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.

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.

American Airlines tests the law of unintended consequences

American Airlines has had only a few advertising slogans over the last several decades.

  • We know why you fly. We’re American Airlines. (Uh, because it takes too long to drive?)
  • Something special in the air. (It was the dog, really!)
  • Doing What We Do Best (and that is?…)

That isn’t where the PR is coming from for AA these days.

Naturally, it’s coming from that “$15 to check a piece of luggage” thing.

To me, the $15 isn’t that big of a deal, *but* the likely possibility is that the law of unintended consequences will strike American and other airlines who follow suit.

Airline travel is already working hard to become an experience right up there with going to the dentist, getting a visit from your brother in law the insurance salesman (noting that my pretty cool brother in law sells insurance<g>), and having someone at your door asking if you need your carpet cleaned.

Making air travel even more annoying is not the answer.

What American might see when the law of unintended consequences comes to visit.

At check in:

  • Lines will become longer and slower because people behind the counter will have to take credit cards, make change and so on. Just wait till the person in front of you has a “Take the card” marker on their credit card account and the poor airline check-in clerk is forced to repo their card.
  • MORE education will have to take place during check-in because people will not have funds (trust me) to check bags that are too big to carry on. And of course, they will argue with someone that the bag is OK and has been carried on many times before. All of which will take more time, making the line longer and slower.

At security:

  • $15 per checked bag will mean more people will carry on even more crap. Meaning TSA will have more stuff to xray and the line at security will be even slower because people will forget that the 3 ounce rule applies to carryons and that 24 ounce native coconut shampoo bottle you bought in Tahiti will have to be poured out.

During boarding:

  • Bags that are too big will have to be checked, delaying departure, disrupting the boarding process and oh by the way, will the baggage handlers in the jetway have credit card scanners on them?
  • Everyone and their mom will be carrying on more stuff. It’s bad enough as it is, with people bringing everything they own to carry on – it will get worse when every checked bag is now $15.

During deplaning:

  • Slower, for the same reasons that boarding will be slower.

During an emergency:

  • More crap will be available to trip over as people have more stuff in their lap and stuffed under the seat. One more cabin fire is all it will take for a Congressional hearing on carry ons.

All of this is really not the point of the discussion. It’s simply conjecture.

The real point of this discussion is to motivate you not to let yourself get trapped into doing stupid things that will make it harder and less enjoyable to do business with you, all because you were dumb enough to allow your business to become a price-sensitive commodity.

When the only purchase decision point you give your clientèle is price, you leave yourself with little in the way of strategy.

Given today’s levels of airline service – what other decision points are there? Either that airline goes to your city, or it doesn’t. Everything else is schedule and price. Commodities.

Here’s what they won’t do – and their behavior over time proves it.

  • No domestic U.S. airline will raise the price of their tickets so that they can actually provide the level of service that most travelers appreciate.
  • No domestic U.S. airline will provide the level of service that makes them the only choice when it’s time to fly.
  • No domestic U.S. airline will focus on the most profitable travelers, pamper them so they’ll never leave, price their tickets accordingly and let everyone else fight over the price shoppers who will change airlines for $5 round trip savings.

Don’t fall into the cheap trap. It’s easy to do when the press says that the economy has slowed, even though you couldn’t tell based on how packed the Costco parking lot is.

Be better, not cheaper.

Update: Today, this article about US Air making more service changes in the wrong direction.

Related posts elsewhere on the net:

Church of the Customer’s take on the American Airlines situation.

Wedding and a funeral create a customer service mashup

Miss me? Between a wedding, an unexpected funeral (is there any other kind?), the joy of Greyhound-esque air travel, no time to post and no access to the net, the blog’s been bit dark since late last week.

I’ve been in various parts of Missouri since Thursday, but I did bring you something: some fine and not-so-fine examples of customer service and related lessons.

Train your people to think creatively

We start on Thursday afternoon, where I board a SkyWest aka United Express flight from Kalispell to Denver. The flight attendant tells us that the potable water on the plane (a Canadair CRJ 200 regional jet) thus coffee will be unavailable and no water will be available in the restroom.

Meanwhile, a couple of cases of bottled water are on this same partially-full flight. I don’t think the flight attendant was dumb, I just think that SkyWest is probably not training their people to be inventive when the situation calls for it. No coffee was a minor thing on an afternoon flight, but it struck me odd that no water was available as a cart full of water rolled past my seat. The overhead light didn’t work. Details, folks. Pay attention to the details.

United Denver customer service

No one, except perhaps myself, expects good customer service from the major airlines these days. Air travel seems to have been reduced to a odd combination of a crowded suburban mall, a Greyhound bus stations, and a parking garage with a dash of McCarthyism. Or something like that.

Upon arriving in Denver, I find out about the date/time of the funeral, and determine that an extra day in Missouri will be necessary. So I read the electronic sign that says customer service stations for United are available at various gates at DIA (IIRC, the sign was backed up by an audio message). Never fear, I head for the one closest to our next gate.

Naturally, it is unstaffed like the overwhelming majority of the United gates at DIA, so I turn around and walk back 20 or so gates to the next one. While standing in line for an amazing 45 minutes despite having only 6 people in front of me, I witness an interesting contrast of service levels from the customer service desk agents:

One agent lies to the next guy in line, telling him her computer is broken (Reality: she was due to go on break). Thing is, it’s the same computer that she’s been using for the last 30 minutes – and we’ve all been watching the whole time. Just a moment after she leaves, another agent sits down and uses the same computer, and a few minutes later helps the same guy who previously couldn’t be helped because of that computer. It’s really OK if you have to go on a 5 minute break, just be honest, folks.

The agent next to the “broken” computer is next up when I’m at the front of the line. I step up and he tells me that he is due to go on break. I’m fine with that, as I’m sure they need a few minutes to decompress after dealing with frustrated travelers all day. A couple minutes later, the guy next to him frees up, so I step up. He tells me he needs a minute or 2 to complete the previous guy’s transaction so I might watch for other agents becoming available.

He completes the transaction for the previous traveler (who has been sent to his gate). I step up and he – at no cost – changes our 5 flights from Sunday evening to Monday. During this process, my flight to KCI starts boarding so he gets the must-do stuff done and sends me to my gate, telling me he will complete the transaction like he did the previous guy’s.

Upon arrival in Kansas City (2 hours late), I head for the rental car shuttle bus while the rest of the gang fetches luggage. I make a mental note that the KCI passenger area reminds me of a parking garage. Dim fluorescent lights, concrete everywhere, and very spartan. Almost seemed like something out of a sci-fi novel. When I arrive at the shuttle bus stop, another shuttle driver offers me a seat in his warm van. It’s almost 20 degrees colder in Kansas City than it was in Kalispell.

The shuttle bus hauls me to the car rental complex and I’m greeted at midnight by a friendly young agent for Enterprise. He makes small talk asking about my trip to KC and we reflect on our grandfathers while he completes the paperwork. When we walk outside, he decides to upgrade me on the spot because a nicer, large-enough car is at the sidewalk. It’s cold, windy, snowy, we’re over two hours behind and he thinks that the Dodge Magnum will work for 5 people and luggage vs walking across the slick, windy parking lot.

And because he took the time to make conversation while getting my paperwork ready, he knows every minute counts because of the 4 hour drive that awaits us. It was a long 4 hours on freezing rain covered roads, and his prompt, friendly handling of the checkout process was appreciated after 9+ hours of airports and airplanes.

Little things make a difference and make people talk about your business

Fast forward to Friday night’s rehearsal dinner. We’re in the private dining room at the Metropolitan Grille in Springfield MO, an upscale restaurant on the city’s East side. I walk into the nicely appointed men’s room and there is a flat screen TV attached to the wall next to the urinals. It’s showing Gladiator. When I return to the dining room, I hear a couple of ladies talking about the ladies room and it’s heated toilet seats. All the guys are talking about the flat screen TV in the men’s room. Yeah, the food was good, but the other little touches are what make people talk about you.

The limo driver

Good service is to be expected from a limo driver, but sometimes they take an extra little step. This one stood at the back of the chapel during the wedding, and was sharp enough to comment to the bride’s mother that he felt it was a very special, touching ceremony (it was) and that he was pleased to have the privilege of seeing it. The bride’s mother was talking about him the next day and made sure the wedding coordinator knew about his comments. I wonder who she and her friends will use the next time they need a limo?

Customers like small town treatment
As we rolled into grandpa’s hometown on Sunday evening for visitation, we stopped at the Piggly Wiggly (that’s a grocery store) for a card. The grocery had been kind enough to put funeral announcements up at the cash register. A nice touch that I hadn’t seen before. I also had a nice conversation with a very savvy funeral director who paid very close attention to details. Sharp guy, 3rd generation director in his family’s business. I’ve seen cold ones and I’ve seen warm ones. This guy was good, but not slick, a fine line in his business.

After visitation, a stop at the Crazy Cone in Higginsville MO proved that teenagers can deliver small town service, even without the McDonald’s playbook. Even though it’s just a little ice cream and sandwich shop that could typically get away with non-descript service, they’ve taken steps to make sure the food and service keep people coming back. Bonus: historical photos of community members and sports teams dating back to the early 1900’s. Oddity of the day: the Crazy Cone shares a building with a tire and auto repair shop, the space between them is open.

The other United Airlines
While checking in at KCI, I found the other United Airlines. Not only did Debbie prove very helpful at check-in (more flight changes), but a young man in a United shirt (unfortunately without a name tag) stepped up to help a crowd at the self check-in kiosks and showed impressive customer service savvy with his patient, caring manner. He wasn’t a skycap, just a young dude in a United polo shirt with a security badge that I couldn’t see. Someone needs to promote that guy, or hire him away. He and Debbie could teach the rest of airline industry a thing or two. Is there something that your “mail room” employees could teach the rest of your staff? Look around.

KCI – parking garage suspicions confirmed

Don’t ever schedule long layovers in Kansas City International. It really is like spending time in a chair sitting in a dimly lit parking garage. Gate areas are small, there are no airport lounges or vendors of any substance in the tiny gate-specific secure area. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be stranded there in bad weather or due to delays. They do have free wireless internet in the terminal, but email ports are blocked, and there’s a grand total of 2 electrical sockets for the 50+ seats at our end of the secure area. Not impressed. I’d be less than inclined to have a national-scale business convention or trade show in Kansas City solely because I wouldn’t want my attendees to be subjected to a substandard airport experience and possibly associate it with my show/convention.

Finally, back to Denver

Before our final Denver to Kalispell leg, we’re sitting in a crowded DIA B terminal stuffed full of travelers dealing with weather delays. Once again the internet appears to be free. Alas, it doesn’t work, but it is free. Whether a service is free or not, people expect it to work.

You can’t teach nice

We arrive after midnight in Kalispell and as we leave the secure area, a smiling airport security officer stands at the security area exit welcoming each traveler to Montana and wishes them a safe ride home. You can’t really teach someone to be nice. You have to hire and then train nice people to do a specific job. For people who have been traveling all day, sitting in a cramped plane or a noisy terminal, he made the end of the day a little bit more pleasant. How does your business do that?