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Customer Service and the TSA

Image matters and a business’s image relies on how everyone from the C-suite on down treats all of the company’s constituencies—customers, suppliers, prospects, employees, the general public. Sure, image also relies on the quality of the product as well. After all, a lousy product isn’t likely to be successful. But a great product backed by lousy customer service may end up suffering the same fate as a lousy product.

I have traveled a lot over the past twenty years—teaching, speaking and conducting interviews about etiquette all over the world. During those travels I witnessed the growing pains of the TSA. In the beginning the TSA’s customer service was downright lousy. Officious interactions with travelers seemed to be the norm.

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And then something happened. A little less officiousness and a little more of a smile and a helping hand. Over the years the customer service of the TSA has improved measurably.

My wife and I witnessed this on our return from vacation in Europe. My carry-on suitcase was flagged for inspection. Our own foolishness was the cause. The day before leaving we purchased an extra suitcase in order to more easily check not only our clothing but also the several gifts we had purchased, some of which were a bit weighty. We quickly rearranged what would go in the carry-ons and the checked bags. In doing so we inadvertently overlooked a gift of a half litre of olive oil and several small jars of honey and truffle paste which had been packed in a carry-on. Big mistake, as the jar of honey and the olive oil clearly were more than three ounces. Inexplicably, the carry-on passed through European security without a problem. But going through the TSA clearance after arriving in the United States was a different story.

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And that’s the point at which customer service came into play. The TSA officer checking the bag quickly found the offending items even though we had expressed how we couldn’t imagine what might be in the suitcase as we were so careful to pack liquids in our checked bags. With egg on our faces we realized that wasn’t the case.

Instead of telling us we had to ditch the items, the TSA officer suggested we might want to check the suitcase. He then escorted me back to the area where I could check the offending bag for our domestic flight and then he escorted me back to the TSA security lines where I quickly re-passed through the scanning machine, joined my waiting wife, and headed on to our next flight.

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Never did he make either of us feel foolish for having packed unapproved items in our carry-on. He simply helped us navigate an embarrassing mistake on our part and made it possible for us to keep our small mementos of the trip. That is great customer service. Our thanks to him and to a TSA that makes that kind of customer service possible.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

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Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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