This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers and members share their business travel advice and stories from life on the road. Read all the posts here.

Fifteen years ago, I got trapped in a glass elevator while on business in a major West Coast city. The hotel was very high-end. The elevator looked over the hotel atrium below. It was like being in a fishbowl.

From Zero to Panicked in 60 Seconds

It was the end of a long workday. All I wanted to do was get to my room and order some room service. The atrium was crowded with people having cocktails at the bar. I crowded into the elevator with 11 other guests. It was packed — no room to move. Yet, I’m sure like everyone else in the elevator, I thought, “I don’t want to wait for the next one,” and jumped in.

As the elevator climbed to the first stop eight floors up, it suddenly lurched and bounced a bit. Instead of the doors opening, the elevator gave a buzzing sound. Clearly it was malfunctioning. There was a phone that said to dial in an emergency. The guy closest to it made the call. As he explained we were stuck at the floor, we could hear the hotel employee on the other end of the phone scream emphatically: “Whatever you do, DO NOT open the doors.”

The group went silent. The tone of the person on the phone was unmistakeable. His intensity was scary.

A few minutes passed in uncomfortable silence. Everyone was deep in panicked thoughts. Finally, someone said, “This is crazy. I can see between the cracks of the doors that we are at the floor. Let’s just pry it open.”

That’s when all !@#$ broke loose. Several people shouted at him that he had no authority to make that decision and that we should follow the instructions. He retaliated with some nasty comment about not spending hours sweating in the elevator with a bunch of wimps. At this point, the news had spread to the atrium and you could see fingers pointing — we had become cocktail-hour entertainment. Laughs erupted from below. Clearly, the folks down there were enjoying the fact that they weren’t stuck in the elevator!

Claustrophobia Kicks In

Next, a hotel manager tapped on the elevator door and said: “The service company is on its way. They should be here within the hour. Just sit tight and we’ll get you out of there as quickly as we can.”

He should have never said “within the hour” because it put the claustrophobics on edge. One lady collapsed to the floor and said, “I can’t do this! I can’t breathe.”

Another guy, dripping with sweat said, “She’s right. The air is getting worse.” The angry guy chimed in with, “Well, that’s why I wanted to open the doors, but since some of you won’t let me, I guess we’ll just all get sick in here.”

To which point, several others commented that if you could see through the crack in the doors, then air was getting in. That didn’t seem to help the claustrophobics. They started breathing heavily and the woman started sobbing. All the while, we were so packed in like sardines that you could barely turn around, let alone sit or give one another space.

Cell Phones Made It Worse

Keeping in mind that cell phones weren’t glued to our ears back then, only a few people in the elevator had them. Mine was in my hotel room. At this point, they pulled them out and made uncomfortable calls in front of us to loved ones. They said things like, “I’m trapped in an elevator and it could be a while. I’ll call you if I can when it’s over.”

Their calls only made the claustrophobics more unsettled. The lady sobbing on the floor asked if she could borrow someone’s phone to call a family member. Nobody offered her one! I’m not kidding. Finally, someone said, “We are going to be OK. If it takes longer than an hour, I’ll give you my phone.” Talk about guarding your cell phone minutes! Back then, it was pricey.

Meanwhile, the glass was getting foggy and we were all sweating. Not good.

We Were Saved — But For All The Wrong Reasons!

Finally, we heard voices on the other side of the door. The hotel manager yelled, “The elevator people are here and they are going to get you out now — stand back!” Stand back?! How could we? Yet, people pushed backwards, not caring that the people against the glass wall were pancakes. The doors smoothly opened. The elevator guy used his hands to pull them apart. Instead of rushing out, we all sat their dumbfounded for a moment.

The guy who had suggested opening it said, “Why couldn’t we have done that?” To which the elevator serviceman said, “If you opened it and there was something broken, the hotel would have to pay for it. But, since you waited and I opened it, we are responsible for fixing it.”

In short, the guy yelling on the phone for us not to open the doors wasn’t worried about our safety — he was worried about the money!

Water, Wine & Cheese as Apology Offerings

As we filed out of the elevator, the hotel manager handed us bottled waters. Glaring at him, we all walked off and used the stairs to get to our rooms. I’m sure we all vowed never to stay at the hotel again. Our safety and comfort were secondary to their operations cost.

Within an hour in my room, there was a knock at the door and I heard, “Room service!” I peeped through the keyhole and saw a young man with a big tray. I opened the door and he said, “Apologies from the hotel manager for your experience in the elevator.” It was a bottle of red wine with some cheese and crackers. The thought was there, but definitely not what I was thinking was fair compensation for the disaster in their elevator. FYI I haven’t stayed there since.

3 Lessons Learned

I took away three lessons from that experience:

Never, EVER get in a crowded elevator.
People get a little crazy when trapped in small spaces.
Customer service can sometimes mean spending more money in the short-term to keep a customer in the long-run.

At my company, we always strive to exceed the customer’s expectations. My team is trained to imagine they are in the customer’s shoes, and then do what they have to ensure that customer would be pleasantly surprised by our actions. There are times when we take a financial hit in order to do the right thing. That’s OK, because I know that you can’t put a price tag on the reputation of your business. Our actions and decisions as a company show our customers just how much we care. They choose us based on how much they trust us to do the right thing. And the more they spend, the higher those expectations become.

It’s Your Turn — Tell Me Your Customer Service Stories! I’d love to hear in the comments below your stories of doing the right thing for customers as a way to keep them happy. What are the moments that have defined your company as one your customers can trust? What companies have done right by you when you were an unhappy customer?

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