Make your customers No. 1, they’ll make you No. 1

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All across the country, school kids will soon be writing essays about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” I’m willing to bet that quite a few will start with: “I waited at the airport for a long time because the flight that my parents booked six months ago was delayed/canceled/oversold.”
During my business career, I’ve flown more than 5 million miles. I’m beginning to rethink my travel options after this summer, though. Never have I seen a breakdown in customer service like what we’ve experienced these past few months with the airline industry. They need a lot of work to pass their customer-service test with flying colors.
Once upon a time, people got to the airport with expectations of a quicker, less stressful way to get to wherever they were going. They didn’t have to deal with extended car trips, traffic jams or even finding a place to stop for lunch or other necessities. They got on the airplane and were taken care of – period. Now, you’re lucky if you get a pretzel! Remembering those days doesn’t make me a dinosaur, but it sure makes me nostalgic.
So far this summer, I have had four flights delayed significantly or canceled altogether, and weather was never a factor. The airlines blamed the pilots, mechanics, airports and so on down the line, and those groups turned it right back onto management. Lots of finger-pointing, but no problem-solving. The airlines offered no reasonable alternative. Seems like jumping on another carrier presents a whole new set of problems.
And even though the majority of flights go off without a hitch and mostly on time, we hear about the problems and tend to paint all the airlines with a broad brush. We’ve heard too many similar stories to think these are just isolated incidents.
We see news stories about travelers camped out on hard floors waiting for their flight to be called, folks confined to stuffy airplanes for hours sitting on the tarmac for one reason or another, families missing reunions and vacations. And we can all relate.
A friend who travels as much as I do arrived at the counter to check in for a cross-country flight and was sent to the gate to check in instead. He arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare before takeoff, only to be told that his paid-for first-class seat had been given to someone who got there a few minutes earlier. He was assigned a seat in the last row of coach, offered no fare adjustment, but was given a voucher for a free upgrade on a future flight. Wow!
I can’t imagine telling a very good customer of MackayMitchell Envelope Co.: “We’re sorry that we printed your envelopes wrong, but hey, at least you got envelopes. Next time, we’ll give you the paper you paid for this time. We promise.” You might as well kiss that account goodbye!
How can you protect your business and your customers from circumstances that you can’t always control? Plan ahead for the worst business scenario you can imagine, and then brainstorm about how you’ll make it up to your customers.
For starters, presume any business disruption will be costly. Prepare as well as you can for that eventuality. Make sure you have adequate insurance, backup suppliers, alternate production-facility plans and a written policy in place for dealing with customers fairly and immediately.
Then remember: This is not just your problem; it is your customer’s also. Approach issues from their viewpoint. Be honest from the get-go; offer whatever help you can provide, including referrals to your competition. Good customer service means taking care of the customer. Longtime customers will appreciate your candor. Newer customers will understand that their needs come ahead of yours. You can’t succeed in business putting yourself first.
If you are in an industry that is likely to attract media exposure, don’t try to pass the buck. Nothing makes a company look more disorganized than airing all the dirty laundry in public. What the public needs to know is that you have recognized the problem and are fixing it. Having a plan in place ahead of time helps you avoid adding even more confusion to the current crisis.
Finally, remember that your reputation is worth more than all the machinery and inventory you own. Once customer confidence is lost, getting it back is harder than starting out from scratch. And you remember how difficult that was!

Mackay’s Moral: Take care of your customers or someone else will. •

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his Web site, www.harveymackay.com, or at MackayMitchell Envelope Co, 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

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