Do Something: What to do when you can't do anything.

We have all been put in situations beyond our control.  We have all experienced a time when our fate or the fate of our organization rested squarely in the hands of someone or something over which we had no influence or authority.  A recent experience at the cab stand at O’Hare International Airport gave me the opportunity to observe one of these situations from the outside and I have come to the conclusion that there is always something you can do.

That night, as I approached the cabstand ready to take the short trip home there was only one problem. There were no cabs. I don't mean there were a few cabs or there was one cab. There were no cabs. After about 15 minutes a single cab finally appeared, loaded up, and left. It continued like this the hour I stood there.  Every 10 to 15 minutes one cab would pull up, load in passengers, and leave. Then nothing for 10 to 15 minutes.

Since I was a captive prisoner in this never ending line of dispair, I couldn't help but observe the operation happening around me.  There were two employees—a manager and an attendant.  The cab stand manager was just standing there. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say there was nothing he could do to actually get more cabs.  However, in my experience, there is always something you can do to improve the situation for customers.

What to do when faced with a situation beyond your control.

1)    Just do something

I know, we said you can’t do anything but in my experience there is always something you can do.  I have learned that there are two basic actions that can, almost without fail, always be taken to improve the experience for your customers.

a.) Do anything.  Pick up a phone and call someone. Customers appreciate it if you at least look like you are trying to do something. "There's nothing I can do." is never a good answer.

b.) Provide updates on the cause the problem and what is being done to resolve it. Giving people updates on the situation will calm nerves, temper tempers, and give the client some peace of mind.

For example, when Hurricane Sandy decimated the telecommunications infrastructure of the east coast, it took down scores of my direct lines to trading desks across Manhattan. There was nothing I could do. On TV and in the newspaper (ok... online) I could actually see the basement Verizon vaults flooded. Two floors of telecom equipment completely submerged. Again, there was nothing I could do to fix the problem.  I am not a low voltage electrician.  I was not in New York.  It was clearly not my fault.  However, there was still something I could do to reduce the inconvenience for my sales staff and clients.  I could make sure someone was working on rerouting my lines.  I could have dead lines merged with good lines.  I could provide my clients and reps with updates on the progress so they didn't feel helpless and abandoned.  I could be proactive and that is exactly what I did.  I think you see where I am going with this.

The cab stand manager that day had a choice to make.  He could get on the two-way radio to get a status update and relay that to the waiting passengers.  He could also walk the line of passengers to try to combine rides to expedite the line. Or, he could stand there satisfied with the fact that this wasn't his fault.  Unfortunately, he chose the latter which did nothing but lead to increased resentment and anger from the passengers. 

At some point we all have a choice to make when put in situations that are beyond our control. We can rest on our laurels confident in the fact that we aren't to blame, or, we can pick up the baton and try our best to rectify the problem.  Neither choice is "wrong."  I just happen to prefer action over indifference.  

2) Fight to never be put in that situation again.

Observe, notate, ask questions.  Determine the cause of the problem and after actions a and b above, start planning ahead.  Do whatever it takes to never be put in this situation again.

In my situation after Sandy, I learned that another vendor had their private lines up weeks before mine.  I immediately started the RFQ process and as soon as I received that quote I started switching my lines to the new carrier.  I also investigated cloud based solutions that would prevent hardware problems from interrupting our telecommunications abilities.  I never wanted to be helpless waiting for someone else to fix my problems again.

The O’Hare taxi problem was not a one-time thing.  The same thing happened the last 3 times I was there and, based on the frequency with which I fly (not very), I would guess this same problem has occurred many other times.  Yet, no actions were taken.  No one stepped up to the plate and said there is something we can do.  There is something we must do.  They just stood there as if this is just the way the world works.  This is the way things have always been.  This is the way things always will be.

From my cab driver that night I learned "There are plenty of cabs waiting.  They just aren't sending us." This means there is a bottleneck somewhere between cabs coming in to the holding lot and the passengers.  I'm guessing that somewhere someone, probably that cab stand manager or attendant, knows what is causing that bottleneck but they either aren't being listened to or don't feel that their opinions' matter.  That is a management problem (read about how to fix that problem in my previous blog) but that is also a personal problem.  I could not stand there, day in and day out, simply accepting the fate assigned to me by someone else.  I would fight to fix the problem.  I would stand on my soapbox and scream to the heavens that I know the solution.  I would not stand idly by…but then again I prefer action to indifference and that’s just me.