Beyond Security: The Collective Mood and Customer Service

By International Security Driver Association (ISDA) Member Patrick Van Horne

I recently posted an article on The CP Journal titled “How Security Leaders Can Influence the Mood at Venue Entrances” discussing how security leaders can improve their ability to protect event sites by creating orderly processes that people move through while entering a stadium and venue. The core lesson was that establishing corridors at entrances and helping people to feel safer and more comfortable during their entry allows for more opportunities to proactively recognize threats and prevent violence.  Beyond security applications, however, the concepts have also been used by businesses looking to reduce the number customer service problems they face on any given day and can help close protection professionals communicate with event managers and owners about why to consider changing how people enter a venue.

Even though customer service might not be a close protection professional’s primary concern as they prepare for protective operations, being able to demonstrate to a venue’s management why a change to the entry processes can help to make a business more profitable can go a long way to garnering a venue’s willing participation in making those adjustments.  In addition to creating the conditions that allow security professionals to successfully recognize threats, the corridor style setup can be used influence customer satisfaction during an event because it begins to lead them towards comfortable behavior from the moment they arrive.  To demonstrate the difference in customer satisfaction and the level of stress present at an entryway, consider the difference in boarding processes between two competing airlines.

Example #1: The American Airlines Model

Take a look at the picture below as an American Airlines flight boards at Denver International Airport.  While it isn’t a completely unstructured situation because there are assigned boarding groups, passengers wait in a crowd just beyond the ticket scanner for their boarding group to be called because there is no further order established within each of those groups. The result of this process is a semicircle setup where you have a crowd of people all trying to get as close as they can to the gate attendant so that they can board at the front of their boarding group as soon as it’s announced. Due to a lack of any corridors that clearly separate each boarding group from one another, there is an element of an “every man for himself” mentality where goal-oriented behavior begins trumps norm-oriented behavior as people jostle and push their way towards the plane.

One of the problems with the semicircle setup is that, as the passengers in late boarding groups form a crowd near the entrance, it creates confusion that passengers in early boarding groups have to navigate through in order to board. The crowd forces passengers to decide between four actionable options in order to board successfully within their assigned group.

  • The Dominant Approach: Physically push their way forward and worry less about bumping into people than boarding on time.
  • The Submissive Approach: Just wait in the group until they get to the front, even if they end up boarding a few groups later than they were supposed to.
  • The Uncomfortable Approach: Nervously try to get past people without bumping them as they try to figure out whether the person they are behind is actually in their boarding group or if they are just blocking the way for everyone else.
  • The Comfortable Approach:  Know that they have an assigned seat and that they don’t have any luggage that needs to go in the overhead bin, wait off to the side until everyone else boards, and then be one of the last few to step onto the plane, avoiding anything that would lead to a stress response during the boarding process.

While the comfortable approach is better for the situation than dominant behaviors, observing a boarding process like the one pictured above shows that this is rarely the case.  Because each person’s individual seat on the plane is an anchor point (a restricted area), and, since people often feel more comfortable in an anchor point that they own than they do in a habitual area (an unrestricted area) or an anchor point they are transiting through (like the airport terminal), you can observe people trying to get onto the plane as early as they can. In research that looked at entryway behavior, many people surveyed believed that dominant and aggressive behaviors were the best way to gain entry to the venue when unstructured semicircle setups were present.   It was the lack of orderliness at the entrances themselves that led to people choosing to be dominant in order to accomplish their goals, despite the fact that it negatively impacted the collective mood and made people around them feel unsafe.

Example #2: The Southwest Airlines Model

Take a moment to compare the image of the American Airlines boarding process with the process you typically see at a Southwest Airlines gate.  To board a Southwest flight, you begin by lining up according to your boarding group (every passenger is assigned into the A, B, or C group based on how early they checked into the flight, supporting a “first-come, first served” process).  The appropriate boarding group is announced by the gate attendant and is often displayed on a sign.  In each boarding group, each passenger is assigned a number between 1 and 60, and each boarding group lines up in numerical order next to the signposts indicating where each passenger should be positioned.

Compared to the American Airlines model, the Southwest process is significantly more orderly because passengers know when to line up and where to line up and aren’t worried about people who should be behind you in the process getting on the plane ahead of you.  Someone trying to board with the A group but holding a B or C boarding pass is going to get turned away at the gate and told to wait for their proper boarding position.  By placing the signposts, you allow people to do the right thing and line up where they should instead of having 60 people all trying to board simultaneously. You will hear people in line asking each other what number they are so that they can ensure they’re lined up in the right sequence.  By establishing the process, you allow norm-oriented behaviors to take precedence over goal-oriented behaviors because it would be overly dominant to acknowledge that someone should be ahead of you, but to not concede the space.  Do some people still try to board early? Yes, but they represent a minority of the passengers. Southwest has minimized the amount of discomfort while waiting in line to board by using the corridor approach to great effect.

By removing some of the larger contributing factors to discomfort (such as when to line up), establishing corridors allows an alert customer service or security professional to focus their awareness on identifying and removing the factors that remain. For example, if the parents of small children are observed appearing nervous while standing in line, having a conversation with them would reveal that there is still uncertainty about whether they will find seats together in the later boarding groups once they board. To address this specific source of discomfort, Southwest has created a “family boarding group” that boards between the A and B groups.  This decision has had multiple impacts on the level of comfort in the boarding area. Not only does it keep nervous parents away from the rest of the passengers so that their discomfort doesn’t affect the collective mood, but it also keeps small children, who are accompanied by large strollers, from crowding those around them in the tight spaces of the terminal gates and minimizes the number of times people get bumped into (even if they are innocent).

To address other remaining sources of discomfort in the boarding area, Southwest Airlines realizes that people who have flown on other airlines might not realize how Southwest does things. Southwest attendants are constantly explaining the boarding process over the airport’s PA system before each flight begins lining up to ensure that people understand how the process works and when they should line up.  With each successive tactic to make people comfortable and make the process more orderly, Southwest Airlines has been able to make continuous improvements and contributions to the level of comfort that people feel while waiting to board the plane, removing the stressors present in other airline boarding processes.

The Impact on Customer Service for Business and Security

For businesses, putting in the time and effort to make people comfortable has a drastic impact on customer satisfaction. While Southwest Airlines is winning customer satisfaction awards, American and United Airlines have both had bad customer service interactions go viral (here and here). One way to get left of bang and prevent customer service blunders from happening is by minimizing the number of angry or stressed people boarding the plane in the first place.  By taking active steps to keep people comfortable before they even board, airlines can minimize the number of people who could become disruptive on the plane.

For security and close protection professionals, business-related goals like minimizing the number of negative customer service issues might not be at the forefront of your attention.  Though angry and disruptive people could become your problem once they are inside a venue, by influencing the collective mood and making entrances more orderly, you can accomplish your goals of setting the conditions for effective proactive threat recognition outside of the arena and furthest from your client.  The goals of security professionals and business owners are often very similar and, by addressing security concerns in the context of customer service, protectors can build trust with venues and improve the safety of those within.

About the Author:

Patrick Van Horne is co-author of the book Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life and co-founder of The CP Journal. After serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer for seven years, Patrick created the Tactical Analysis Program to teach our nation’s protectors how to recognize violent attackers before something bad happens and apply behavioral analysis to make better decisions. Patrick will be speaking at the 2017 International Protective Security Council conference in December 2017 and you can connect with Patrick on LinkedIn or by subscribing to his weekly newsletter.

Patricks Website

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