Lessons at an airport gate

I spent nearly two hours sitting at an airport gate today.  I’d assumed that between business travel and people headed home after the Easter weekend, the airport would be jammed, but I got through security in an astonishingly short time.  So, I sat about 5 feet behind a Delta American Express table.  You’ve probably seen them: a table to the side of a concourse, with various promotional freebies, application forms neatly stacked, and one or two hawkers, trying desperately to get people to pause and fill out an application.

Annoying, right?  I drowned out the hawker’s calls.  But as I sat reading, I noticed that more people than usual were coming up to this table, and they were staying longer than usual.  So I started listening. And I re-learned something useful.

Unlike the average hawker who bombards passersby with the “great offer” they simply “can’t pass up,” this guy focused on individuals and enaged them: “You, miss, in the red shirt!  Where are you headed today?”  I would have thought that his chances of getting responses, especially in a busy airport at peak travel time on Monday morning, would have been slim, but over and over, people walked up and started talking with him.

Some told him about their travel delays.  Others told him about the jobs they were traveling for or the family they were leaving behind.  Several soldiers told him what it’s like to be on leave from duty in Baghdad.  And the marketer listened.  He asked questions and empathized.  He was genuinely present with the people who were talking with him.

After he’d heard some part of their travel story, he’d weave in his offer: “Man, wouldn’t you like to get an extra 10,000 miles so you can get back to see her more often?”  Sure, he was trying to get people to apply for a credit card, but he was doing it by connecting with people, by building a relationship, albeit a brief one.  And almost without exception, the people who stopped in front of the display filled out something, whether a credit card application or a Delta mileage program application.

Observing this guy reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  What I saw was the power of listening and genuine, though brief and superficial, connection.

The contrast was clear when he went on break and another pusher took his place.  This hawker didn’t engage people.  He threw out half-hearted, “Sir, don’t you want extra some SkyMiles today?  It’s a great offer!  You can’t pass it up!  Sir, you flyin’ Delta today?  We’re giving away 10,000 SkyMiles free — for nuthin’!”  But the busy passengers did pass it by the table over and over without stopping.   Those who did stop received only the sales pitch, and I’d guess this vendor’s application completion rate was much less than half of the other man’s.

Small sale or large, connection really does pay.  And it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort.  It simply requires genuine presence.  Not a bad reminder while waiting in an airport.

1 reply
  1. Elizabeth Vaughan
    Elizabeth Vaughan says:

    What a great reminder, Julie! Best of all, this approach makes life easier in just about every situation, not just sales. I find that when I connect with my clients in this way, they share information with me more readily, return my calls more promptly, and are more relaxed witnesses at hearings. Connect with the person behind the counter and you’ll get better customer service. Connect with your employees and you’ll get a more loyal, hardworking team. Connect with your spouse first before rattling on about your day, and the atmosphere at home gets lighter. There isn’t a creature I know of that doesn’t love to be listened to and respected. As E.M. Forster wrote, “Only Connect!”

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