We had been traveling for several hours and my mouth was watering thinking about a hot roast beef sandwich with real mashed potatoes, or maybe the chicken pot pie. I was thinking about what else might be on the menu; actually I was close to obsessing about the menu. I was tired and hungry. Then the signs appeared: Little America 10 miles away, then 5 miles away. At last we arrived at the exit. For those of you who do not know, Little America was built years ago, in the middle of nowhere Wyoming on Interstate 80, specifically as a refuge for weary travelers. It included a hotel, gas station, and a very nice restaurant. This was a complete oasis amongst sand, wild wind, and extreme temperatures.
But NO, management had closed the restaurant four months earlier.
The reasons were financial, even though the restaurant did a very good business. We were left with a snack bar. I wandered around the well-appointed convenience store in amazement, then started surveying other travelers. Several did not care, but others were as surprised as I was. Some had specifically planned their trip to stay in the very nice hotel and relax with a special dinner that night. They were as upset as I was. They vowed not to return to Little America again. The local truckers were very disappointed that they no longer had a steak house to depend on. As I researched I discovered that most of those in the store were not happy with the changes management made. Many would not return or, if they did, only to buy fuel in the future. The obvious conclusion was the decision makers had not talked to any of the customers before making their fateful and completely inconsiderate change.
Burke Powers, a leading authority on analytics and data integration stated that, “data points us in the right direction, but leadership needs to actually understand what the customer is experiencing and wants.”
Data are not the end point, but rather the beginning. Jet Blue has been collecting and analyzing data for many years. After looking at the data and finding the trends, the Jet Blue leaders ride in the coach cabin and talk with the passengers to actually understand their point of view. That is such a novel idea!
I am quite sure that none of Delta’s upper management has ever ridden in coach for five or more hours. I am five foot two inches and not wide. If I sit by a man that weighs more than 150 pounds, I hold both of my arms in because my seatmate expands out of the miniature space allotted to him. Often my knees touch the seat in front of me and I cannot move when the tray table is down. If Delta leadership was as uncomfortable as the rest of the coach customers and they really cared like their advertising claims they do, then perhaps some changes would be made. The truth is, it is much easier to rely on numbers and charts and assume those give a complete picture.
Andre de Waal has done massive amounts of data collection for over ten years. From his statistics he has found five key factors that make a High Performing Organization (HPO). “Long term orientation: Stakeholder thinking trumps shareholder management” is factor number three. One of the key elements of any organization’s long-term orientation is its relationship with its customers. “People in an HPO display great customer orientation by being …‘obsessed’ with the customer… They build excellent relationships with customers by engaging them and being responsive to their questions, concerns, and needs.” High-quality employees give high quality service by: (pg.151+)
- Understanding the customer
- Understanding what the customers needs
- Being responsive
- Being courteous
- Creating trust
Each organization wants this kind of employee and the ensuing relationship with the customer. The truth is that this is not a dream world scenario for many organizations. There are some organizations that actually conduct their business with the consumer foremost in their minds.
Years ago Procter and Gamble built a model house inside its Home Consumer Research Center. Every day average families agreed to live in the “house” and conduct their lives in a normal manner. P&G was then able to observe people going through their usual routine and using the household products. This answered questions like: Did the products fit well in standard shelving? Were the packages easy to grab and open? How did the consumers use the products? and other important factors.
Lean is the current bandwagon to jump on. But lean is not a bandwagon; it is a series of fourteen guiding principles. These principles are the drivers of every action.
Jeffery Liker tells the story of how the Tundra truck was developed. Upper management had data on what the truck specifications should be. But for Toyota this was only the first step. The upper management came to America and sat in the parking lot of one of the big building home supply stores. They watched as customers tried to fit a 4×8 foot piece of plywood into the back of the truck. Management saw and understood the importance of the size of the truck bed. It is a big deal to truck owners. Toyota management changed the specifications for the truck bed to accommodate the plywood sheets, and the Tundra was developed. Toyota management lives Principle #12: Go see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation. This principle extends through all levels of the organization right down to the customer.
What happens when management makes decisions that affect the customer/employee relationship based solely upon data, especially financial data? The employee is left in a very difficult embarrassing situation. Delta personnel are helpful, courteous, and smiling and they know the pain their coach customers experience. All they can do is keep smiling. Loyal regulars to Little America only buy gas or do not come back at all. Netflix takes over the video rental industry and puts large chains out of business, and so on.
The end result of upper management being involved with the customer cannot be under estimated. Dr. de Waal’s research indicates HPOs have a bottom line double-digit advantage compared to peer organizations. Two very different approaches from opposites sides of the earth (Europe, Japan) use the same principle and have proven superior results. Other successful companies like Zappos and Jet Blue make direct contact gathering customer data by upper management a part of their culture and their results show it.
So why does the rest of the world ignore this principle? Well, they don’t entirely. They may ask us to fill out a carefully-designed customer satisfaction survey. These surveys may focus on specific topics like politeness and friendliness because these are the issues the corporate leaders are interested in. But a customer’s burning issues may be reduced flight schedules that make it impossible to finish a work day and then fly home that night. Or a broken food tray that requires the passenger’s isometric leverage to keep food from sliding off. Measuring what is easy, convenient, and of interest to the researcher is not the same as understanding customer needs.
We may have to fly Delta because our other choices are very limited, but we will not go back to Little America again.