Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flying this Memorial Day Weekend? Prepare by Lowering Your Expectations

Why have we, the traveling public, lowered our expectations so much when it comes to the USA domestic Airline industry? We do not tolerate such horrible service, customer service, and product delivery from any other business, so why the airlines? 

Rewards programs aren't cutting it 
When the only advantage they give is seat upgrades that you can only use if it is a full moon, on a Thursday, and you wore red that day. Oh, can check in one of your bags for free! Well gee thanks, we used to be able to check them in for free before. 

That is akin to going to McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) and getting an up-charge for the meat patty in a hamburger, or,  paying extra for a cup in which to put your Starbucks (NYSE: SBUX) coffee - you can have the coffee, but they will just pour it piping hot down your throat if you don't pay up.

I have lost any airline devotion
Even though I travel to Asia quite often, I refuse to pay $5000 more for terrible customer service from cranky flight attendants, when I can pay an Asian carrier less, for better food, authentically friendly customer service agents and attendants, and a better on time flight record.

Know what consumers really expect
My previous blog post of the 11 Branding and Marketing Trends for 2011, which lists as #3 
Zappos-ification:Marketers will have to comprehend what really drives their categoy, know what consumers really expect, and where to focus both process and brand efforts. Yes, Zappos sells shoes – but their brand equity lies primarily in the emotional driver of “service” – how they get shoes to customers and accept returns.

If an airline delivered the kind of customer service that Zappos (now owned by Amazon NYSE: AMZN), I would be a customer for life. When shopping for certain apparel items, I don't shop for the best deal like I do other goods, I am willing to pay a small premium even for products I purchase from Zappos, because I know I won't have to deal with hassles and that, in the end their goal is to make the customer happy and to keep that retain the customer for life. 

The last flight I was on, a USAir from the East to West Coast, they were making the usual announcements about the extra add-ons we can purchaser and included was a blanket for $7.50 - they then cranked up the AC so high that everyone put on their winter coats. Once the blankets were sold out the heat miraculously came back on. I kid you not!

After that episode, the woman across the aisle asked if her row-mates could please stand so she could go to the restroom, they jokingly said, sure, but it will be $7.50 - that's the next thing. 

Anyway, I'm sure we've all had flight scheduling, cancellation, missed connection nightmares, and I am generally totally patient and Zen whenever I encounter itinerary issues, I have spent days in Brazil without luggage, wearing the same clothes. I have sat on the floor at the Kuala Lumpur airport for 16 hours - and I had a 'che sara sara' approach. I have accepted that I am powerless to do anything about it. But today, it just pissed me off! Probably because they were f'ing with my parents, who were all excited about their first ever visit to New York City.  See my rant from today on Facebook here

A customer service centric airline that is profitable can be done. Southwest, Jet Blue, Virgin Atlantic are all examples (reference my previous blog post about Richard Branson's philosophy that a business must Exceed Customer Expectations).

How does this post relate to the Home Furnishings industry? 
Well William Sonoma has applied these turnaround strategies to repair their operations, improve their product offering, and improve customer service and the results have been remarkable. Reference my previous blog post here  and here for more details. 

Don't have a bad 'on time' record like the airlines
  • You can evaluate and modify operations in your business to streamline production and re-balance inventory in order to deliver an 'on time' product and service. 
  • Raymour & Flanigan have the most impressive logistics system I have ever seen in the Home Furnishings business, and it allows them to advertise 48 hour delivery. In this 'on demand', 'instant gratification' world that is a big advantage over their competition.

Don't allow chronic problems continue-like United's 'unspecified maintenance problems' in Denver today

  • If your supply chain experiences hiccups to the point that they are the norm rather than exceptions
  • If your sales team are reluctant to selling certain products because they know there will be defects, delays in shipment, or inventory issues, then you have chronic problems. Address these issues now. Don't accept the status quo. You are leaving money on the table and losing market share every day!
  •  Then, you can reduce costs through operations changes including reducing defect through improved packaging, materials, reduced handling, reduced return rate. The result, more satisfied customers, lower costs, higher margins.
When you are flying Weather Delays Happen, but Customers are still stranded and not happy
  • Yeah, we know that shit happens regardless of how much planning, streamlining, and strategic planning that we do. 
  • But, we must realize that the customer, though realizing that the although the problem is not your fault, they are still not happy campers. 
  • Exceed their expectations by offering a token of your understanding of their frustration.  Perhaps a $25 gift card for the restaurant across the street from your store. It doesn't have to be big, and it shouldn't be related to your business. (If I'm stuck at an airport the last thing I want is a $25 coupon off my next flight, but if I receive a $25 coupon for a restaurant in the airport, I'll be happy). It's a small thing, but your customers will remember it, I guarantee it.
Don't Mess with Family Members 
  • I fly all the time, my brother flies more than all the time and is one of the rare customers who pay full fare. But when United screws with my Parents we get protective, the 'mama bear' in me comes out, and we get on the phone, on twitter, and Facebook to assert for my parents. 
  • In the furniture biz, retailers know that most purchase decisions are influenced by parents and grandparents. Perhaps the children are coming to your store because their parent's did. Perhaps the parents are chipping in on the cost of the new furniture. Whatever it is, remember that if your relationship with one member of the family is 'compromised' then another member will likely be as frustrated or even more so because of that protective familial bond. 
  • The same applies to manufacturers. In an industry where brand recognition is null, it is imperative to deliver consistency for generations, because you will not only retain that first customer, but you will have their offspring, and their offspring.

Make Lemonade out of Lemons
So, the next time you are sitting in a airport cursing the delays, remember how you are feeling and what you wish the airlines would do to not only accommodate you,retain you as a customer, and even more -- how can they get you to become a loyal customer who will recommend them to a friend. Now--apply all of that frustration to your business. Write it down, you have time--your flight isn't going anywhere.

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