Denny Flanagan – A Customer Service Champion and a Man of Character

I’m infinitely interested in certain things and completely disinterested in others, which includes anything mechanical; you’ll find little middle ground with me.

When I put my key into the ignition of my car, something happens to make it start that I don’t have to understand. I love watching good TV programs, but I don’t care how the picture gets into my TV. However, if you show me a customer service champion, I’m all over it. I’m completely curious about people who make a difference.

This brings me to Captain Dennis J. Flanagan of United Airlines. Here’s what happened that piqued my interest about this man of character.

My wife and I were flying to Arizona to spend a week in Sedona. Our Denver-bound flight was to leave from Baltimore on United Airlines. About 30 minutes before our scheduled departure, we sat at the gate waiting to board when the door to the Jetway opened. The United captain emerged, strode to the ticket counter, and grabbed the microphone. Based on my substantial flying experience, a variety of possible scenarios bombarded my brain – none of them good!

Then this captain began speaking. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m your captain, Denny Flanagan.” He went on to describe the weather we anticipated and our route. Then he said, “We’re flying a Boeing 757 this morning. If you have any questions during our flight about the aircraft or flight, I’ll be happy to answer them. Our plane this morning is in great shape.” A long pause ensued, then, “And I’m in good shape.” The passengers chuckled. “By the way,” he continued, “this is my first flight.” Silence… “Today!” he added with a grin.

Great. He does schtick! He’s a pilot I can relate to.

Among the waiting passengers, I could see their moods quickly change like a wave. They hadn’t previously appeared anxious or worried, just indifferent or tired. After that announcement, they seemed jovial and eager to board.

We wondered what would happen next. Jimmy Buffet with a parrot? A conga line?

As we began boarding, Captain Flanagan stood at the door to the plane handing out cards with a 757 pictured on one side, and a description of the aircraft on the other. Greeting him, I mentioned I was an executive coach and consultant who published a monthly newsletter. I said I’d like to write something about his congeniality and gave him my business card. He replied that he’d love to talk at some point.

An hour into our flight, Anne, the purser, spoke over the intercom saying, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We here at United believe travel should be fun. So Captain Flanagan is raffling off discounted tickets on United.”

Wait a minute, now we’re having a raffle? What’s next? Karaoke?

She continued, “On your cocktail napkin, please write down the reason you chose United for your air travel. I’ll then draw four napkins and read the responses. Those people will each receive a coupon worth a discount on a future United flight.”

The raffle concluded, and I didn’t win. But a few minutes later, Anne came down the aisle with one of Captain Flanagan’s business cards. On the back was this note: “Mr. Golletz, You are a valued customer and your business is greatly appreciated. Please let me know how we can exceed your expectations. Also, could you wait for me after the flight?” Signed, “Capt. Denny.”

I couldn’t meet him because of a tight connection in Denver, so I asked Anne to tell him I’d call him after my Sedona vacation, saying I was eager to know more about him. Before taking my response to Denny in the cockpit, she told me what she knew about this unusual and extraordinary guy:

  • He institutes the raffle on every flight and posts the cocktail napkin responses where United staffers can read them.
  • He has a large number of copies of a coffee table-sized book on United’s history and presents them to United associates who respond to customers in exceptional ways.
  • He handwrites personal thank you notes on the back of his business cards to every first-class passenger on every one of his flights.
  • He provides his personal credit card to unaccompanied minors on his flights so they can use the in-flight phone to call home.
  • One of Denny’s co-pilots, Buck Wyndham (how’s that for a pilot’s name?), was so impressed that he asked Denny if he could record him for several days after the brass okayed the idea. The video recording was subsequently used for training at the company.

When I got home from that vacation, I spoke to Denny and a number of people close to him. My primary question was, “What created this dedication to customers?” Denny said, “I do it because it’s my job.” Not a guy prone to self-congratulatory behavior. His wife, Terri, told me he has a profound sense of duty and loyalty that endures despite adverse circumstances. His associate Bud Potts, another United pilot, couldn’t explain this quality in Denny. He expressed his admiration for both who Denny is and what he does.

Keep On Learning from Captain Denny

What have I learned (or reaffirmed) from my experience with Captain Denny? Here are three conclusions:

1. For years, United Airlines has gone through lots of well-documented challenges. Providing a bright spot amid the fray is a leader who demonstrates resilience, persistence, tenacity, a love of people, loyalty, and dedication. Where he got it isn’t as important as that he has it. Character counts!

2. People follow examples rather than orders. Frequently, Denny preaches the word of customer service to other United associates. They listen to him because his actions mirror his words. He’s consistent and authentic. He reaffirms what he says with what he does.

3. When faced with challenging times and circumstances, we have choices. We can focus on the good with a positive attitude or whine about the way things are and harbor resentment. You’ve probably heard it before and I’ll say it again: Resentment is tantamount to drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. I know people at United who want the company to fail because of deep-seated animosity and their need to prove themselves right. At the risk of appearing simplistic, I say, “Find something else to do with your life!”

When times get tough, people throw in the towel and leave out of frustration. To those at United and other firms who have confronted similar challenges and gotten out, I say, “Sometimes leaving is the right answer – for both the organization and the person. Better to leave than seethe.”

To people anywhere who decide to plant their feet and work for productive change – Bravo! Find other like-minded people to provide you with the courage to continue the fight. Incubate ideas; initiate independent action; take risks; build the company you want.

To everyone, but most particularly the executive managers of United, what can you learn from this story and how can you leverage that lesson? Will you have the courage and smarts to place your bets on people like Denny Flanagan?

P.S. I first wrote about Denny in my monthly newsletter in 2005. Since then, others have also noticed his amazing qualities. For example, he has appeared on TV network shows “This Morning” and “Good Morning America” and has been featured in a page-one story in the Wall Street Journal. In an industry that desperately needs heroes, Denny joins pilot Sully Sullenberger (of “put the plane down in the Hudson River” fame) as a guy worth emulating. I’m proud that Denny and I have become good friends. When he’s in D.C. or Baltimore, we still have dinner together. (Come to think of it, Denny, you owe me a meal.)

Copyright 2010 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.