Employees Say the Darndest Things -- a Lesson in Culture

I recently sent a note to Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines about my perception of a decline in service. Though he did not reply personally, someone from customer relations did call me. I was impressed that someone got back to me so promptly.  Of course, they left a message while I was on one of their flights... something they should have known. When I called back, the customer relations person responded by saying "We're basically in the business of public transportation."  After the merger with Continental Airlines, I never imagined United's next move: municipal bus service. Though I doubt Smisek would have given the same answer, the representative seemed to think it was a fine answer. I asked about a contact for comments on articles, and they declined to provide one.

Say It Isn't So

Today, on my flight, the person one row behind me politely asked if he could place his briefcase in the overhead compartment. The flight attendant snapped at this First Class passenger, yelling at them "If you can just be patient, I'll see if I have room. Just put it under your seat."  Her tone and raised voice were the real crime. The irony is that the passenger who asked the question was extremely polite. Though this is not the norm for United's in-flight service (recently, in-flight service has been very friendly), it was not surprising.

When It Goes Right

I was staying last week at the Sheraton in Petaluma, California. I was speaking at an event that morning, and asked how late I could checkout. The front desk person asked "How late would you like Mr. Altman?  I explained I was speaking until 1PM and would love to be able to return to the hotel to change before my flight. He said "Let's push it to 2PM to give you enough time." I tweeted a positive comment, and Sheraton replied within minutes. They are keenly focused on the customer.

Another Great Example

Barry Glassman is the President of Glassman Wealth Services. When you ask him about his competition, he says that his top competitor is the Ritz Carlton. He explains that his high-net-worth clients expect exceptional service. He recognizes that service is his greatest differentiation. I was at a recent customer event where his newest employee asked specific questions that demonstrated he was familiar with my business. Despite 100 or so attendees at the event, each employee (even this one who had been at the firm for barely a week) was expected to know the details about each and every person. When he referenced my latest article, I was impressed.

It comes as no surprise that their firm is one of the fastest growing and most respected in the industry. Most importantly, they far outpace the industry average for client retention.

Both the Sheraton and Glassman Wealth make the customer experience a priority. And who can forget the example I wrote about a few weeks back?

What can you learn from these examples?

We all hear a ton of buzz about culture. There are several great brands out there. Clearly, the ones that place a premium on the customer experience seem to find a way to dazzle customers at every opportunity. It's not that they won't make mistakes, but each employee knows the goal is to create positive stories that customers will share. They take pride in exceeding expectations. They are the companies where the customers are doing all of the positive talking.

The ones that fail certainly do not tell their employees to create negative experiences. However, they do teach their employees that cost savings, up-selling, or other non-client-centered items take a higher priority than the customer experience. It is no surprise that the companies that score the highest in customer loyalty also tend to do the best financially - especially in the long term.

If you are not sure if your culture strives to wow customers, then rest assured it is not. It is never too late to change your culture and values. But the longer you wait, the harder it is to reverse the trend.

What stories can you share (good or bad)?