March 1, 2007

The Power of One

Filed under: Business — Tom @ 12:29 am

Companies spend countless sums of money to build their brand. But these days, they seem to put less and less into the people who interact with their customers — even though those people can trash all that brand value in an instant. Seth Godin touched on this when he recently blogged about how companies train people to follow the rules and do what they’re told, rather than to be passionate and inventive in their work.

The truly sad thing is it only takes one. One moment. One bad experience. And you’ve lost. Of course, I have a specific example in mind:

I’ve been a member of American Airline’s frequent flier program for many years starting with my first job. Since 2000 or so, I’ve flown American almost exclusively. Beginning in 2002, I started traveling a lot and was in the top tier of the AAdvantage program starting in 2003. I’d become an evangelist for the airline — I’d often take a longer flight with connections so I could stay on American, and I encouraged my colleagues to fly American as well.

Part of the deal when you reach Executive Platinum status with American Airlines is that you receive 8 special upgrades that will let you upgrade one-way anywhere in the world. These are good only for the year they’re awarded and expire along with your status in February. Because Executive Platinum also gave me free upgrades in the U.S., I only used them internationally usually had some left over at the end of each year.

So for the last few years, every February I’d go to the airport earlier than necessary, find a departing international flight, and choose some people semi-randomly for free upgrades. Last year, the customer service rep at American Airlines really got in the spirit of things. She helped upgrade this girl from Chicago to Japan, but it took a long time and I had to get on my own flight. So I asked her if she could do me a favor — just pick some people and use up my last two or three certificates before they expired. She seemed taken aback by the request. But when I landed, there was a message from her saying letting me know that she’d found some people, they really appreciated it, and that she thought it was a really nice thing to do.

Today is expiration day. I don’t travel much for my new job here in Portland, so in 4 minutes my frequent flier status will expire for the last time. I really don’t see myself doing 100,000 mile years again. I have six upgrades right now. They’ll expire in 4 minutes, too.

Since I’m not making weekly trips to the airport anymore, I called the Executive Platinum desk today. I asked the guy that answered the same thing I’d asked the woman the year before — could you please just pick six people to upgrade with my VIP certificates today?

“Do you have a flight number or record locator?”

No, no, just pick six people. Any international flight will do. There’s a Chicago to Heathrow that leaves around 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Check those.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. Our system doesn’t even work that way. I can’t just go looking for people like that.”

Well, someone did the same thing for me last year. She was great. I’m pretty sure you can. Try it.

“We’re not even supposed to do anything like that. She really went above and beyond. We’re not allowed.”

Really? The airline cares that you use my expiring upgrade to put some random person in an empty first class seat?

“That’s not something we do. She was going above and beyond.”

And so my upgrades expired.

Why? Doesn’t everyone hate flying these days? It’s just awful. With just a bit of effort, this guy could have reinforced my idea that American really is a great airline and thrilled a half dozen customers who would have talked about their awesome American flight for weeks, all for the cost of a couple empty seats. And for a few minutes, at least, he probably could have had some fun. (It really is a great feeling to tell someone staring at an eight-hour flight in coach that they’re going to get to fly business class or first.)

Instead, I’m probably not going to be evangelizing much anymore. Is this really what they teach their customer service people? I just keep thinking about what he said: “She really went above and beyond.” I don’t think he realized that it normally means that someone’s done something really fantastic. For him, I think it was the same as saying, “She did something she wasn’t supposed to.”

So, to my Executive Platinum service representative from 2006 — Thanks. Apparently, you’re one of a kind.


1 Comment »

  1. I’ve always thought that what makes a brand a brand is that it routinely goes “above and beyond” the usual. That’s what makes it remarkable. A brand’s employees can understand this because they deal with customers every day. They see where they can make a difference. However, if the company ties their hands, it also strangles the brand—and everyone is the poorer.

    Comment by Brian Phipps — March 1, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

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