Thursday, September 06, 2007

Anecdotes vs Action Items

Over at Church of the Customer Blog, Jackie Huba writes about Capt. Denny Flanagan, the United Airlines pilot who makes a great impression on his passengers. Jackie runs through some of the fantastic personal touches Flanagan adds to his flights, and Flanagan explains:

"I just treat everyone like it's the first flight they've ever flown," the very smart captain told the WSJ in a highly valuable front-page story. "The customer deserves a good travel experience."

With airline service at frustratingly low levels, Flanagan's work easily creates word of mouth during and after the flight.

I'm sure it does, and I'd love Flanagan to the pilot on my next flight. (I live in Houston and am always on Continental, so it's not going to happen. I should also note that I am generally pretty pleased with the value and experience I get as a frequent Continental passenger.)

The post is titled "How to Create a WOM-Worthy Airline" (WOM=Word of Mouth) and that's where I think things get a little rocky. Flanagan is definitely creating a WOM-worthy flight experience for his passengers. The tougher nut to crack, though, is how you make that part of the overall airline experience.

The reason why Capt. Flanagan is a rogue is because his work isn't the result of formal training. I'll bet his techniques make some colleagues uneasy or nervous. Even United's "Chief Customer Officer" isn't quite sure what to do with him other than "hope" Flanagan's techniques rub off on other pilots.

Flanagan is, clearly, a natural at this. The problem is, many others aren't. When his flight is delayed or diverted, Flanagan orders up McDonald's burgers and fries for everybody. So could United make that a standard procedure?

Here's how I see it playing out: at first people think it's nice. Then on a really terrible day, the burgers are deposited in the gate area by a stressed-out gate agent whose attitude screams, "Here are your goddamn burgers, I want to go home." As this becomes routine, passengers start to say, "But I'm a vegan!" At some point everyone's used to it, it's meaningless, the burgers are cold half the time, and then somebody in finance realized that you can save a little bit by cutting the burgers.

Maybe I'm a cynic. I think what Flanagan does is awesome, and certainly any airline should be looking someone who's a complete outlier and figuring out how to make those touches part of their regular experience.

But turning the instincts of a customer-oriented maverick like Flanagan into corporate policy - making what happens on his flights more than great anecdotes about how it should be, but how things really are - is not a simple process.

Jackie has a great suggestion:

If I were in charge of United for a day (a scary thought, I know), I would make Flanagan's techniques part of a pilot's regular training schedule. I would invite Flanagan to design the course and teach the first class.

And to cement my reputation as a great, one-day CEO, I'd appoint Flanagan the Chief Customer Officer after he reaches mandatory retirement age for flying.

That could certainly unleash the latent customer-friendly person lurking within some of the employees. I'm not sure how much it would change the culture, though. I would love to see some case studies of companies who have successfully harnessed the power of a maverick like Flanagan.


One little nit - Jackie mentions Southwest as an example of an airline that's done well through word of mouth. Well... I'm not so sure about that. They do indeed have good word of mouth. It also helps, though, that they are the official bus system of Texas - our state doesn't really invest in any kind of transportation infrastructure that's not a highway, preferably privatized and with tolls, so Southwest has a profitable niche running business travelers between Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Laredo, Midland, Odessa, and so on - places bigger airlines don't pay attention to. (If there was ever a train between Houston and Dallas - yes, that's right, you cannot get on a train in either city and step off at the other end without going to San Antonio and spending 12 hours to go 240 miles - I think Southwest would see a lot passengers leave. Their small airport niche is key - they're the best way to get from Houston Hobby to Dallas Love Field, instead of dealing with the giant airports in far-flung suburbs. And their easy, no-fee flight change policy is a godsend to anybody thinking their plans might change.

The word of mouth certainly helps, but there are a lot of factors tied to nuts and bolts travel requirements that I think mean they'd do pretty well even if they stuck needles in their customers' eyes.


Mark Cahill said...

Living in New England and having Southwest working out of an airport within 40 miles of my house, I do get to fly them. I also have good rail access, and I can say that rail wouldn't diminish Southwest too much. The cost to take a train from Providence to Washington one way is the same to do the trip via Southwest - only Southwest is round trip...

We've heard of "people doing it differently" in the airline business for years. The truth to my mind is that change comes either slowly or not at all. The Good Captain is a canard, to be culled from the herd when the media isn't looking.

John Whiteside said...

I used to to the BWI-Manchester SWA run a lot...

There is period talk of high speed rail here in Texas, which never gets beyond talk. I think appropriately priced rail between Houston and Dallas would be a big winner. The flight option winds up taking 4 hours (about the same as driving), with very little productive time. I think a train trip that was under 4 hours (quite doable) with comfortable accomodations would be popular, because you could use the time well.

Providence to DC is a horrid train trip; it's just too long to really be that nice. The New England parts of the Amtrak trips are painfully slow. When I lived in Boston, I'd usually drive to NYC over taking the train; it was more pleasant, actually. Same with DC-NYC in my DC days. So yes, in your shoes, I'd fly too.

Dallas-Austin and Houston-San Antonio are even shorter trips, and again I think really well suited for rail. (There is Houston-San Antonio rail, it's just slow; when I needed to come home from San Antonio after riding there with someone else, Continental turned out to be easier and cheaper than Amtrak.)