Etiquette at Work

Customer service boils down to civility, even under duress

Flying is frustrating, especially when it doesn’t work well. Right now, I am sitting in the Colorado Springs airport, delayed for three hours because of thunderstorms in Chicago. Twice I have had to seek the help of a gate agent to deal with the changing situation. Flights were so delayed that I arrived at the airport in time to switch to a flight that, had it left on time, I would have missed. But, there it was so, I was able to get a seat.

Of course, an announcement followed that the flight I had just switched to was cancelled. I bolted for the gate agents’ desk. Fortunately, the line was short. I got the same gate agent who helped me earlier. After some good-natured ribbing for switching back to my original flight, she gave me my new boarding pass.

As I write this, it’s announced that my flight to Chicago, still three hours late, will board in a few minutes. Before I get up to board the plane, I look over at the four gate agents who have been handling the arrangements for passengers for flights delayed because of the Chicago weather. I am struck by how calm everyone has been for the past few hours, passengers and gate agents alike. Not one cross word directed at an agent.


I’ve read how frustrated people become with gate agents. I’ve been there and wanted to lash out, too. But I realized it was time to compliment these gate agents because they did their job well. In fact, they did it very well.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

On the plane passengers are giddy. They are going to make their connections or get home that night after all. But as we chat with each other, there is a common refrain to the conversation: “I’m glad I’m on the plane and we’re going, but I sure wouldn’t want [the gate agents’] job.”

Customer service is something we hear a lot about. But, it’s really about people treating each other in a civil manner, working as best they can to resolve a problem. For three hours today I watched customers and gate agents do just that.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to