Lessons Learned from a Major Meltdown

Truth time.

I had a meltdown a few weeks ago.

It was not one of my finer moments. In fact, it was one of my very, very lesser-than-fine moments.

It had to do with a big fight with U.S. Airways. It got ugly. It got personal. For both of us.


It also provided a few quick lessons on how good leaders behave. And don’t behave.

I’ll let you decide who came out on top.

What happened

I had a trip planned overseas. For months I’d been laying it all out – the cities I’d visit, the hotels I’d stay in, the people I’d meet. It was to be the trip of a year…perhaps the trip of a lifetime.

Then, on flying day, I got an email from U.S. Airways. The first leg of my flight was delayed, putting my ability to make the second line in severe jeopardy.

I called the airline to check out my options, to see if any other flights left earlier.

While we were on the phone together the woman on the other end proceeded to cancel my existing flight without asking if this was okay. She then she discovered there were no other flights available, and my old seats had been taken.

My trip would have to wait for several hours, a day, or longer.

In the end, several phone calls, an extra layover at Heathrow Airport and a full six hours later than planned, I did get to my destination.

What I did wrong

Needless to say, as the situation unfolded I was livid. Always one to take control of the situation, I demanded to speak with the person’s supervisor, then that person’s supervisor, then that person’s supervisor. No lie.

Each time, when the new person came to the phone, I started out calm. But, as things progressed and I was continually told that “nothing could be done”, I got heated.

Somehow I thought if I just fought hard enough, they would fix it. They would get my seats back.  They would make a new flight magically appear. They would do something to make it right.

My voice rose. Theirs did, too. We talked over and over each other, around and around in circles, our voices rising in shrieking desperation and high-pitched indignation.

When the phone calls ended I marched right over to my computer and tweeted about it. As though anybody else would – or should – care.

I like to think I’m a good person. I like to think I’m a good leader. My behavior didn’t reflect either.

The lesson: Be a grown-up. Be civil. That will get you what you’re looking for a whole lot more than being a big baby. And even if it doesn’t, you’re still acting in a way you can be proud of. And you won’t feel like you have to throw up later.

What they did wrong

First, of course, the woman cancelled my reservation. But I do believe that part was a mistake.

What made it so much worse was that she lied about it. She denied the error. She said I’d asked her to do it.

Nobody I spoke with owned the mistake, nor apologized for what happened. They didn’t put themselves in my shoes enough to understand why I was so upset. And if they cared, they sure didn’t act like it.

As a result, I will never fly with them again. And now everybody knows it.

The lesson: Good customer service is critical to future business. It’s not about yelling back. It’s about validating, empathizing, and doing what you can to make it right. That’s how you get people to say good things about you. That’s how you get them to come back for more.

What they did right

I will say this for U.S. Airways. They did make an effort to patch things up two weeks later, when I was getting ready to come back home. The day before my return flight they sent me another email, this one saying my second leg was now upgraded to first class. (A gesture completely lost on my rather low-maintenance flying requirements, but a nice gesture nonetheless.)

Though they didn’t say it outright, I assume this was their effort to smooth things over between us. I can’t imagine why else they would’ve done this. I’m just not that lucky in life.

And so I give them some credit for coming through in some way. And now everybody knows it.

The lesson: Good companies know that their customers’ experiences mean everything. They lead to good referrals or terrible critiques, and impact future business. Do what you can to make things right, even if it means having to be creative.

What I did right

After my meltdown, after the yelling and the tweeting, after I sat on the plane for a few hours fuming, I knew I had to do the one thing that would ensure my trip wasn’t ruined, the thing I knew was in my control.

And so…I let it go.

As angry as I was that they didn’t validate their mistake, as frustrated as I felt that the start of my trip was delayed, I knew that the only person I was truly hurting by hanging onto these feelings was me (and my husband, of course). And so, somewhere over Philly, I sat up in my seat, heaved a big sigh, and made the decision to let it go.

And I got my power back.

I breathed deeply, actually pictured myself wadding up the anger like a piece of paper and throwing it away. I recognized the part I played in the situation, realized they’d had a terrible day, too. I forgave them. I forgave myself.

I made the decision not to talk about it to others on the plane or on the trip. I even laughed about it a few days later.

Now, I’m writing a blog post about it…but trying not to make it bitter. (How am I doing?)

The lesson: We have more power and control over our destinies than we think. Even when others decide what flight we take and at what time, we decide how we’re going to experience it, feel about it, and carry it with us. The choice, and our respective happiness, is up to us.

In the end…

The debacle with U.S. Airways is now growing fainter and fainter in my memory. The good thing is it provided me with a few reminders about what it means to be a good leader, a good businessperson, and a good person in general.

I still don’t plan to fly them again, but at least the situation gave me one to grow on.

Now, go do good…and do it well.




8 responses to “Lessons Learned from a Major Meltdown”

  1. Rhonda Rhyne Avatar

    Thank you for your transparency and for the leadership lesson reminder. I recently read an applicable quote: You lower yourself when you raise your voice. Here’s to keeping it all in perspective, focusing on teamwork to get to the end goal, forgiveness, and remembering a little honey goes a long way! When do we get to read your book?

  2. Ross Porter Avatar

    Thanks, Deirdre! My wonderful father would have appreciated your story as much as I did. He sometimes resorted to “pounding the counter” in service situations, but he had a fantastic ability to let go of his anger. Your lesson fits in with many of those he taught me. -Ross

  3. Nonprofit Chapin Avatar

    Really good post. Along the empathy lines, I’ve found it helpful when I’m working with difficult customer service representatives to continually ask what they can do, and keep everything positive. “Well I’m in this situation, which will make x and x happen – what should I do?” Giving them ownership of the problem sometimes helps them come up with solutions.

  4. Karla Olson Avatar

    Nice post, Deirdre. It is difficult, in the heat of the moment, to calm down and stay professional and remember that the person on the other end is just doing their job. I’ve learned over the years that you get more with sugar than vinegar. I always start with, “I’m frustrated and annoyed right now, but I know you are going to be able to help me. . .” You can probably imagine how beat up some of those people feel by the end of the day. Thanks for reminding us that they are people, too.

    That said, a great customer service experience can make all the difference in the world. One day last week I had to call Microsoft and Apple in the same day. What a contrast! I will leave it up to you and your readers to figure out which was the better customer service experience!

  5. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Thank you Deirdre for your honesty and openness. Yes, I’m sure most or all of us have not been so proud of how we handled a tough situation but not willing to admit it. The important thing is saying as you did, what can I do handle such frustrations in a better and more empowering way in the future. No pain no gain as the saying goes.

  6. Mark Burgess Avatar

    You know the old (fill in your favorite ethnicity) saying, “Tact is when you tell someone to go to hell and they’re glad to be on their way.” Once in a while, I’ve used loud indignation to move a situation forward, but most of the time, that used as a first strike doesn’t do much more than make the new mission – of the person you’re talking with – to feel better than they did when you yelled at them and any thought of helping you goes out the window. I think your analysis is quite right, especially in the letting go part. That’s the principal effect of putting into action the principal message of the christian concept of forgiveness. And, one other thing, if US AIrways doesn’t have a culture of customer service no amount of sweet talk or threats will have much effect anyway. – Mark

  7. […] In fact, it’s been just about a year since I brought you the tale of my last such incident in my blog post lessons learned from a major meltdown […]

  8. […] I can’t lie. I was pretty close. After all, we’d been through this before and my reaction pretty much fit that description. (Don’t believe me? Check out my post describing an unfortunate airline incident from about two years ago: Lessons Learned from a Major Meltdown) […]