At Memphis International Airport, one of the challenges is equipping people who sell barbecue and Cokes for $7 to $8 an hour to also be goodwill ambassadors.
News Tuesday that the airport lost ground in national rankings would hit workers hard, said Gwen Pritchard, head of customer service at the Memphis-Shelby Airport Authority.
"We've worked so hard to improve. People have really made an effort to realize that passengers don't see Northwest Airlines problems or Paradies problems. They see them as Memphis International problems."
When passenger complaints last year indicated "a nonchalance" among airport workers, Pritchard came up with a customer service program on "zero budget" that not only includes field trips to Memphis attractions that passengers could benefit from knowing about, but also uses the commute time to emphasize courtesy.
She calls the program CODES, for Conduct, Overwhelming (kindness), Dress (no low-hanging pants), Expression and Speech.
"Our passengers told us we could improve our conduct and facial expressions. They noticed the use of slang words when we speak to them and that we could improve upon the appearance of our uniforms and even how we wear them," she said.
In 13 months, about 10 percent of the airport's 2,000 airline workers, plane cleaners and concessionaires have received the training, which happens on the way to field trips.
"In many cases, our people were not aware that we had a metal museum. Or they had never been to the Brooks art gallery. Many people have never visited or paid attention to the Dixon Gardens," Pritchard said. "They have now."
Pritchard struck a deal with the attractions to give the airport workers abbreviated tours for free.
"They agreed with the promise that we will promote the attractions," she said.
In the past month, complaints were down 33 percent, including complaints about Wi-fi charges, which until recently were a flat $10.
"We've changed that; now passengers pay just for the time they use," Pritchard said.
The airport is also updating its signs, color-coding them so concourse and baggage claim match, an intuitive way to help customers find their way, she said.
With flight delays the highest they've been since 2000, Pritchard knows she is working with passengers who likely are already under stress.
But the workers whose salaries have been cut in bankruptcy have just as much on their minds, she said.
"My job is to encourage the tenants to keep a smile on their faces when so many of them are going through wage cutbacks and downsizings," she said.
"It's just a challenge in today's economy to encourage people to smile when they are not happy. The real challenge is getting them to look past difficult times and look for better days ahead."
-Jane Roberts: 529-2512
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