Lately, it seems like airlines can’t do anything right. They drag people off planes, kill giant rabbits, snatch strollers from babies. Is this what customer service should be all about? If you run a small business, the airlines have been giving us all a master class in “what not to do to your customers,” so let’s look at some of the lessons we can learn from what the airlines are doing wrong.
- Don’t take your customers for granted. Airlines, unlike small businesses, apparently can afford to treat customers badly. Due to mergers and fewer airlines serving even mid-size cities, airlines now have virtual monopolies. Want to go from Cincinnati to Miami? You’ll have few choices. But most small businesses face real competition. Customers have other choices, so you have to fight to get–and keep–every customer you can. Treat them as the valuable commodity they are.
- Do consistently provide quality products or services. Anyone who’s flown recently can tell you the quality of airline service has significantly deteriorated. Planes are more crowded. Basic services (like free checked luggage) have been eliminated. Fewer flights are available. Airline personnel are overworked and now seem to spend more time enforcing rules than providing customer service. In your small business, you can’t afford to do that. Your products or services must stay consistently excellent if you want to stay in business.
- Don’t compete on price alone. Airlines have a real problem. Most airline customers using an online comparison site like Kayak.com, Fly.com, or Expedia just zero in on the option with the lowest price, regardless of how that airline treats its customers or what services it provides. This “race to the bottom” means airlines must constantly find ways to cut costs. That’s a terrible strategy for any business, but especially for a small business. Small companies hoping to be the “low cost leader” rarely survive long against bigger competitors.
- Do be competitively priced. While small businesses shouldn’t try to compete on price alone, you still do need to maintain fair, competitive prices. Customers can and do shop around. If you gouge them, they’ll quickly find out. If you’re providing a luxury product or service, you can price at the top of the market, but make sure your prices are still a reasonable fit for the quality of the product or service you’re selling.
- Do make it easy to order, reorder, and pay. While airlines make it difficult to reach and deal with airline sales people (waiting on hold for 10 minutes, a $25 charge to book a ticket on the phone), small businesses need to make it seamless for customers to purchase. If your sales clerk is unresponsive, your ecommerce shopping cart is clunky, or you don’t accept credit cards, customers may become frustrated and move on.
- Do deal with customers’ complaints quickly and take responsibility. You see what happens when something goes wrong on an airline–the video goes viral on social media. Your customers have access to social media, too. Don’t ignore problems or argue with a customer. When something goes wrong–and inevitably something will–take responsibility and deal with it rather than let an unhappy customer spread a virus of negative comments about you. When things go wrong, sincerely say you’re sorry and then solve the problem.
- Do give employees authority as well as responsibility. One of the big problems with airlines is front-line employees have virtually no authority to resolve issues. Want to move from Row 37 to Row 11 on an almost empty plane? The flight attendant forces you to stay stuffed in the back because you didn’t pay for economy plus, even though she knows that’s silly. Empower your small business employees with a reasonable amount of authority and help them improve their judgment over time with constructive, positive feedback.
- Do communicate regularly. Small business owners often get so overwhelmed just doing our work–getting products or services out the door, sending invoices, dealing with paperwork–we might not take enough time to meet with, talk to, and listen to, our customers. Stay in touch. Ask customers what they need and want. Be part of their lives and businesses.
So take a lesson from the airlines and remember, your customers are your business, not freight.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017
This article originally ran in USA Today on May 10, 2017