3 Lessons in Customer Service from a Captain Who Cared

17170061 - member of ground crew is showing ok sign to pilot

Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong. ~ Donald Porter

If you’re looking for great examples of customer service, don’t travel by air. Delayed flights, lost luggage, crowded airports, long lines and disinterested employees seem to be the norm across the country. There appears to be little effort or desire to take care of the flying customer. It makes traveling for business depressing, discouraging and disheartening.

So, when you see someone trying to do everything in their power to take care of you, it stands out.

My day started with an aborted take-off from a frozen runway on an uncharacteristically cold Monday morning. The 10-degree weather froze the plane’s systems and caused them to malfunction half-way down the tarmac. We all noticed something was wrong when the plane powered down from 120 to 0 MPH in what seemed to be several short seconds.

This is when we met our captain and learned 3 valuable lessons:

1.  If you screw up, let the customer know what happened. Once the plane was stopped and off the active runway, our captain let us know exactly what happened. He explained in detail why he had to abort the take-off and what he planned to do next. One of the keys to great customer service is communication. Things will go wrong but great customer service starts by being transparent and keeping the customer informed.

2. Take ownership and do everything you can to make things right.  As we returned to the gate, our captain informed us of what he was going to do to try and get us out as soon as possible. After we deplaned, he appeared to be personally working with the airline to get the plane fixed or get us another aircraft. Great customer service means not passing the buck or blaming others for the customer’s poor experience. It means taking ownership of the problem and personally working to fix it as soon as possible.

3. Apologize and be sincere. Our captain eventually got us another aircraft and had us boarding only a few hours after the aborted take-off. He continued to keep us informed and apologized for all the delays as we continued our journey. After we safely landed, he stood at the front of the plane and sincerely apologized to each of us personally. Customers can tell the difference between sincere and fake apologies. Great customer service begins with caring deeply for your customers and their experience. It should personally hurt when that experience is poor.

Customer service in the airline industry is generally poor but there are some people trying to make a difference. I’m glad I could witness someone who truly cared about their customer. Our captain demonstrated three simple rules of great customer service not because it was required, it was because he cared.

If a problem occurs in a customer experience, you have an opportunity to make it right. Great customer service begins with transparent communication. It continues with taking ownership and fixing the problem. It ends with a sincere apology.

How does your company measure up? Do your forward-facing employees care deeply for the customer? Do they communicate transparently? Are they empowered to fix the problem? Are they sincere? Have you experienced great customer service after a problem? How did that change your thoughts of the company?

Leadership means Running Towards the Fire

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Courage is Being Scared to Death, but Saddling Up Anyway ~John Wayne

I’m a trained firefighter. Actually, I’m a U.S. Navy veteran who served on nuclear submarines which means I have been trained to fight fires. It’s probably no surprise that a fire on a submarine is one of the most dangerous things that could ever happen on board. Smoke can quickly fill compartments and asphyxiate sailors. The heat and flames can spread to weapons, volatile materials, and critical systems creating catastrophic damage. A fire can quickly destroy a submarine if not extinguished immediately. That’s why we were trained to ignore our natural instincts to move away from the fire and, instead, run towards the fire to put it out as quickly as possible.

Business is the same way. There are situations that can occur that, if not addressed immediately, can cause catastrophic damage. These might include a product failure, a customer complaint, a supplier quality issue, a change in the market landscape, new technology, an employee situation, or any number of challenges that businesses face each day. The problem is that people in businesses also have a natural tendency to move away from or ignore problems.

Take for example the recent announcement of the bankruptcy of Radio Shack. Joshua Brustein refers to it as a “slow-motion collapse” because the warning signs were all there but Radio Shack’s management team did little to attack the problems. They didn’t run towards the fire. The market had changed dramatically. Other companies, like Best Buy, were doing a better job solving technology issues for customers. Wal-Mart and other low-cost retailers now sold many of the components, wires, and connectors that only were available in the past from Radio Shack. Radio Shack became stuck in the past and reduced to only the last resort for customers who couldn’t get their problems solved somewhere else. As a result, stores were empty, employees sat idle, revenues fell, and their stock lost 99.6% of its value. On top of that, they hadn’t shown a profit in three years.

As leaders, we can’t allow this to happen to our businesses. It is critical we create a culture where leaders and employees run towards the fire. As firefighters, our teams must be trained to ignore their natural instincts to move away from or avoid problems. The future of our organizations may depend on it. There are three simple ways to create an organizational culture that attacks problems head-on:

Lead from the front. There are large problems facing your business that only you can solve: A major problem at a strategic customer, a change in the competitive landscape requiring a new strategy, a significant market shift, or a new technology introduction. Your employees will be looking to you to lead the effort to attack these issues with tenacity. How you respond to these challenges will set the tone for the rest of the organization.

Celebrate those that run to the fire. I tell my employees that, when it comes to priorities, they should always take care of the customer first. I have had the pleasure to receive dozen of calls and e-mails from customers who were extremely happy with how one our team members dealt with a problem. I always make a point to thank these employees personally and discuss it in staff meetings and town hall events. The employees who take a relentless approach to taking care of a problem before it gets out of control are to be celebrated.

Attack the fire while it’s still small. There is a universal truth about problems and fires. The longer it takes to attack them, the larger they get. Almost every significant issue that gets to senior management was a smaller problem that could have been resolved in the early stages. That’s one of the reasons I believe in having a strong set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the performance of the business in real time. Negative trends in price, margin, product mix, customer satisfaction, quality, or on-time delivery can be quickly identified and addressed before they get too large.

I should also make another point about firefighting. I have also witnessed another extreme in business leadership with organizations that lacked structure and stable processes, where its employees were always putting out fires. Most of the management team simply moved from crisis to crisis. This is an unhealthy organizational situation and this is not the kind of firefighting I am referring to. It is the leader’s job to build a stable, smooth running business. Having to run to a fire should be the exception not the rule.

Ignoring or moving away from the problems that face your business can have catastrophic effects. We can see it play out with the bankruptcy of Radio Shack. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create a culture where employees resolve issues quickly. We can do this by leading from the front, celebrating those employees who live these values, and attacking problems before they get out of control. We need to teach our employees to ignore their natural instincts and move towards flames. The future of our organizations may depend on it.

Learn more about how to be a more effective leader in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

3 Crazy Business Lessons from B’s Barbecue

 

“If I was on death row their BBQ plate would be my final meal.” ~ John Dillanger, B’s Barbecue review on Google +

Located in Greenville, NC, in an old country store that almost looks abandoned, lies one of the greatest Eastern-style barbecue joints in North Carolina. How do I know? Partly because it has been featured in newspapersbooksmagazines, andtelevision programs for years; partly because of the line out the door every day at lunch; and partly because, like many others, I go out of my way to get their barbecue.

The food at B’s Barbecue is amazing but don’t expect any extras from this hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The have no phone, no website, no air conditioning, and no posted hours of operation except an old, hand-painted sign that says, “Closed Sun and Mon.” B’s opens “generally” at 9:00 AM and customers know to get there early because B’s shuts its’ doors when the food runs out. Their famous Eastern-style barbecue sauce is not sold in stores and not available on the Internet. You can only find it in the old Crown Royal bottles located on the tables.

What makes B’s Barbecue famous is its’ great tasting barbecue and unique, original charm. B’s opened in the late 1970’s when then farmer, Bill McLawhorn, decided to turn his hobby into a business. He had barbecued pigs and chickens for years and thought he had a pretty good sauce recipe, so he decided to start a barbecue business. Every week he prepared 40 hogs and 240 chickens for a simple menu that included barbecue, slaw, potatoes, green beans, and fries. Today, B’s is run by his three daughters, Judy, Tammy, and Donna, who continue to run the restaurant exactly as their father did.

As a leader who has worked hard to improve businesses over the past 20 years, I’ve always been impressed with the success of B’s and a little curious as to why they don’t make any changes. I’ve often thought of ways they could improve their business. They could paint the building, add a new sign, pave the parking lot, add air-conditioning, create a website, add a phone line, expand their menu, or even open a new location. So why not make a few improvements to boost sales? The answer lies in the owner’s desire to keep B’s simple, original, authentic, and true to its roots. The real question is…what’s wrong with that? We can learn a lot from B’s business approach:

The customer isn’t always right – One thing you don’t get at B’s is a lot of choices. Their simple menu is posted on the wall and you better be ready to order when you finally make it to the front of the line. If you try to order something special or something that is not on the menu, you’ll hear it from the people behind the counter and those behind you in line. This simple approach is refreshing. How often do we hear of products or companies that fail because they are trying to be all things for all customers? Stick to the principles of what makes your company unique. Remember, not all customers have your best interest in mind.

Do what you love and do it your way – Daughter Judy credits B’s success to the importance of family and being true to her father’s vision for the restaurant. In an interview she once said, “We’d like to have a nice new fancy building and eight or ten more people working… but, to us, when you start doing all that, then it’s like any other restaurant and that’s not what we wanted it to be. That’s not what my dad wanted it to be; he wanted it to be ours.” Again, this is very refreshing. Too often we hear of companies changing business models for the wrong reasons. You need to be careful not to let others define success for your businesses. It’s your business. Do it your way.

Word-of-mouth trumps the Internet – Conventional wisdom says you must have a well designed website and be active on social media. The long line at B’s Barbecue tells a different story. With nothing more than word-of-mouth, B’s continues to get new customers to come and eat their barbecue. Many companies work hard to get their website and social media strategy right while their product or service performance is poor. The lesson of B’s is to get your product right first. Be excellent at what you do first then add your marketing plan.

In a time where every business seems to be following the same formula for success and there seems to be little differentiation between companies and brands, it is refreshing to go to a place like B’s. It’s a place where they focus on doing the things that matter very well. The great food and simple charm leaves you with the feeling you are experiencing Eastern-style North Carolina barbecue exactly the way Bill McLawhorn would have wanted you to. You also get a sense that his daughters love what they do and don’t plan on changing a thing…and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

[Photo Credit – BBQ Jew]