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.

Selling the unsellable

loaded for bear
Creative Commons License photo credit: striatic

Adelaide, a Charlotte ticket agent with Delta Airlines, had undoubtedly heard similar passenger comments hundreds if not thousands of times.

“$15 a bag and $40 for two? What’s with that?”

She handled it well, including laughing at the ( joking) speculation by other passengers that all the luggage fees go to her personally. Still, it was clear that she was handling it off the cuff.

But was she trained by Delta to discuss it in a way that would defuse the passenger’s annoyance and/or anger?

Did her employer offer training for handling the situation so that she would not to simply repeat the corporate mantra (whatever that might be), but actually engage in a meaningful conversation with her customer as they check in and deal with their bags?

It wasn’t clear that Delta had trained their staff – including Adelaide – to deal with that question and do so disarmingly.

Obviously, it’s an unpleasant position to place your public-facing staff, so why not arm them with the perfect response that disarms most clients?

Why not prepare them to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth?

Sometimes, even the things you don’t sell need to be sold.

Airlines: What’s more valuable than a customer?

No 296!.....I am NOT a Number..lol..:O)
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven

One of the things that is most frustrating and wonderful these days are… airlines.

Why frustrating and wonderful?

  • They teach us far more than how NOT to treat people.
  • They teach us how not to make a fair number of business decisions.
  • They teach us how not to empower our staff.
  • They teach us how not to save money in our business.
  • They teach us how not to attract more clients.

Wonderful when we see examples of things to never do in our own business. Frustrating when they happen to us.

Powerless

Ever notice that most public-facing airline employees are just about powerless to make a change that makes perfect sense? It’s by design.

For example, a friend recently told me this story about his daughter flying home from college for spring break:

My daughter has an economy class reservation on Frontier for Saturday (less than $300 round-trip and lots of penalties for switching).

She finds out her classes are out early and can fly out on Thursday.

So we check the Frontier website and the flights are booked solid for the spring break weekend and all the flights on Thursday have dozens of open seats.

I call up Frontier and suggest that moving her to an empty seat on Thursday and selling her old seat on Saturday would be gravy for the airline. The one-way tickets are going for $500 on Thursday and Friday.

Even the supervisor can’t make the deal.

He said something about a customer buying a cheap ticket and switching to a more expensive day;  but she wanted to switch from a flight where there were no ticket available to a flight where that has dozens of empty seats.

Classic supply and demand.

Way more important than that, it’s classic supply and demand where the salable asset becomes worthless every day, every hour, every few minutes.

The asset? Empty airplane seats that safely move from place to place in a specific time frame.

Like milk and hotel rooms, airplane seats spoil. Once a certain period of time passes, they’re worthless. And a lot more expensive than milk when they go bad.

Airlines 101: Ignore the customer

We have a customer who is taking a fragile, expendable, time-bound asset (an empty airplane seat on Thursday) and offering to make it more valuable by trading it for a clearly MORE valuable seat on a busy travel day in the future on a prime travel day.

I suspect you’d have to look very hard to find one airline employee who fails to understand the value proposition being offered by their customer. In fact, I’ll bet they all understand it.

Sadly, it appears that not one has the power to take action in the face of that value.

So as my friend says, “Here you have the airlines cutting prices to get people to fly and even the Frontier supervisors don’t have the authority to help Frontier make a profit all because they don’t trust their customers.”

What do you sell?

Every now and then I ask you if you really, truly know what you sell.

Airlines sell fragile, time-bound expendable assets. Surely they know this, but they don’t act like it.

They act, empower their staff and create systems that send the message that they sell something entirely different: Reservations, or something like them.

Why do I say that? Because they treat the reservation with far more reverence than they do the customer.

Once the customer passes by the ticket agent at the gate, in many cases they are treated like cattle at a feedlot. At that point, the reservation is worthless, thus the customer holding it has now become a liability, an expense, and/or a burden.

In extreme situations where a plane has a problem, we don’t hustle the (valuable) customer back to the terminal where they could consume an expiring asset we haven’t yet sold (seats on other planes), instead we devalue them by holding them prisoner on the tarmac for hours.

An empowered captain would return his customers to the gate where they could continue their travel, consume unused and about-to-devalue assets. But that isn’t what happens.

Have you truly empowered your staff? Can they take action to maximize your customers’ experience AND the value of the assets you sell?

Ignore customers at your peril

Waiting
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

On a recent 737-based flight, I got to tinker with Delta Airlines’ updated seat back video system, which includes TV, movies, games, flight information and music.

I was impressed when the first prompt that came up was for a language.

Impressed because it showed that they were thinking about all of their customers, not just the North American-based ones. Think “sources of growth”

I chose English.

One of the things I like to watch during flight is the GPS-driven aerial map with rotating altitude / airspeed / head wind, temperature indicators. I guess it’s the geek in me:)

Having chose English, I assumed I would get an English map. After all, I am a programmer by training.

Silly me.

Instead I got a map that rotated between English (with miles/mph etc) , English with meters/metres, Spanish with miles/mph and Spanish with meters/metres.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care, but the insertion of 3 additional translations (regardless of which one I wanted) delayed the delivery of information since it had to be presented in 4 different formats.

Why again did they ask me which language to use?

Little things mean a lot

The flight arrived on time (though a later one did not, prompting re-enactments of OJ Simpson running through airports as a spokesman for Hertz). The landing in Atlanta was perfect.

Yet several days later that map application still sticks in my mind.

Just as a test, I switched the panel’s language to Dutch. Some words in the menu were translated, some were not.

The “moving map” with altitude, air temperature etc? It didn’t change at all, still rotating through 2 sets of English and 2 sets of Spanish info.

The same nugget of paying attention easily translates into other businesses.

Little details sometimes make the biggest difference, especially when you set the expectation (which you should) with things like a language prompt.

Congruency. Setting an expectation by doing one thing creates the expectation in other areas.

More airline related posts coming, as is always the case after I travel…just setting the expectation, you know.

Update: Transparent Economics

Here’s some suggested reading in a follow up to my post “Transparent Economics“:

A NY Times article about steps airlines are taking to make planes more efficient. Smart stuff. Kudos to them for looking at everything, but not just cutting for the sake of cutting.

Quoting from the article:

â??Our fleet is over 500 airplanes,â? said Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokeswoman. â??If you can make a difference on one airplane on one flight, and multiply that by 500, in this day and age that is significant.”

These are the same kinds of steps you should be taking as well. Looking at everything strategically, not just going after things with a machete.

Zemanta Pixie

Transparent economics. Are yours?

Last Friday, we talked about the surging rate of fuel surcharges for ocean-going containerized freight and how it will soon affect the price of imported goods.

As you might expect, fuel surcharges aren’t just going up for seagoing freight customers.

It’s hitting air travel customers as well.

This Times UK article talks about the recent, substantial increase in per-ticket airline fuel surcharges. On the flight they checked, the fuel surcharge was about 218 Pounds Sterling for a London to San Francisco flight. That’s $424 using the exchange rate on June 5, 2008.

$424 per seat? Man, I must have packed on a few pounds lately. Let’s look at a little rough math and see what impact this fuel surcharge has on the airlines.

Assuming that a Boeing 767ER (Extended Range, often used for long international flights) flies this route and uses every drop of fuel that a 767ER can carry, the price for that flight’s fuel is $91603.60. That’s 23980 gallons at $3.82 per gallon for Jet A as of May 30 2008, per IATA.

A 767ER’s range is 12,200 kilometers or 7580 miles, according to Boeing. Assuming that means a full tank, then we get 3.16 gallons per mile (rather efficient, aren’t they?) or a current fuel-only cost of $12.08 per mile to fly 7580 miles. Given that we have a couple of hundred people on the plane, that’s not bad.

The trip from London to San Francisco is 5357 air miles, according to InfoPlease.com.

According to Boeing, a typically configured 767ER holds 224 people in a 2 class configuration, IE: coach and first class. 224 people paying a fuel surcharge of $424 add $94976 to the gross receipts for that flight if it is full (as most planes are these days).

Unfortunately, even that $95k of fuel surcharge isn’t covering the 90% increase in Jet A fuel prices in the last year. Not even close. If that flight is full, you aren’t paying for the difference in fuel prices since 2000 (what the IATA calls their baseline or “100 points” price).

You’re paying the entire fuel bill for the flight.

Presumably there has always been a fuel cost component of the airline ticket. Apparently that is no longer the case.

Only thing is, you only flew about 5400 miles. Remember, a full tank flies the 767ER about 7600 miles. A little more rough math means that we left 883 gallons of $3.82 Jet A in the plane upon arrival at the gate in San Francisco (about $3000).

But I’m a generous guy. We’ll call it even for the $3000, assuming that extra 883 gallons over the average gallons per mile fuel efficiency is burned during taxi and takeoff. And we need to keep in mind the safety margin to have the fuel to steer around storms and/or circle incessantly because of delays caused by weather and Presidential candidates using the same airport.

Finally, you might want to lay off the donuts and pack lighter clothes. The airlines are also allegedly considering a weight-based fee.

If there are any airline pilots reading this that have better numbers on fuel, I’m all ears. I’m sure YOU aren’t seeing any of that extra money.

Are the economics of your business this transparent? What would your clients say if they could do this kind of math on your fees? Are you delivering so much value that they don’t even think about it?

The airlines aren’t. You had better be.

Related articles:

NY Times article about steps airlines are taking to make planes more efficient. Smart stuff. Kudos to them for looking at everything, but not just cutting for the sake of cutting.

Quoting from the article:

â??Our fleet is over 500 airplanes,â? said Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokeswoman. â??If you can make a difference on one airplane on one flight, and multiply that by 500, in this day and age that is significant.â?

Marketing winners and losers: Pope Benedict XIV’s visit to the U.S.

Several of my friends, a bunch of my Scouts, and some of my readers are Catholic, so this has been an exciting week for many of them due to the Papal visit to America.

One of those friends does a great job of providing insight to lesser-known things Catholic, including stuff about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to America. Things I wouldn’t normally know, perhaps even if I were Catholic. Last night, he told me something about tradition involving the Pope’s visits to other countries that really surprised me. It got me to looking around and I found a couple of related things to point out here (Imagine that).

Of course, there’s a marketing angle here…

piazza duomo in lecce - salento
photo credit: paolo màrgari

So here are the biggest marketing winners and losers from the Papal visit to America:

Losers: The U.S. airline industry. Including FlexJet (and every other fractional jet service), Bombardier, Gulfstream, Lear and any other luxury jet manufacturer, along with every U.S. airline.

Why? My friend tells me this:

Historically, the country that hosts the Pope has some airline that comes forward to bring him home. For this particular trip, no U.S. airline came forward. That’s pretty much unprecedented.

OK, so you’re a fractional jet service flying nice, luxury jets around and you happen to have one that isn’t doing much right now. Paint a big logo for your service on the side of it and take the Pope home. If nothing else, call yourself the official Return To The Vatican airline of the 2008 Papal visit, at least until someone says you can’t:) PS: Get lots of photos of the Pope with (and on) your plane. Oh…too late.

Folks, this was a public relations opportunity of a lifetime. Our entire airline industry missed it.

Winners: GoDaddy. While Bob Parsons’ video blog “Top 10 things the Pope should know about the Internet” might not make the evening news, it was a classic example of how to use the news in your marketing.

PS: If you’re Catholic and found this blog post because of a Google search, you might want to check out Ian’s Catholic goods store over at AquinasAndMore.com. It’s tough finding great small retailers. When you do, use em.

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?