Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the author of Tongue Fu!: How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict, Sam Horn (a woman), when she gave a presentation to the Northern Virginia section of the American Society for Quality.  There was one story she told which I found particularly instructive.
A flight attendant on a crowded flight was summoned by a passenger who had been served a sandwich.
“My sandwich is bad,” stated the passenger.
The flight attendant looked at the sandwich, then at the passenger, then back to the sandwich.  Finally, shaking her finger at the sandwich she exclaimed, “Bad sandwich!  Bad sandwich!”
The whole flight erupted in laughter including the passenger who complained.  The flight attendant took the sandwich and replaced it.
Now consider what happened – a situation that happens regularly and which usually ends with at best everyone upset – but in this case everyone was left laughing with no upset.
How did that flight attendant know how to respond the way she did?  Sam Horn was on that flight so she asked the flight attendant how she had thought of that response. The flight attendant explained that when she and her co-workers had down time they would brainstorm possible problems that could arise, then they would come up with ways to respond that would defuse the situation and create a positive feeling in the passengers.
Did you hear that???????????
When she and her co-workers had down time they would brainstorm possible problems that could arise, then they would come up with ways to respond that would defuse the situation and create a positive feeling in the passengers.
In shorthand:
Down time ==> brainstorm ==> identify problems ==> come up with solutions!
What business or organization won’t want to have employees or volunteers prepared for emergencies or crises or just plain old problems – and they do it when there’s down time!
Instead what do most businesses have?  Employees that resemble deer in the headlights rather than intelligent, caring people able to empathize with the customer and regain trust and build the brand.
I would suggest that you have a few of your more experienced employees try this first – what have you got to lose?  They probably already have horror stories of impossible clients (“I remember this one client that came in …..”) – start with those.  What did they do right and what did they do wrong?  No “That was a stupid thing to do!” statements – after all, you didn’t prepare them in advance so don’t punish them after the fact.  Build up your reservoir of stories and create the epic legends of your company so that all employees know exactly what to do even when faced with a completely new experience.  The classical example is the tire being returned and accepted at Nordstrom’s – it’s likely an urban myth (Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell tires) but the story is retold even inside the company as an example of what to do when the customer returns an item – accept it!
That what the flight attendants were doing in their down time – creating the epic legends before they happened.  So when a passenger complained about a bad sandwich, it wasn’t a new experience requiring an instantaneous decision about remembering policies and procedures and what to do.  Instead, the incident became an epic story with the flight attendant as the hero – so help your employees become the heroic knight battling the fire-breathing dragon.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.