Rules are for the guidance of the wise

Posted by  Mark Schenk —November 25, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication, Leadership Posts

This morning, Shawn and I compared recent airline lounge experiences. Mine went a like this

On Monday morning I took my Mum to the airport for her flight back to Melbourne. We arrived at about 9.15 am – the airport was as quiet as I have seen it. We had 30 minutes before the flight and Mum wanted a cup of tea. “No worries” says I. “we’ll nip into the Qantas Club for a cuppa”. At the entry desk, I showed my gold club card and explained that I wasn’t travelling that day, but wanted to come in to get Mum a cup of tea. “The rules say that if you’re not travelling you can’t come in” was the reply from the Qantas lady behind the desk. I asked if they were particularly busy at that time and the answer was ‘No, but we have had to turn other people away so we can’t let you in”. I left. Furious.

Shawn’s experience yesterday was very different.

Shawn took his daughter Georgia to the airport to collect a relative who was arriving. Georgia needed to go to the bathroom and Shawn noticed they were right next to the VirginBlue lounge. He went in, showed his card and explained. The response was “Its against the rules to use the lounge if you are not travelling, but its pretty quiet, so go ahead” They popped in for the necessary few minutes and left. Everyone was relieved.

One could argue that the Qantas staff member was being consistent (fair, equal) in her application of the rules. A good thing you might say, except that a very frequent traveller left with the resolve to travel VirginBlue in the future. In Shawn’s case, the staff exercised some autonomy, weighed up the situation and decided to be flexible, whilst still making it clear that it was ‘against the rules’. Which is the better example of customer service? It reminds me of my time in the Air Force where our mantra was “Rules are for the guidance of the wise and for the blind obedience of fools’.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Heidi Preis Barry says:

    Love the Air Force mantra. To me it makes perfect sense. At last I have a pithy way of explaining my attitude to rules! Thank you.

  2. Thabo says:

    I support the Qantas staff, what happens next after the leniency is known, is that people make it the norm.
    Rules should be enforced or scrapped. There is a also a qualitative difference b/w the 2. In the Virgin example, all that was requsted was use of the toilet (2-5 minutes), not half an hour in the lounge.

  3. Time in the air force eh ?
    Tell me, that wise-men & fools quote I use all the time, and I often attribute it to Doug Bader. Do you have any defintive source of origin ?
    Ian Glendinning

  4. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Thabo,

    Yep, there is a qualitative difference between the two. And in my books the difference is insignificant (use of toilet vs cup of tea). To me it was a perfectly reasonable request – I travel two or three times each week, have been gold/platinum member for over 10 years, have used the lounge previously (once in 10 years) when not travelling and the lounge was nearly empty. There was no reason to refuse the request except for the existence of the rule. So, its a bad rule as it has cost them a regular customer. My beef is with the rule and its automatic enforcement, not with the staff member involved.

  5. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the tip – a quick search reveals that Bader is credited with that quote. Not surprising that is was frequently used in the Air Force 🙂

  6. Nikki Hill says:

    Mark, I believe that Quantas should have allowed you and your Mum in for a cuppa. I’m not sure what the requirements are to be a Quantas gold member, but it obviously means you fly a lot. So why would Quantas not accommodate one of their best customers? Also – how often are gold members just hanging out in the airport when not traveling? Probably not too often. I don’t think the Quantas lounge would ever be overrun with non-traveling tea drinkers. Quantas had the chance to dazzle you with outstanding customer service and totally blew it. The woman could have said that it’s against the rules but let you in anyway, similar to the Virgin Blue staff member. That way you would have felt special and appreciated and you’d be telling a very different story – and still flying Quantas!

  7. I used to be a loyal qantas customer. But I think they’ve changed, and one way they have changed is they no longer care about customer service. I put in a feedbac concern to their support line, and the response came back over 5 weeks later with a cookie cutter template response. I went through the cycle another time with the same delay and still no response. I asked to be escalated to the customer service manager and then nothing happened. That was over 6-9 months ago. They don’t appear to care that they are really bad in customer service. I think the two airlines Re pretty much the same now, it’s just that qantas has the switzer business radio channel that I like!

  8. Robyn says:

    We suffered similarly at the hands of Qantas recently when it had been more than an hour since we arrived in Melbourne and our luggage from our Jetstar flight had not arrived at the carousel.
    One of our party approached the Qantas desk to try and find out what was going on. Before he even got to ask a question, the hand was up in the Stop Now position with the “If it’s to do with Jetstar, we can’t help you.”
    Given that Jetstar is a Qantas subsidiary and Baggage Services is a shared service at Tullamraine, this customer service beginner blew a great chance to say: “It’s not really our problem but let me see what I can find out for you.” Instead he enraged 6 future Qantas/Jetstar passengers. Including 2 Gold Card holders.
    Like you, my criticism is not specific to Qantas or Jetstar but to the thinking that says: Not my problem and I’m not going to put myself out to help you with yours. I’ve get a little bit of my own back lately when I thank them nicely for giving me a great new story I can tell when I am teaching students or running workshops on poor customer service!

  9. Sanjeev says:

    I had a similar experience in Toronto recently, not at an airport lounge but at an office. The office was not busy but the VP of the office was adamant about a rule and gave all sorts of lame excuses. I won’t be rushing to them to give my business when I have an opportunity next time.
    In my view life in general is about balance. There are many exceptions of course, but usually excess leads to trouble. In my language, Marathi, there is an excellent proverb “Atee tethe maati” loosely translated as “Excess (of anything) turns into dirt.”

  10. This Qantas culture goes back a long time. About 5 years ago I flew to Sydney with Virgin for the first time the friendliness was obvious. As it happened I shared a cab with an old IBM mate and as I had nearly an hour till my flight and was a silver Qantas Club member went up to the lounge and was similarly turn away as was Mark. I pointed out I had been a Club member since 1988 but that made no difference. I’ve not flown Qantas domestically since that day.

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