It’s pretty easy to throw stones at airlines nowadays, what with stories of passengers being insulted, beaten up and dragged off the plane, or held hostage on the ground for hours. And that’s just by the airline employees. Even many of hijackers in the 1970s were more considerate.
So when a company in the industry shows it knows how to make up for a misfortune or a mistake, there’s a lesson for every other business, and not just the competitors, on how to do right.
So think about what big or small disasters could occur in your business and what’s going to be your reaction beyond a perfunctory apology? What’s your strategy for making sure that your customers only remember something other than anger, frustration and contempt for you and your business?
I used to snicker in journalism school when our professor explained that the obituary section was one of the best read parts of a daily newspaper. The joke went that people check the column just to make sure their name isn’t in it. While I never developed that habit, I do find myself drawn to the obits in major newspapers because they offer some great lessons from the storied careers of business legends who have, sadly, passed on.
One such remembrance that ran recently was for Herb Kelleher, one of the co-founders of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher has long been admired for his maverick management and marketing personality and genius. Today it is America’s largest airline, but Southwest has Kelleher and his tenacity as an attorney to thank for its early survival. In the days of regulated air carriers, Southwest underwent four years of vicious courtroom fighting with competitors trying to strangle it in the cradle before it could ever fly its first passenger. Talk about small business determination.
I was a teenager living in the Dallas area by the time the airline got off the ground and I remember some of the brilliant, attention-grabbing TV ads and billboards. Years later the airline used to have a mini-museum at one of the unused gates at Dallas Love Field. Under glass was a cocktail napkin bearing the original business plan for the company.
One of the burdens of being a solopreneur or a company with just one or two employees is the battle raging in the mind of the owner over the discomfort of being exactly who he or she is -- small. Much effort and money is expended deploying handsome adverting literature, slick websites and impressive interactive voice response phone systems to make the small company look large. Like an animal in the forest that puffs itself up in the face of a challenge from another creature in order to appear too big to eat and too formidable to attack, this behavior is for protection. That is, protection of the self esteem of the entrepreneur. And while these tricks may shield the company for a time against being "found out" as a small operation, eventually customers likely will realize they are not dealing with an industry mammoth.
For this reason it can be preferable to deal with the world more transparently and perhaps use a David vs. Goliath analogy to persuade clients. In the end, the sale won't get made -- no matter how big or small you are -- unless the customer believes in you.
But what was presented as a nefarious covert system for evaluating the value of every American and either promoting them to VIP status or sending them to the back of the line is really just modern life’s approach to a merchant’s common sense.
Of course, you should take extra special care of your best customers. It doesn’t require a mathematician to prove that the big spenders are important to the success of your operation. The old 80/20 rule (Pareto principle) is obvious to any Main Street business owner. And one doesn’t need an AI-driven, supercomputer to decide to offer a bonus, a gift, a free dessert, or more of your time, warmth and courtesy to your best patrons.
Perhaps the fallacy is that customers should all be treated the same, or that business owners and their workers are capable of doing so. This is not to say that anyone should be treated poorly. A business can’t stay in operation long dispensing bad service or products. But humans like interacting with people they like. And that works both ways across the counter. Buying a lot helps too.
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