How To Be An Awesome Counter Agent

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Several years ago, my lovely wife (henceforth MLW) and I were headed to Burlington, Vermont to visit her sister. It was the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend. Flying to Burlington is always a dicey proposition – the airport is small, the weather is terrible, and all flights are terminating, which means that airlines are happy to cancel at any time. And, to fly there, you pretty much have to go through Chicago (weather, always), Cleveland (same) or Newark (yep, the same thing).

Our flight was at 6:10 in the morning from SFO;  we got there at five sharp. At 5:45, we hadn’t boarded and…delayed an hour. Not a problem – we were connecting in Chicago with a four hour layover. I checked the board again at 6:30 and….delayed to eight.

“I’m getting in line right now,” I said. “Rolling delays on a Chicago flight…”

I wasn’t the only one with this idea – about ten people were in front of me at the gate desk, clearly nervous, clutching tickets and rolling bags and children’s hands. We waited for twenty minutes, during which time our flight was delayed until 9:00. The airport CNN channel (someday I’m going to write a post about how to be an airport, and it will involve banning CNN) was showing a weather map of the midwest. A state-sized green and yellow mass was working its way across Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

“Crap,” I said to MLW, and pointed. “We’re not going to Chicago.”

“You’re not going to Chicago,” said the agent when we got to talk to him. “Maybe you can come back in a couple of days?” He clicked buttons. “Yeah, our first flight with availability is on Saturday.”

At this point, MLW started crying. When we first started traveling together, I was always embarrassed when she would do this. By this time, I understood their power – tears Get Stuff Done.

“This is the only time this year I get to see my sister and her kids,” she said softly.

“Is there any other routing you can do?” I asked. “Can you get us close?

“Well,” he said, a little frustrated at us not taking his come back in a few days offer. “We can fly you to Philadelphia, where you can connect on US Airways to…Manchester, New Hampshire after a three hour layover?”

“Do it,” I said. “We’ll rent a car or something there. We’ll be close enough. And we can have a cheesesteak and a beer in the airport!”

So he did his thing and I took out my laptop (note to airports: free wi-fi is very helpful during emergencies) and got us a one-way reservation in Manchester for only $150. Vacation saved.

But we’re not done here. Our flight to Philly had mechanical problems, so we sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours. When we reached the Delaware river we orbited for forty-five more minutes,. I was stewing in my own juices. By the time we landed, we had fifty minutes to run through the airport, out of Terminal D to Terminal B.  We had had fantasies of cheesesteaks and beer in the Philly airport…no chance.

We reached the gate for our manchester flight at 8:15, with forty minutes to spare. The flight was at gate B12. Which was right next to gate B11, where there was a flight to Burlington,  leaving at 8:45. Dammit. I asked if we could switch our tickets, given that Burlington was our original destination.

“No, said the (very nice) woman after checking our numbers. “United issued this ticket, so they have to change it. ”

“But this is a US Airways boarding pass,” I said. “And this flight isn’t full. Can you just switch them out?”

She shook her head, sadly. She wanted to help, but couldn’t.

I wasn’t beaten yet – I whipped out my cell phone and called United – maybe they could transfer us while we waited. I explained, was moved to another agent, moved again, and held, and talked, and.. the  United guy was transferring the tickets when they closed the door to Burlington. The plane took off, and I hung up the phone. We were going to Manchester, and then we would drive.

We landed at just after 10 pm, hungry and anxious. We were so close to getting to Vermont! Only one state away. Manchester airport was clearly at the end of the days’ business – cleaners buffing floors, quiet men closing down the eateries. We near-sprinted to the Hertz counter, which was empty.

All rentals in lot, read a small printed sign at the counter.

We ran  more, out the door and outside into the muggy New England night, to a small building with two desks, a line of over a dozen people, and one Hertz guy. He was tall with brown hair and skin bad enough to place him just out of his teens.

Crap, I thought. This is going to take forever.

All I wanted to do was get in some kind of car and get going, and I’d rented enough cars to now that a dozen people can mean an hour. There are documents to sign and questions to answer and line-jumpers to appease. I tried to resign myself. I got out my book.

And then…the Teenage Counter Guy became CounterSuperman.

“OK, we’ve got a big line here,” he near-shouted. “Anyone a Gold Club Member? If you are, I’ve got all of your paperwork already printed out, you can just come up and initial it and sign it, and I’ll get you going with this second computer. Everyone else who has a reservation, please have it out when you get to me – it’ll go that much faster.”

Four people got out of line and started filling out papers.

CounterSuperMan then got to work – he printed out rental agreements as he talked to new customers, taking information down while explaining clearly where cars were, where to scrawl letters, moving like a blur, all with a smile.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in a car, driving out of the airport.

“How did that happen?” asked MLW.

“That guy…he was just good,” I said.

We got to Burlington at one in the morning, after a stop for lunch at a 24 hour grocer in Lebanon. We saw a moose flit across the freeway. Our trip had taken seventeen hours. But I still remembered the Hertz guy. He was so, so good.

1) He communicated clearly in a tense situation. He told people what was going on, and how he was going to solve the problem. Everyone in that little Hertz room knew what to do.
2) He thought ahead. He’d looked at the crush of reservations (we weren’t the only people doing one-ways), knew the flight schedules, and prepped in advance. By doing this, he definitely got to go home earlier.
3) He took it as a challenge, a problem to be solved. Not as a pain in the ass.

Look, working behind a counter can really be terrible. Most of us have done it. But…it can be done well. I still think about that Hertz CounterSuperman. I bet he’s doing great things, still.

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