Consistent communication is essential

Tomorrow’s post is in part about consistent communication, so this catch by Kelly Kautz about 2 tweets from Delta this weekend seems like a good intro.

DeltaMardiGras

When your message is not consistent, you can expect the unhappy reactions found in the comments to that tweet.

Communicating while considering the conversation going on in the minds of your clientele is essential, but you’d better be sure all of them are part of the conversation.

 

 

How to break a business coma

We talk about a wide array of business topics/suggestions here at Business is Personal.

Occasionally, I get emails asking how to get all of these things done in a state of overwhelm.

It’s an easy problem to have.

You have plenty of ideas and read the things I and others suggest, much less see all those bright shiny objects that appear on your radar.

Each one has the potential to improve or distract, depending on how you leverage them.

If you focus on one, implement or discard it, then move on to the next one, you’ll build an effective system to run your business. Otherwise, the flood of posts, emails, webinars, products and services can distract you into one form of a business coma: Analysis Paralysis.

Other forms

When a business is in a coma, it functions much like a coma patient.

In some mysterious way, internal functions continue to work as if they’re on life support. The business is alive, but it can appear to be doing little more than consuming energy and creating waste. It’s almost impossible to see what’s going on inside much less determine if the business is aware of its surroundings.

Sometimes the coma is an overwhelming amount of inefficient work that prevents building the products/services your business’ future demands.

A dysfunctional business can exist this way for years. The “coma” eventually becomes comfortable, seems normal and that makes it even more difficult to break out of. Excuses for postponing improvement are often layered on like old paint.

Systems can perpetuate coma, but…

Airlines are an easy target here. It’s easy to forget that they deliver millions of people/cargo shipments to their destinations, at a reasonably high on-time percentage and do so safely, all without losing too many bags. They manage this because they have systems in place to help them deliver consistently.

These systems range from sophisticated electronics to a clipboard, checklist and a pen. By design, these systems support a staff that might range from catatonic to remarkable. Most of the seemingly-catatonic are scheduled into that state via long/split shifts and customer-relationship-numbing measures that make sense only when you’re disconnected from the customer by a stack of oft-worshiped spreadsheets.

I strongly encourage the use of systems, but I don’t worship them. They free you from the “mundane but important” so you can focus on personal and important things that can’t be automated – like finding a wayward bag.

Where’s mom’s bag?

Travel experiences feel remarkable when someone takes a moment to do what they would want done for their mother. Maybe not remarkable in Seth Godin terms, but remarkable compared to a typical travel experience.

These “little remarkables” are frequently prevented by situations these businesses create. Eventually, the inability to perform these tasks becomes an insulating layer of undesirable phone-tree-like blubber that few customers can pierce.

On the Friday before Christmas, my mom traveled here on two airlines. Her itineraries were not connected, so her bag stopped in Salt Lake while she flew on to our place. Neither she or the check-in attendants noticed the disconnect and neither did airline systems. The disconnect became obvious at baggage claim.

During our three day baggage chase, which involved tweeting with Delta & American, phone calls to American and SkyWest and four visits to the airport, a young SkyWest baggage guy at our local airport went out on a limb and gave me the baggage office number in Salt Lake. A few hours after my call to SLC, that young man called to say the bag was on its way.

Pavel did what he didn’t have to do, perhaps what policy didn’t allow, but what he would’ve wanted done for his mom. With help from a SkyWest baggage guy in SLC, they performed a small but important task during peak loads that created their little bit of Christmas Eve remarkable.

Breaking the coma

That fourth decimal place on corporate’s P&L spreadsheet…means nothing without customers. The airline’s iPhone app is useless without the staff behind it. The people and the systems have to work together to be useful.

Break the coma this year. One step at a time, focus on building systems that automate the mundane and important so you and your staff can do the important things that ARE personal.

One guy and 12 minutes to a lifelong customer @SouthwestAir

Not long ago, a little boy was murdered.

Soon after, his grandpa was traveling to see his little 3 year old grandson one last time.

He was running for the plane, desperately late despite getting to the airport several hours before departure.

After two hours of standing in line, pleading with TSA officials and airline employees to help him get to his gate on time, his perception was that no one seemed to care how important it was to make that plane.

Waiting

While the drama takes place in the ticket and security line, the airplane was sitting at the gate.

Waiting, waiting and more waiting.

It’s a Southwest airplane.

Anyone who has traveled with and/or read about Southwest knows that one of their top operational priorities is fast turnaround at the airport’s gate.

It’s simple. Planes make money in the air. They don’t make money sitting at the gate.

Southwest takes that to heart. Their focus on at-the-gate efficiency is so well polished that they can turn a plane from arrival to departure in 20 minutes, 2-3 times faster than many competitors.

Every employee is well aware of that focus.

The grapevine

Somehow, someone at the gate found out.

Despite the focus on turnaround and the potential risk to their jobs, the ticketing agent and pilot refused to move the plane away from the gate until the grandpa arrived.

People know to make these kinds of decisions every day, but they often don’t out of fear for their jobs or the specter of “policy”.

The wrong kind of business culture breeds that behavior.

The right kind of business culture empowers their employees to make decisions that are the right ones for the customer at that moment, even if they temporarily fly in the face of business policy or strategic goals. They hire and train with those things in mind.

The agent and pilot knew what should be done and took action.

Loyalty

Who do you think that grandpa and family fly with in the future?

Opportunities to create life-long loyalty are fleeting. Make the most of the ones you get and make sure your people do too.

Especially when it’s the right thing to do.

Groping for opportunity – a gift from the #TSA

Russet
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nicholas_T

Much noise has been made of the mess that has become airport security.

The recent introduction of TSA’s high resolution body scanners and the “pat downs” (formerly known as “getting to second base”) have stirred up a hornet’s nest of grass roots discontent.

As you might expect, there has been much hand-wringing in political circles over the issue.

Attempts have been made to position the changes as part of the political agenda of both parties, but anyone with a brain has watched these changes develop during the recent domain of each.

Flathead Beacon editor Kellyn Brown noted earlier this week that a recent New Yorker blog post revealing editorial cartoons dating back to the 1930’s predicted exactly what we’re seeing today.

You’ll find people on both sides of the aisle that aren’t too happy about the situation…but today’s post isn’t about politics.

It’s about opportunity.

Opportunity? What opportunity?

It’s a chance to say “look at me!” for the thousands of communities that you can visit and have a great time in with your family and/or friends – without getting groped by someone who has worn the same pair of gloves to check the last 42 people through the line.

I’m talking about every town whose hub airport doesn’t have the full body scanners and therefore doesn’t (currently) have the “pat down”.

It’s a silly little thing in some ways, but it’s at the top of the news these days – which is why I bring it up as a tool for your use.

Whether we’re talking about parents with young kids and/or teenagers, or those who aren’t so sure about the conflicting claims of doctors and Federal agencies regarding the radiation the scanners utilize, it’s a sticking point for a lot of folks.

If you want your beds filled, your restaurant tables turning twice as often, or your attraction filled to the gills, how you feel about the scanners and pat downs isn’t nearly as important as how your potential customers feel about them.

Yes, that goes for most things, but in this case, it’s an angle that big city tourism cannot use.

Getting started

So…open a map and a browser and a few airline and train schedules and make a list of the communities that can get to and from your place without encountering the latex glove – and without umpteen changes of planes and airlines.

Just because they can get there with planes, trains and automobiles doesn’t mean they want that kind of hassle.

Next, and this is the part a lot of folks will skip, look at your existing visitor history. I hope you already know this, but if you don’t, you should still have the data.

What are the top three, five, ten (whatever) most-visitors-from cities in your visitor history that are *also* on the list of “no-scan, no-grope” communities?

Do unto others

It’s becoming obvious now: Some cooperative advertising is in the cards.

Can your small town (or not) Chamber and/or tourism board contact theirs? You could do it on your own.

Trade out some tit-for-tat advertising.

For example, their chamber can send an email blast to their members and include an insert in their print newsletter about the fun stuff that you can do in your beautiful area. Your chamber can return the favor.

I hear the objections already. But they won’t cooperate. Or they have fewer members than we do so it isn’t fair.

Horse biscuits.

Chase down those dozen communities, even if you have to approach similar competition in those areas. Each of you have something to gain from adventures such as these.

Who knows, you might even find some synergy that outlasts the TSA ridiculousness and allows you to create an annual program for cross promotion.

It isn’t about egos. It’s about visitors.

Money loves speed

It’s also about speed. You can’t wait 90 days to make this happen.

TSA is top of the news now and on peoples’ minds now, so you must grab the train as it goes by and climb aboard.

Next month or next week, there might be something else you can latch onto. Perhaps what you learn from this exercise will make that effort even more successful.

Finally, you don’t need to wait for someone to make news. You can create your own, but it still requires lots of coordination and low egos to benefit.

Quaint is no substitute for quality


Recently, I’ve spent some time on Amtrak.

It’s easy to compare the differences between train and air travel.

Speed and cost are the really obvious ones and they remind me of the old consultant’s saw: “Quality, Speed or Price, choose any two.”

Meaning, of course, that you can choose 2 of those, but the 3rd is likely to suffer.

When it comes to long-distance public transportation, you mostly get to pick one – as long as you take for granted that “quality” typically means “You got there in one piece.”

Most people I talk to tend to choose speed, unless they’re going from NW Montana to Salt Lake, Seattle or Portland with a car-sized group of staff members.

Making the speed/quality/price choice

Recently I had the speed/quality/price choice to make and decided to try Amtrak a couple of times. My wife and I recently became empty nesters and had wondered about taking the train the next time we went somewhere.

Being the family guinea pig, I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Portland to Whitefish after driving with my youngest (in his rig) to Oregon (on the hottest day of the summer, of course) in order to drop him off at college.

Returning on Amtrak wasn’t just the slow, cheap choice – it was the obvious one: Board at 5pm in Portland, avoid a 12 hour drive after 3 long days, spend less on train fare than on gas and do all of that without any effort on my part – ie: get on the train and ride home vs. flog my rig all the way home, get tired, get a room and end up using up a decent chunk of 2 days traveling.

During that trip, the train’s crew was highly-tuned. If the schedule said 5:21pm departure, that’s when the train started to glide forward. If they said you had 3 minutes to step off the train for some fresh air, you’d better be stepping back on at 2:58.

This happens in part because someone (or everyone) on the staff clearly wants to be on time (I suspect they get some pressure about that – just like the airlines), and it’s helped by spreading out the stops – a luxury Amtrak doesn’t have in more urban areas.

I wasn’t too worried about being on time to the minute. I was on a train *because* my schedule was a little flexible. I’d heard a fair share of horror stories about late trains from folks in the Midwest and East, so I wasn’t exactly ready for seriously-on-time. In fact, I’m rarely ready for it when I’m on a plane – with good reason.

The Amtrak Experience

What I was really interested in was comparing the customer / passenger experience between Amtrak and the last few airline trips I’ve taken.

On an airplane, you’re so beat up, annoyed, hot, cramped, belittled and so on, by the time you get in your seat, you mostly don’t want to talk or look at anyone. On a plane, you will often find 3/4 of the passengers in this detached, staring-at-nothing state of mind where all they can think about is how many more minutes till it all ends.

It’s not that the people are “bad”, I think a lot of it is the series of annoyances and inconveniences that people are submitted to prior to taking off.

On the train, it’s like another planet. It’s like a big traveling party and a sleepover rolled into one – and the seats are bigger. There are more families and college aged folks and fewer suits percentage-wise than the average airplane, but just as many opportunities for people to annoy each other. Yet they dont.

The big traveling party is in the observation car, where you might see people playing Uno, Scrabble, Texas Hold-Em, or just talking with a crowd of people they just met. The dining car is like a cafe with too few seats, so you sit where the empty chairs are – even if there’s a couple already there in mid-meal. You sit (because the train staff said “That’s your seat”) and you shoot the breeze. And no one acts like you stepped on their toes.

The difference is the process.

The cattle car isn’t the cattle car

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that the airlines and airports hired the “Evil Captain Kirk” version of Temple Grandin to design the process of getting people from their cars, through ticketing, past security and onto a plane.

That often seeps into people on a plane. You know what I mean.

It’s not the speed, it’s the how and the what.

On Amtrak, it’s given that everything (and I mean *everything*) is slower. On time (in my limited experience), but slower.

The experience is far less tense and there is none of the “We just need to get through it, so you’re just gonna take it” that you get when flying. My impression is that you’re far less likely to run into the Evil Kirk.

Why?

To be sure, if you Google around, or even search Twitter for #amtrak, you’ll find plenty of experiences both positive and negative. Meanwhile, no one waxes poetic about a recent plane ride – even if they did have wifi on board.

Sure, there are some folks in the airline business who are pleasant, friendly and happy to help. On Amtrak, almost everyone seems that way.

Both groups are obviously under pressure to produce. Neither is raking in the profits.

Neither group has excuses to use about why they treat their customers the way they do. They just do.

The process is what creates the pain…or not.

It’s also what makes the difference between the experience found by your customers vs. your competitors’.

Take nothing for granted about the process your customers experience.

Be employable

Yes, that’s a baby with a bong.

I’ll get to that shortly.

I spend 99.9% of my time here writing things aimed at employers/business owners, but today this one is for the employees and those who would like to be employed.

Lately, I’ve noticed a few things that make it not all that surprising that some folks aren’t having much luck getting work, so I have a few suggestions…

Be in Wikipedia for a good reason

The viral news piece of the last couple weeks has been the story about the Jet Blue flight attendant who, after getting clanged on the head by an overhead luggage compartment door (thanks to a particularly snarky customer), unleashed a flurry of profanities, popped the emergency slide, grabbed two beers and slid down the slide.

Yes, many of us have been sorely tempted to do something more than a little nutty when a member of the public acts like an idiot…but most of us find a way to suppress that impulse. Slater didn’t.

If you’re going to end up in Wikipedia, try to make it for a good reason.

To their credit, Jet Blue’s public response to this has been subdued and as close to ideal as you could expect for a “PR crisis” (or opportunity) like this, but ask yourself this:

While you might relate to Slater’s frustration and find his actions funny, you have to wonder if any other airline would hire a guy who did what he did.

For that matter, would *any* other business – of any kind – take a chance on him?

I wouldn’t. I can see the guy being frustrated at the annoying passenger and upset about getting clocked on the head, but popping the evacuation slide? He may have hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook, but how many of them will offer him a job?

And speaking of Facebook…

Don’t hang your keester out in the breeze on Facebook

Microsoft’s Data Privacy Day discussions made note of research finding that 79% of US hiring managers rejected candidates based on what they found online.

So….YES, those comments about employers that you make on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace might come back and bite you in the butt.

So might your discussions about how hammered you were at work yesterday (even though you’re sure no one noticed).

And so might those Facebook-visible photos you posted of your baby holding drug paraphernalia. Permanent link (pdf)

Don’t inhale

More and more employers perform drug tests and/or have illegal drug termination policies. When you take a look at the DUI-involved accident numbers in industries like trucking, you’ll see why.

This also goes back to the Facebook issue. If you are doing these things, broadcasting them in public seems like a bad idea. It reflects on you, but also your employer, your kids, your parents and a number of others. Is that really what you want to accomplish by posting that stuff?

Besides, you might run for office someday.

Button your shirt

I was sitting in a restaurant in Columbia Falls last weekend, having a conference with one of my about-to-be Eagle Scouts.

A guy walks in to apply for a job.

His shirt is unbuttoned. Let me correct that – the shirt has no buttons.

Thanks to the prevailing airflow in the building, I can smell him across the room (about 10-15 ft.)

If he was applying to be an extra in a rap video, maybe (smell notwithstanding) you’d sign him up.

The waitress hands him an application, he sits down.

Shortly, the owner appears. He asks why he comes into his restaurant applying for a job with his shirt like that. “The buttons popped off on the way here.”

“All of them?”, the owner asks.

The topic of smell comes up. Excuses are made. “Didn’t you know you were coming to apply for this job when you left the house?’, says the owner.

It went downhill from there, with the owner providing some quiet advice to the man about thinking through the process before dropping in to apply for the job. Hopefully he takes it to heart.

Look at it from the other side of the table

Employers are under a lot of pressure from a lot of different places. Finances, insurance, legal, employment paperwork, Feds, State, etc.

They don’t need more baggage.

Make it a no-brainer to hire you. Don’t do this kind of stuff.

Leverage your strengths


Today’s guest post is from Freight Dawg (gotta like that name), who writes about Southwest Airlines’ free baggage policy.

An additional thought to take away from this: Leverage your strengths.

Home run hitters don’t work on their pitching. They work on their hitting.

Focus on their burden, not yours

A couple of weeks back, there was a bit of a fuss about United Airlines kicking people off an overweight plane based on the fare they paid.

As the discussion (and the comments) run their course in this story, there were a number of suggestions on how to choose which passengers to remove in order to get the plane to flyable weight:

  • By passenger weight
  • By ticket purchase date
  • By price paid for the ticket
  • By frequent flier status and level
  • By check-in time
  • Or opting to remove some cargo or baggage rather than passengers

We could probably make a passable argument for each of these strategies, but we’d be looking in the wrong direction.

Check the compass

The problem is that each of these strategies are focused on the wrong thing: The airline and its weight problem (likewise the underlying failure to manage their business).

The right focus is that each customer bought a ticket with the audacious expectation that they would be transported somewhere at a specific (more or less) time..and they didn’t buy a ticket with Vegas odds printed on it.

I realize it might seem quaint or old-fashioned to expect that a customer-purchased ticket actually *means* something, so consider an alternative situation.

Imagine if you showed up at the Super Bowl (or worse, a LSU Tigers home football game) and found your seat taken. After a fruitless argument with the person in your seat, you find an usher and ask them to get this person moved only to have them tell you that your seat was sold to 3 other people and the guy sitting in it was the first of the 4 of you to arrive. You must leave the stadium. But don’t worry, we’ll let you watch the game later on TV, and for the same price.

Only in the airline business does this seem a normal, much less acceptable, way to treat customers.

Choose

Yes, I know there are regulations allowing them to overbook and treat people like a box at the UPS Store, but they aren’t *forced* to do so. They’ve make a conscious choice to treat their customers as if they were replaceable.

They’ve also made a conscious choice to design/run their systems such that at game time, they’re forced to make changes that negatively impact their customers rather than using those systems to assure that customers are never (or very rarely) impacted.

Far too often, the burden of these game time airline decisions fall on the customer who is not only blameless but unable to take any steps to prevent the problem, with the exception of avoiding travel altogether.

Integrate

When sales and operations systems are tightly integrated, you’ll know in advance that the cargo booking Joe just sold will result in an overweight flight based on bookings already sold and current passenger and baggage weight trends.

You’ll know the delivery constraints of cargo bookings and whether or not a particular piece/load of cargo is heavier than usual and whether or not its delivery can be delayed without impacting the cargo customer, and you’ll know that before having to load it. Result: you don’t have to bump passengers.

When the choice is made not to create (or effectively use) systems like this, less-intelligent decisions get made and customers get treated like cattle. This isn’t the fault of Osama or the TSA, it’s a choice made by airlines and airports.

Compete

Imagine what would happen if an airline stated that “We will never overbook our clientele” and then delivered on that promise.

The right choice for you – just like with the airlines – is to implement automated systems that prevent things like this from occurring.

Take a look at your own business. Think about how your systems and business processes have gaps that cause problems that your customers are forced to deal with. What system changes can you make to prevent these things from happening?

What intelligence can you build into your day to day processes so that these things not only never happen again, but so that your day to day processes become more efficient and friendlier to your bottom line AND your customers?

In this competitive situation, would you rather be the airline that overbooks or the one that doesn’t?  Which would you choose to fly with?

A bus of a different color

Post-Katrina School Bus
Creative Commons License photo credit: laffy4k

When I say “bus travel”, I’m guessing that many / some / most of you think of things on this list (and maybe some others):

  • Greyhound (et al)
  • Tour buses full of senior citizens
  • A noisy school bus full of kids
  • people of lesser means
  • panhandlers
  • bus terminals
  • when will it arrive?

Here are a few things that I’ll bet you don’t think of when it comes to bus travel:

  • Comfort
  • Productivity
  • Care-free
  • Customer service
  • Wireless
  • Convenience
  • Safety

Red Arrow Motorcoach in Canada thinks a little differently about bus travel. For starters, they don’t even use the word “bus”. Like most companies of their type, they call it “motorcoach service”.

Because they know that you don’t want to sit around their bus terminal waiting an extra 30 to 300 minutes for your friend, family or colleague, they offer visual location tracking of their bus on their website, PLUS they will email and/or text you when the motorcoach is between 5 and 20 minutes (your choice) of reaching its destination.

Think about that benefit. It isn’t for the customer. It’s for someone who hasn’t even bought a ticket: the person meeting the customer at their station.

Not your grandpa’s bus

The customer isn’t ignored, however. Red Arrow’s website includes online reservations and a virtual tour of their coaches, which include a complimentary galley with drinks and snacks.

Their motorcoaches have a choice of plush or leather seats and they are careful to point out that they offer 30% more legroom than on a typical airliner.

For travelers with laptops, their coaches include pulldown tables, electrical plugs and wireless internet. Compare that to an airliner, which is often too cramped to use a laptop unless you’re in first class.

Their on-board magazine points out that you never have to turn off your cell phone and that the positive amenities of air travel (such as they are) are met on their motorcoaches as well.

Things the website missed

  • What’s the environment like at their drop-off/pickup points? Is it well-lit?
  • Does the place look safe if I step off the bus at 10pm or if I have to wait an extra hour due to weather or other delays?Do they have 24 hour security personnel on-site? Cameras? Yes, I know it’s Canada, but bear with me anyway.
  • Which stations have a nearby car rental?  (they do have car rental partners)
  • Do the stations offer wireless?
  • How does the station differ from typical bus stations?

You get the idea.

And the point of all this?

Cracks in the plumbing

What do people automatically think when your type of business is mentioned? Looking for an example? Think “plumbers”.

What are you doing to counteract and/or take advantage of that image? What sets you apart – and not just a little.

What are you doing that will completely change your prospective customer’s perception of your business?

What should you be doing that you just haven’t gotten around to?

Hold that plane

Something amazing happened to me during my trip to Vegas late last month: An airline exceeded my expectations.

“Exceeded” is a bit of a misnomer because my expectations are so low with airlines in general, but the fact is that they treated me like I would expect to be treated.

These days, that’s exceeding expectations.

I was flying Alaska Airlines from Vegas to Seattle and we had a terrible headwind that made us 45 minutes late.  Normally, I wouldn’t care but I had a 55 minute layover and had to change terminals.

After waiting an interminable amount of time for the late plane to unload, bypassing every restroom in the airport (time’s a wasting) as I ran through the airport like OJ (hey – it was running like OJ to me) to barely make the little automated tram to the next terminal, then doing the OJ again from the tram to my gate…I arrived.

Most of the lights in the terminal where I ended up were out as all the other gates were closed. When I finally arrived, there were two people in that part of the terminal: Me and the Alaska gate agent.

She waved me toward the open gate exit and said “We’d almost given up on you.”

In 25+ years of traveling, I’ve never had someone hold a plane for me. Maybe it was because it was the end of the day. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to pay for a hotel for the night, much less the aggravation of dealing with rebooking me.

No matter what it was, it would have been easy to let that plane go.

But they didn’t.

The agent could have called it a night – it was quite clear that they were done for the day – it was after 9pm in this very sleepy corner of SeaTac.

But she didn’t. I doubt she held that plane because of an extensive management training course. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s simply the right kind of person for that job.

What do you do to figure out whether someone is the right kind of person for a customer-facing job?