This is the second in a series of posts on our recent trip to Africa.  To see our initial post, click here.  One thing that’s nice about traveling is being out with the public.  As researchers, we’re natural peoplewatchers, and this helps us with research designs when we’re back at our desks.

Our first interesting observation took place before we even left the United States.  We were sitting at the airport waiting to board, and were sitting near the counter at the gate.  A small line was forming as people sought seat changes or upgrades or whatever else brings you to the gate counter, and the single gate clerk was slowly losing ground.  The line went from two to three to half a dozen, and every few minutes it seemed to get a little longer.

No one had an issue with the gate clerk, because she was obviously working hard and working efficiently.  However, a turn of events took place that turned opinions sour quickly.

A group of three other gate agents came to the counter.  At first, we assumed that they were coming to help, but apparently they were off duty.  They merely stood to the side of the counter and joked around and laughed, having a grand old time.

As the line continued to grow, more and more people arrived to see one person working and three people goofing off.  The goofer-offers were still in uniform, so the people in line apparently presumed that they were simply ignoring the customers, and we watched as the mood in the line quickly went from patient and positive to irritated and very negative.

The thing that I found most fascinating about the situation is that a customer service study would have shown poor service at that gate, when in actuality the lone agent was working very hard.  A manager doing a customer service study would have wrongly assumed that she was underperforming, when in reality she was the victim of some misperceptions.  It reminded us as researchers that sometimes there may be factors beneath the level of the data that can corrupt one’s conclusions, and it also confirmed that a person can learn a lot about customer service experiences via observational research.

We also learned that off-duty employees in uniform shouldn’t be goofing around near a line of customers.