Sitting at the Gate - Airports and Service Management

Written by Mark Hillyard

I recently had the experience of flying into, and out of, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.  And it got me thinking a lot about Service Management.  OK, I think about Service Management a lot.  It’s kind of my thing.  But this really got me considering everything that has to go into delivering tens of thousands of people each and every day through one of the busiest hubs on the planet.  Airports are a curious thing.  They have an ‘Authority’, not unlike a small city government, that is responsible for handling all of the vendors, airlines, security personnel, baggage handlers, etc., along with every one of those passengers expecting to get where they are going.


Upon my arrival in Atlanta, the first thing that struck me was how unfortunate the layout of the place is for passengers.  I believe this is mostly due to organic growth over many years of expansion, and it is difficult to blame poor layout on service personnel.  However, this is exactly the first thing that we do in most service based experiences.  If anything is less than stellar, we immediately wonder why the service folks haven’t done something to fix it.

Of course, at the macro level, Atlanta’s airport authority cannot simply “fix” the layout of the airport.  This would involve construction, engineering, possible closures, and a host of other massive logistics projects that would require hundreds of approvals and meetings to accomplish.  It could be done, but not without major buy-in and effort.

So, how does a Service Desk deal with similarly daunting efforts when customers are unhappy about something that is outside of their normal circle of influence?  Normally, we tend to excuse ourselves from responsibility if fixing the problem would require a great deal of effort and outside assistance.  And while this is a valid way to handle those types of issues, it can make the Service Desk seem inefficient, even helpless, to the average end user.  Much the way I spent the 20 minutes it took to get from the gate to the baggage claim area at the airport, complaining that they could do a better job of getting me out and on my way, the end user will complain when a service is tedious to consume, even if it works as designed.  There are a lot of ways to handle this without completely shirking responsibility, and the biggest one is communication.  If the E-mail service is becoming antiquated, the underpinning technology rapidly approaching end-of-life, capacity limits, or both, the Service Desk is going to need to communicate these things to both IT and Business Management.  And there needs to be a wider communication directive so that end users are aware that Management is involved.  Our responsibility is to ensure that everyone is aware that there is a noticeable issue.  Simply talking around the problem will not make it go away, and end users will start to lose faith in the Service Desk, and IT in general.

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Secondly, we need to assume ownership of the issue.  ‘We cannot fix it,’ is not a valid response.  If there is a known issue, make sure an open Problem exists.  Keep adding incidents to the Problem to ensure that your Problem Manager is aware that it continues to be a pain point for end users.  The Service Desk should be getting regular updates from Problem Management on the status.  If there is a workaround, it should be in the Known Error Database.  Any project or directive that will ameliorate the problem needs to be documented and communicated through the Service Desk to end users to ensure they are aware that a solution is forthcoming.


Finally, we must empathize. Not to the point of criticizing the service itself, but the end users should feel that we are not only aware of their pain points, but that we, as users in our own right, are also affected.  If the E-mail service is slow, we have the opportunity to share our own experience with our customers, assuring them that they are not being ignored, and that we are working diligently to effect the necessary changes to improve the quality of service.

Ultimately, good Service Management is about more than just providing desired outcomes to customers, it is also about providing high quality communication and effort when the desired outcomes are not possible in the immediate.  Taking responsibility for every service in our catalog, even when it is not meeting expectations can go a long way to improving customer confidence.  Admitting that something is not up to expectations is not a failure, but failure to admit it can have devastating effects on our customers’ impression of the Service Desk.

Originally published July 07 2014, updated January 01 2019