviation person already.

    As a flight instructor (me) and pilot (you) – this is second nature. For a layperson – not so much. Once explained, they get it, but it is not something they would have thought about beforehand.

    It does seem that you were careful to not call him fat or overweight or anything, but it definitely would have been better to apologize for THE WAIT (as that seemed to be what he was most upset about, since he ended up not being able to fly), and what YOU learned from HIS situation and what you will do in the future to mitigate it. And then THANK HIM for bringing the situation to you so that you could be made aware of it.

    Continuing to talk about his size (regardless of the words used) just reminds him of all the things he can’t do because of it, and email is a TERRIBLE communication device for this kind of situation, because tone can’t be read. People read into it how THEY FEEL, not how the sender MEANT IT.

    I certainly don’t think you did it WRONG, but you definitely could have done it BETTER. Mark it up to continuous improvement, and get your satisfied customers to bury any negative comments from him on the intergoogles. :)

    Tailwinds,
    Andrew

    • You’re right. I could have handled it better. Lack of practice.

      But I still maintain that his response was completely over the top. He hopes the helicopter crashes? What kind of person would say that? That’s what terminated our dialog — and left a worse taste in my mouth for people who complain in an attempt to be compensated for their displeasure.

  12. ahartley, you bring up some excellent points. My employer makes all of it’s employees take a class in customer service. I’m glad that I got to take it, as it opened my eyes to a lot of things I was unaware of. I do deal on a limited basis with the public, so my employer wants me to know how best to handle situations with sensitivity. Maria, when you flew tourists around the Grand Canyon in a Long Ranger, did your employer instruct you on customer relations? There will soon be a webinar available on just about any subject that we need to learn about. Until then, there’s youtube. When I have called companies to complain about something, I have spoken to customer service reps that should NEVER be allowed near a telephone as well as pure masters of their trade. Maria, I’ve viewed some of your lessons on line. Can you refresh me on the site name, please. I would like to revisit it.
    Thanks,
    Mike

  13. Yes, I was referring to Lynda.com. I believe that they have tutorials on a number of topics. I will check it out again. Thanks.

What do you think?