HOW THE HECK DID THAT HAPPEN, PART II
In last week's screed, "How the Heck Did That Happen," there was talk of personal brand, ownership of a business by an employee, and making the customer feel welcome and comfortable.
To recap, I was on the road from the Uintas to the Ozarks (that would be Salt Lake to St. Louis if your geography is airport-centric), and was analyzing all of the customer-service touchpoints in that experience, from curbside at SLC to barside at a major chain hotel.
In conclusion, some of the day's experiences were excellent, others were fleeting and unmemorable.
But it had me thinking about something that impacts the way each of these people treated me during that day.
I had asked my surprising and interesting server in the bar, "What is the one way you want your core customer to feel about your business?"
She said, "I realize that my customer has been traveling, and I want them to feel comfortable and welcome."
Ultimately, it left me with a new question.
WHAT'S MY PERSONAL BRAND AS A CUSTOMER?
As a customer, what is the one way I want my service provider to feel about me?
This seems especially significant in light of the uniquely 21st century challenge of air travel.
Once, air travel was an idyllic and puffy-cloud land of women in pencil skirts and white gloves and men in hats and ties.
The experience has devolved to the level of bus travel.
People love to hate airlines.
They hate hate hate airlines.
And maybe it's worth starting this tale at my front door.
Last week, before I left for the Ozarks, a friend came knocking.
HE WAS THERE TO BORROW SOME DRIED BASIL
Yes, we have that kind of neighborhood.
Friends come around to borrow ingredients.
This fellow who came for the basil has an interesting personal brand.
Speaking superficially, he is the Jerry Garcia of high-school biology teachers.
He has long hair and a bushy beard, and wears a lot of tie-dyed clothing.
That's really the only resemblance to the late leader of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia was a juvenile delinquent who grew up in San Francisco and was sent to the army for stealing his mother's car, and died of a heart attack while in an addiction recovery facility.
My friend grew up on an army base in rural Utah, is science-minded, and is dedicated to shaping young minds for tomorrow in the face of great odds.
THE HIPPY-ISH FAÇADE BELIES A DISCIPLINED AND RESPONSIBLE CHARACTER
So when he came knocking, dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and olive hiking pants, his long hair pulled back, I opened the door, he looked at me, and he said, "Fancy."
I had on khaki pants, loafers and a dress-shirt. I said, "I'm flying."
He said, "I know. I do the same thing when I fly."
Apparently, he understands that if he gets on a plane looking like a hippy, he will not experience the best service.
We both try to dress a little better than the rabble. In surveys, flight attendants admit that they treat passengers better if they're dressed better. And neither of us wants to be one of those people who gets on a plane wearing pajamas.
THERE MAY BE NO BETTER PLACE TO EXAMINE CUSTOMER BRAND THAN IN AIR TRAVEL
In a business that is hated by a great number of the people patronizing it, I have learned to enjoy it.
That's because I've learned how to do two things.
1) How to control the experience to my benefit.
2) How to be a desirable customer (even though people who know me may consider it an act).
And it really doesn't take that much.
Controlling the experience requires trying to always be early, understanding your options, and making a modest investment. In many respects, air travel is cheaper than ever. By paying a little more to obtain the conveniences, it's easy to mitigate the unpleasant, mass-transit aspects of the experience. TSA Pre-Check, Clear, purchasing certain upgrades, getting credit cards that afford benefits like premium lounges and early boarding, it all helps mitigate the stress.
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, THING ONE INFORMS THING TWO
Not controlling the experience leads to stress.
Resistance is pain. Especially if one approaches air travel as an antagonistic experience, it can end up being antagonizing and painful.
Imagine walking into a retail store and saying, "I hate this place! Serve me now!"
How inclined is anyone going to be to serve you?
Just for fun, an exceptionally skilled salesperson may try to win you over.
Most will just try to stay away.
IMAGINE WALKING INTO THAT SAME STORE DRESSED IN PAJAMAS AND BEDROOM SLIPPERS, CARRYING A PILLOW AND SUCKING A PACIFIER
Yes, I've seen it.
And it sends a message.
Yes, I might sound elitist.
But in an overcrowded, over-busy, overbooked environment, snap judgments are inevitable. "Hey there, uncouth slob, what can I do for you?" You get what you give. When you're George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, you can travel first class looking like a rainbow-haired wild man and people will love you. I've seen it happen. The rest of us? We have to work a little harder.
By going in dressed well (and that doesn't mean being dressed expensively or being over dressed, just dressed in clean, business casual or smart casual), a customer doesn't allow for anyone to make the same snap judgments as if one was dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt with a profane message about your mother.
By smiling and returning smiles, a rapport happens. Sure, there are times when it doesn't work. Gate agents can be nasty. Trying to win over those pissy people can be a challenge worth taking.
AND ULTIMATELY, ACTING LIKE YOU BELONG THERE SCORES BIG POINTS
Not acting entitled, acting appreciative, and making it clear that being locked together in an aluminum tube for 5 hours will be a pleasure, one becomes the Desirable Customer.
Yes, this probably sounds very Norman Vincent Peale.
So what? It works more often than it doesn't.
My core customer service professional is someone who works hard, is underpaid, and tries to keep a smile on her face despite enormous odds in an environment that is ever more like working in an urban bus station.
What is the one way I want my core customer service professional to feel about me?
That I'm going to make her job easier and more enjoyable.
YES, YOU'VE HEARD ME ADMIT TO BEING A CURMUDGEON
Yes, I can be a cantankerous lout.
I am able to wear a mask!
But, the Fabulous Honey Parker?
She is an ace at this.
She makes people love her.
One time, she got out of her seat to go to the lavatory.
She was gone for about 20 minutes.
When she finally returned, she was clutching a dozen little bottles of bourbon to her chest.
Seems she'd made friends with the flight attendant in the galley.
AND HEY, FREE BOURBON
The bottom line: both Honey and I have worked in service industries.
Maybe that gives us empathy for the people who serve us.
Yes, we both have the capacity to make a customer service agent cry.
But guaranteed, even if we do, neither of us will never be that person you see at the customer service counter yelling, "Do you know who I am?!"
Because nobody wants to know that person or who they are.
It's a brand that everyone has experienced, and feels one way about.
And it's never the good way.
Fly big. Fly with fun. Fly with a smile. And you become a customer brand that professionals enjoy serving. Or over-serving with a dozen bottles of bourbon.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
IS YOUR PROBLEM NOW YOUR CUSTOMER'S PROBLEM?
Once upon a time, the Fabulous Honey Parker and I were doing a home re-fi.
We were living in Los Angeles, and were buying a cute little cabin in the mountains of Utah. We had enough equity in our home that it seemed smart to use some of that equity on another investment.
The timing ended up being tight.
Three days after closing on the loan, we'd be closing on the cabin.
We would have the cash in hand just three days before being required to hand it to the sellers.
The loan docs showed up for our signatures, and...
The cash-out amount was 33% short.
We got on the phone with the mortgage broker.
We explained the situation.
He was stunned.
First, he apologized profusely.
Next, he said he was going to jump through every hoop possible.
He would attempt to fix the loan before the closing on our cabin.
And then he said, "If I can't make it happen in time, I will cover the shortage. I will write you a check from my personal account. You will be able to close without delay."
THAT WAS IMPRESSIVE
This man had made a mistake and was prepared to write us a five-figure check to cover his error until the error could be corrected.
He is not licensed to write home loans in Utah, where we now live. If he were, he'd have our undying loyalty for all our mortgage business.
In fact, we hadn't spoken to him in a couple of years, and we recently reached out to him for some re-financing advice.
Despite the fact that there was no business in it for him, he was happy to consult.
THIS MAN IS HIS BRAND
His business has a name that speaks to his values without being on-the-nose about it.
The brand is infused with his personality and ethics, and he lives up to it all in a way that engenders devotion and repeat business from legions of faithful clients.
When we had a problem, he went well above and beyond to correct it.
He had created the problem, and never expected us to pay the price.
It was impressive.
With that as a yardstick, something different just happened to us.
IT WAS EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE FOR THE WRONG REASONS
As part of a new business venture, Honey and I are buying a new and rather large vehicle.
We've been working with a dealer here in Utah.
There's one particular unit we need, and the last one was sold off the lot while we were looking at our options.
The last one available to us was with the dealer's outlet in Florida.
There was little room for negotiation, as the price was already rock-bottom. Extensive research showed that, at 35% below sticker, and what two-year-old models were selling for, we could probably buy the thing and resell it immediately at a profit.
We tried to grind the salesman, but we knew there wasn't much point.
WE ALSO FINANCED ABOUT 60% OF THE PURCHASE THROUGH THE DEALER
Our research showed that there were no better rates to be had out there.
So getting financing through the dealer would be more convenient for us, and would make the deal a little sweeter for them.
Then, we had to arrange the pickup in Florida.
We looked at the calendar.
Hmm. It's the end of the month.
Not only were we anxious to get the vehicle, but management in Florida would like a sold unit off the lot.
And the unspoken part? The sooner we got the rig off the lot, the sooner our sales guy would get paid.
If we didn't take delivery until next month, he wouldn't get paid until next month.
SO WE INCONVENIENCED OURSELVES
We paid more in airfare by buying plane tickets a week out instead of waiting two or more weeks, when the fares would be lower.
In sum: we'd paid close to the asking price on the vehicle, done the financing with the dealer (which just happened to be through the same credit union we would've used anyway), and expedited pickup to get there the last day of the month.
They're making money.
At least they told us the dealer in Florida would pick us up at the airport. That was convenient.
Until it wasn't.
Our sales guy called.
"I have bad news. They can't pick you up at the airport. It's the last day of the month and they're too busy. You're going to have to take a cab or an Uber."
I PULLED OUT ONE OF HONEY'S FAVORITE WORDS
It's the "D" word.
I said, "I'm disappointed. We didn't grind you on the price, we arranged financing through you, we paid twice as much for airfare to get there by the end of the month to get it off their lot because it's better for them and, presumably, better for your commission check. So now this? I'm disappointed."
He began talking a lot, explaining all kinds of things about business already gone by, and I stopped him.
I said, "Please don't explain it. You're not making it better."
He said, "Let me call you back."
A FEW MINUTES LATER, THE PHONE RANG AGAIN
He said, "If they can't pick you up at the airport, we'll pay for your Uber."
As it should be.
Unfortunately, it may have been too little too late.
Welcome to a culture of cheap, and a culture of self-centered focus.
Those are not good qualities for anyone to reveal to a customer.
One of the last things any business should ever do is tell a customer, "We know you spent more than you had to, but we have to renege on this tiny portion of our agreement, and inconvenience you, so we can make more money."
THEY MADE THEIR PROBLEM OUR PROBLEM
Think about the mortgage broker who was going to write a five-figure check out of his own account to cover his mistake.
He didn't have to do that--but he was really smart to say he would.
We had a deposit on a house, we were preparing to close, and we could have easily lost the deal. The seller could have been unwilling to cooperate. Other people wanted the house. We just happened to get there first.
But after being a good and agreeable customer for the vehicle dealer, they could've queered a five-figure deal by not offering to pay $35 in car fare after deciding it was inconvenient for them to provide transportation they'd said was possible.
"It's the end of the month. We have to make more money. We offered to do this for you, but now we realize it's inconvenient for us. Sorry."
WHAT SHOULD THEY HAVE DONE?
The first words out of the sales guy's mouth after saying, "They can't pick you up," should have been "But, we'll pay for your Uber."
It would cost them less than .0005% of the entire deal, and buy them unmeasurable amounts of goodwill.
Instead, it's just a disappointment.
Maybe it was an honest mistake.
Maybe it was a lapse in judgment that doesn't reflect the true colors of the company culture.
One can hope.
Because right now, we're feeling just a little stung over the idea of not being worth $35 to these people who have taken an enormous chunk of change from us.
A BRAND IS INFUSED WITH A COMPANY'S CULTURE
A brand is a living entity pulsating with the company's behaviors and attitudes and beliefs and its respect for the customer.
There will always be problems inside the brand. It's a fact of life about doing business with human beings.
But when those problems become the customer's problems, that's when both the brand and the customer lose.
The moral of the story is: When your company has internal problems, make them your own.
Eat your problems.
Don't feed them to the customer.
You'll do better, and they'll come back.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker helps people sell their stuff. An advertising Creative Director and Copywriter at Slow Burn Marketing, he specializes in big-brand thinking for small-business marketing. He has the voice of a much taller man.