The Mortgage, the Noodles, and the Airline

By Stevie Ray

First published in the Business Journal Newspapers

December, 2020

“I am so sorry. We have been experiencing an extremely high volume of business.” Those were the first words I heard from a mortgage company I am using to refinance properties that I own. I had contacted them in early October, seeking to take advantage of dropping interest rates. It was now December, with no closing in sight. This meant I would pay another month of the original mortgage, costing me a lot of money. I sent an email to my broker, detailing how much capital their mistake had cost me. He kicked the matter up to his boss, who assigned someone else to resolve the issue. This person apologized, offered an excuse for the delay, and promised to finish the refinance quickly. After another missed deadline, I contacted my original broker again. This time I said that, since their company caused the delay, they should discount their fee to accommodate for my loss. He agreed. I am still waiting for a closing date.

 

Jump now to a take-out noodle restaurant. My wife and I ordered online for pick-up at the store. When we get home, my wife’s dish was not what she ordered. She called the restaurant, and the young man said, “Oh yeah. Sorry, we’ve been really busy. Your order is right here if you want to come and pick it up.” She drove back to the restaurant, where they handed her the correct order. Nothing else.

What do a mortgage company, a noodle shop, and most businesses, have in common? A keen focus on attracting new customers, and a poor job of keeping them. Millions of dollars are wasted on advertising to get customers in the door because front-line staff are not trained in how to keep them.

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in the early ‘90s, the company was the worst in the airline industry. Two trips to bankruptcy court, a revolving door of CEOs, lagging sales, and appalling passenger satisfaction ratings meant he was in for a long, hard job getting the company back on track (yes, I used a train metaphor for an airline). Within one year, the company was not only profitable, but rated as the top in the airline industry.

Bethune made some smart business decisions, such as cancelling unprofitable routes, but the change he made that caused the greatest impact (and got the greatest push-back from his peers), was to trust the front-line staff to handle customer service issues, and to give them the power to do whatever it took to please the customer. If a passenger had a bad experience, whoever had contact with that person—flight attendant, gate attendant, ticket clerk—not only had permission to make things right, but they also had the tools to do so—whether it was an upgrade to first class, a free meal, or free airline miles. Other business leaders told Bethune that front-line staff could not be trusted to handle delicate customer service issues, and “they would give away the farm.” To the contrary, staff at Continental respected the need for the company to make a profit. In fact, they discovered that most upset passengers were satisfied with a free ice cream cone from the food court. Just like a free rice-cereal treat from the noodle ship would have been enough for my wife. Tiny costs can reap huge payoffs.

When I speak with front-line staff at workshops or conferences about customer service issues they say, “It’s not our fault,” and “What are we supposed to do about it?” These attitudes point to a failing of training, as well as management. The fix involves simple rules.

Rule 1: Whoever deals with a customer must be empowered to fix the problem.

Rule 2: Never give the customer a reason or excuse for your failure.

Rule 3: Never let a mistake go by without offering something to make up for it. Create a list of possible amends for staff to refer to when needed.

Rule 4: If the customer must tell you how to make things right, you have failed at your job, and you should not expect to see that customer again.

Trust your front-line staff to solve customer problems. Otherwise, you will spend a lot more money to find new patrons.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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