Retail Customer Experience: An Amazing Customer Experience From TSA?

Feb 28, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiates the shopping experience.

Last month, I was in line for security at Logan Airport. I noticed there was only one agent checking IDs, so I figured this was going to be a long and painful process. Much to my surprise, the line not only went quickly, but you could hear laughter.

The lone TSA agent was fast, engaging and funny, and he personalized every interaction.

He had to work two lines at once, but he always told the other line what he was doing. And every time he checked an ID, he built a quick connection with the passenger. Here are some of these things I heard him to say to passengers in front of me:

"You’re heading home to 75 degree weather? I bet you’re sad about that." That made the college student laugh.

"Thank you for your service, ma’am." The passenger must have used a military ID.

"I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better picture on a drivers license." Said to a smiling elderly woman.

"Only a few weeks until pitchers and catchers." He said this to me since I was wearing a Red Sox hat.

I was in awe. People standing in line to go through security are not always in the best of moods and this TSA agent was wowing everyone with an amazing experience.

Here are five things I took away from this experience.

  1. Hire outgoing people. Most TSA agents look miserable. You could tell this man truly loved working with the public. Don’t hire people who need a job. Hire the right people who want to do the job.
  2. Personalization happens in the details. This TSA agent didn’t use the same line over and over. He discovered something unique about every individual and used that information to make the "customer" feel special.
  3. You can work fast and efficiently, and still be engaging. That is a big one. A lot of people think a great experience takes time. This agent was able to wow people in seconds. You could see that was his goal.
  4. People like to feel special and appreciated. You could see in their body language and facial expressions how well passengers responded to this TSA agent’s comments and demeanor. I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of making customers feel special.
  5. We win and lose one employee and one customer at a time. Later that same day, I saw an airline employee handle a customer situation very poorly. It was as bad an experience as the TSA agent’s was good. Too bad for the airline and the customer that the TSA agent was on the other side of security.

What retail lessons can be learned from the TSA experience detailed in the article? Which of the five takeaways mentioned in the article should stores be particularly mindful of?

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20 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: An Amazing Customer Experience From TSA?"

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Ken Lonyai

Doug’s story about his experience is a great lesson, described effectively, but clearly the agent is an anomaly at the TSA.

Doug has made a powerful case, so all five points are clearly applicable to retail. The devil is in getting C-level management to agree and truly do something about it in their organizations.

Joan Treistman

I saw a story on TV of a behind the counter postal worker at Penn State’s US Post office. He had the same style described in this article. One student waited on line for stamps…even though she didn’t need any. She just liked the way he talked to her. Bottom line for this kind of service…it creates loyal customers. What a concept!

Kevin Graff

Thanks for sharing an unexpectedly good service story! This certainly goes against the norm at every airport. And therein lies the magic. Customer delight and loyalty skyrocket when you can take a situation they anticipate will be dreary and turn it into something great.

In today’s ho-hum shopping environment, most customers don’t expect too much of the shopping experience, unfortunately. The good news is that for those retailers and retail staff that do care, it’s not hard to win over your customers with a smile, a laugh and true engagement.

Ian Percy

I think the guy mistook Doug for a Cardinal heading to Rome. I’m still trying to process:

1. A TSA agent with a personality.
2. A TSA agent with a sense of humor.
3. A TSA agent working quickly.
4. A TSA agent truly and fully aware of the surrounding circumstances.

This is clear evidence that things really are turning around.

Oh and btw…the five take-aways are excellent. There should be an “All the above” option in the survey below. For those whose choice is “No Opinion” there are job openings in the TSA.

Steve Montgomery

All the lessons generated from Doug Fleener’s TSA experience can be applied to retail. I have seen other lists with similar content, but using different words. Hire outgoing people versus hire people who like people or hire for personality and train for skills. The principles are the same. The issue is that we all sometimes forget them from time to time and it is a lot easier to list them than to execute them.

Mel Kleiman

After shelter, food and transportation, we spend money on entertainment. Secondly, the one thing people want most in the world after basic needs are met is recognition. This employee was doing both.

Matthew Keylock
Matthew Keylock
4 years 7 months ago

It would be nice if the learnings could be applied across the TSA.

Zel Bianco

Doug Fleener is exactly right. We win and lose one employee and customer at a time. Not to toot our own horn, but Interactive Edge makes it a priority to offer not only a product, but a product that includes service. We’ve won numerous customer service awards from our clients.

Actual customers are your best marketing strategy and their most frequent contact is generally with your employees; it’s imperative that you understand what your customers are getting and what your employees are giving. Everyone has had great and awful experiences in customer service. The important this is to be responsive, consistent, accurate, and helpful.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Great example to illustrate that great service is not necessarily time consuming. This agent was obviously paying attention—he did notice details about each person. While that was a great demonstration of service it was also a great demonstration of doing his job—noticing details about the individuals entering the country. Good service need not distract from your job or be time consuming and has a positive impact on consumers.

Ryan Mathews

I’d say the real lesson here is that if retailers could force people to endure endless lines, receive subhuman, impersonalized and abusive service and have only limited options at best—business would be better.

Oh wait … many supermarkets have the TSA approach to customer service down pat already.

Seriously, the points are valid but I’m with Ian—that guy is clearly the exception to the TSA rule.

Of course … if supermarkets made customers take off their shoes while they waited to be checked out ….

Shep Hyken

Successful retailers create an experience. The experience can be anything from convenient, fast, engaging, fun and much more. The retailer and the employees on the front line define the experience.

The TSA agent is a great example of customer engagement. Looking at the five takeaways from the article, I would say that number four stands out as something everyone must do: Make people feel special and appreciated.

People want and expect to be appreciated for their business. It’s a bottom line expectation. Start with the question: What can I do to make our customers feel special and appreciated, and the answers allow you to deliver an experience that makes the customer want to come back.

Doug Fleener

Thank you for everyone’s comments. Here’s something that makes this even more amazing. The TSA agent sent me a thank you email. There’s something I’d like to see more retailers do!

I learned that the TSA agent had been a college administrator and a professional baseball scout, but took the TSA job after a family member became ill. He told me that the TSA afforded him an opportunity to have a modest income with benefits and more importantly, be a part of his father’s rehabilitation.

There’s probably a lot more lessons in there as well.

Tony Orlando

Most TSA agents are just there for the paycheck, just like any other profession. The % of standout employees is probably 10-20% of any business, and the TSA is no different. The standouts will move on to bigger and better things, and we’ll continue to put up with the ridiculous BS we have to live with getting on an airplane.

The lesson to be learned is to reward your standout employeees, and try to find way to retain their services, as they make money for the company they work for.

Ralph Jacobson

The toughest thing to teach during employee training is to have a personality. If the person is not outgoing when you interview them, why should you expect them to be an engaging employee with shoppers?

There is no secret here. When you need to hire employees, probe the candidates with questions that require some level of personality in response. Spend a bit more time on the questions you will ask, and you will find out so much more prior to hiring the wrong person.

Lee Kent

It’s all about customer experience no matter what the service is. Identify your touchpoints and especially your pain-points then provide a value to the customer. Voila!

Vahe Katros

In 1984, Associate Professor David Maister, produced a brief note for classes at Harvard Business School called “The Psychology of Waiting Lines.” In the note he says that while the mathematical theory of waiting lines (or queues) has received great attention, the perceptions and feelings relating to waiting times has not.

This great write up reminded me of that paper and so I thought I would pull it out and share his list.

1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.
2. Pre-process wait feels longer than in-process waits.
3. Anxiety makes waits feel longer.
4. Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits.
5. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits.
6. Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits.
7. The more valuable the service, the longer I will wait.
8. Solo waits feel longer than group waits.

This experience sounds pretty special – no doubt a video of that moment would have over 1 million views and the agent would have received an invite to Letterman.

Dennis Serbu
Dennis Serbu
4 years 7 months ago

Great story. The unseen part was that this TSA agent was very observant, AND let the people in line know he was paying attention. This is a developed skill and this guy should be a trainer.
In another lifetime I was a police officer and used a similar “friendly” tactic to break down defenses when interrogating a suspect. It really works and you would be amazed at what nonverbal “tells” that come up about what is really on the subject’s (or customer’s) mind.
In retail, cashiers can use the same technique to engage, entertain and query shoppers about their experience.

Craig Sundstrom

I hate to burst the bubble of Doug (or the OP who actually had the positive experience) but the TSA agent may simply have been doing his job: engaging people in friendly conversation IS a form of security screening.
As for which of the takeaways is most important: “Hire the right people who want to do the job.” (duh!!)…doesn’t that cover everything in life ??

Kai Clarke

The customer is special, unique and King! Every business should treat every customer this way. Once customers start to become “just” another customer, customer service, and eventually that business hurts. Only through great hiring, great training, and great business practices will customers receive the “royal” treatment!

David Zahn

Doug – excellent points raised (and KUDOS to you for acknowledging the service you witnessed).


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