A few years ago, at around 6.30 p.m., heavy thunderstorms forced a Frontier Airlines flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver to be diverted to the Cheyenne, Wyoming airport approximately 100 miles away.
The pilot, Gerhard Bradner, expecting to eat dinner in Denver, was hungry when he landed the plane in Cheyenne. Rather than wait out a two to three hour delay on the tarmac, he called Domino's.
But Bradner didn't order one pizza.
He ordered 50. Enough for the entire plane.
And he didn't put it on a corporate card. Bradner picked up the tab.
"If the need arises," Bradner said, "you need to take care of your family. You need to take care of your passengers. They are my responsibility the moment they step on the aircraft."
Of course that's not the only example of airline employees who go above and beyond. Last month, a Southwest Airlines gate agent played games and held contests with passengers to make a three-hour delay go a little faster.
A few years ago, the pilot of a Delta flight came to the podium to explain that the plane had mechanical issues and he was working to get another plane. Instead of letting a gate agent take the heat, he made the announcement himself. And then he walked to the new gate and sat in the boarding area with us in case anyone had questions.
When I complimented him, he shrugged it off. "I appreciate you saying that. But I didn't do it for that reason. I just thought, 'OK, I know exactly what's going on,' and explaining it myself seemed more efficient than passing it on through the gate agent."
But it was a nice touch.
A human touch.
Which, whenever problems arise, is all customers really want.
Weather delays are unavoidable. Mechanical delays, while frustrating, are unavoidable. No industry, no business, no one is perfect. Stuff happens.
No one - at least no one with a shred of perspective - thinks it is possible for every potential problem to be avoided.
What matters is how you respond when there's a problem.
The Frontier Airlines pilot turned flying, which often feels like an impersonal transaction - and even, at times, a tiny bit adversarial transaction - between a customer and a company into something more personal. So did the Southwest gate agent. So did the pilot of my Delta flight.
The Southwest gate agent had the freedom to deliver an experience that made customers feel they were served by people, not a corporation. The Delta pilot didn't need a policy manual to describe what actions to take in the event of a grounded plane; he just did what he thought was right. The Frontier Airlines pilot didn't have an expense account to use in case of delays; he just decided to do what he felt was right. (Although hopefully Frontier reimbursed him; the sense of customer loyalty his gesture surely sparked was easily worth more than $750 or $1,000.)
That's why you don't need a long list of policies and procedures for employees to follow that cover every possible problem or issue.
Maybe you just need one: "Do what you feel is right."
While a few employees might go too far, that's OK.
Most will not - because you've given them the autonomy and independence to make decisions based on the unique circumstances they face, they will come up with ways to satisfy your customers that you may never have imagined.
Because when you give your employees the freedom to do what they think is right... they will always do more for your customers.
Because they will care a lot more.