Know how to charm people

In 2001, a Kenyan student aboard a British Airways flight destined for Nairobi ran amok and budged into the cockpit, threatening to take over the plane mid-air. The action caused the plane to wobble before the pilots managed to subdue the man and later land the plane safely.

The rest of the passengers were worked into a fury. It was like a storm thereafter.

The flight had had about 300 passengers, and so torrents upon torrents of calls from irate customers admonishing the airline and demanding an explanation about the incident followed. To make it worse, the vilifying news was all over the media.

Being the public and community relations coordinator at British Airways, such outbursts and bloomers are what Sophie Onyango has to deal with every so often at her desk.

She recalls that following the incident and being among the lead people handling the situation, she sat by the phone and patiently listened to and took down complaints from seething passengers who wanted to hear none of her explanations.

“Even though it was obvious, it was hard convincing the passengers that the incident was not the making of British Airways,” she says.

She remembers how she had to use all means to charm the customers into accepting her explanation and apology.

Sophie wears two hats: one of a PR officer and the other of a community relations coordinator. Although the two roles are inter-linked, in some organisations they will be discharged by different officers.

Sophie’s job therefore spans from buffing such rough edges that may threaten to smudge the image of the company and giving it visibility, to bringing it closer to the outside community.

It is her duty to ensure that the community within which the organisation operates appreciates its presence, therefore promoting a harmonious coexistence. She does this by initiating developmental events that are generally aimed at benefiting communities.

In relation to this role, Sophie says that she is persistently bombarded with requests to grant sponsorship or other forms of assistance. It is a lot of work to research and respond to myriad donation requests through e-mail, over the phone and by personal visits. She has to use wise counsel in responding, more so to those that cannot be granted.

“We will weigh the potential effect of the project on the community before we can commit ourselves,” she says.

And yet growing up, Sophie had been drawn towards being a police officer at only seven years. Later, she thought she could be a nurse. She believes she was captivated by these professions because of her enchantment with uniforms.

She was later to end up in uniform actually, but working with the airline after completing her IATA (International Air Transport Association) course after she failed to make the pass mark to become a lawyer.

She worked at the airport as a front desk attendant, and later climbed up the ladder to her current position after completing a degree in communications with a major in PR.

But she is quick to point out that beside the education, it is personal character that really determines one’s success in her field. Events such as the one she had to deal with in 2001 or even lighter ones require one to be very sober-minded.

One also has to be tolerant of other people’s views and maintain a very pleasant demeanour, while at the same time being analytical and strategic in the mind.

Above all, one has to maintain positive attitude so as not to be drained. As she says, “Today it will be a customer complaining about a delayed flight. Tomorrow it will be another complaining about not getting her special meal, and the day after it will be someone complaining about having shared their seat with a huge person.” The list can be endless.

She continues: “Sometimes you may not be able to reverse the situation but how do you make the customer feel better? You can assuage their feelings. You can make the customer happier.”






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