Kathy's original table is a lot clearer than this one.
If you're an ad agency or a marketing/PR firm and business is slow, maybe it's time to start thinking about evolving into something more than what you are. Start looking for ways to help your clients evolve rather than just being relegated to creative job shop and media bullhorn status. (You're better than that, and you know it.) Find ways to coach your clients through the sometimes difficult process of becoming what Fast Company would call a... well... a "fast company". You owe it to yourself.
Perhaps more importantly, you owe it to them.
(Or hey, if business is great, don't change a thing.) :)
As for Kathy's very cool 200 dairy cow idea, don't kill your advertising budget just yet. You can have your cake and eat it too.
Consider this: It only costs $500 to buy a dairy cow for a village or a needy family through Heifer international. But... Why a cow? Here's why:
"One healthy cow can produce four gallons of milk per day. The protein in milk can transform sick, malnourished children into healthy boys and girls. The sale of surplus milk earns money for school fees, medicine, clothing and home improvements. And because a healthy cow can have a calf every year, your gift of a heifer could eventually help an entire community move from poverty to self-reliance. And that's a present that's impossible to top! "
There you go.
So while a gift of 200 cows sounds pretty damn cool, one cow woud be a good start... and then two... and twenty... and fifty. (Sometimes, starting small and letting something grow is a lot more rewarding for everyone involved than just throwing a big chunk of money at it.) Getting employees and customers involved might be a great way to keep your advertising... er... PSF budget and still raise enough money to fund a whole lot of cows. Maybe even a whole lot more than 200 by the time you're done.
Incidentally, if you want to do something now but a cow isn't in your budget yet, a water buffalo is only $250 (they're vital to subsistance farmers in Asia). A pig is $120. A goat is $120. Check out the site for all of the options. It's pretty cool.
Anyway. Back to the point: Passion. Professional Services Firms. Inspired product development. Happy users/customers. Triggering cultural shifts. Dairy cows for 3rd world farmers. Get the idea?
Okay. Since you're still here, I have a treat for you.
Ripples in a pond
reach every shore.
Your heart is the pebble.
Kathy, you rock.
"Dear President Jackson,
canal system in this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation
known as “railroads” . . .
If the canal boats are
supplanted by railroads, boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip, and
harness makers would be left destitute . . .
intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed."
Martin Van Buren
Governor, State of New York, 1829
There will always be a railroad coming. Chinese factories being built. Evolution will happen, in nature as in business, in science as in politics, in art as in manufacturing. Change is as inevitable as hurricanes and floods and wars and revolutions. Change is the vehicle through which cancer will be cured and people will walk on Mars and we will eventually wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Whether you like it or not, entire industries will crumble and others will sprout to take their place.
Whether you like it or not, you will either be a catalyst for change, or a victim of it.
Innovation and market disruption will either make you successful or irrelevant.
You will either change the world or watch it race right by.
This is the reality of the world, and you need to face it now.
Starbucks changed the world. Yahoo and Google changed the world. Apple changed the world. Ford. Tolkien. Picasso. American Express. HBO. Xerox. CNN. Netflix is changing the world right now. Ten years from now, some of these names will have stopped innovating. Some of these names will have settled for "safe". Some of these names will fade away.
Fear won't stop the train from coming. It won't make the barbarians turn around. It is completely irrelevant.
Fear is an illusion.
Either embrace change as an opportunity to become something great, or pack it up and go home. There is no middle ground. Not anymore.
Imagine. Create. Invent. Lead. Chart your own course. Make up new words for what you do. For what you are. For where you're headed. Make up new words now, because you'll need them later.
Fortune doesn't favor the "also in."
Don't settle for being the best. Instead, work your ass off to be the first. This isn't about beating the other guys. You can't. You won't. Those kinds of victories are short-lived and meaningless. Be unique. Become an icon. Become a legend.
But expect to fall on your face a lot. It's the price you pay for getting there, and getting there first. By first, I don't mean necessarily first to market. I mean first to success.
Remember IDEO's mantra: Fail often to succeed faster. It isn't just relevant to rapid prototyping anymore.
Come close, because I am going to tell you a little secret. Come on. Lean in a little. Lend me your ear and listen.
Ready? Okay, here it goes: Failure is a point on a learning curve. Nothing more. It's nothing to be afraid of as long as you keep those little feet moving.
The only true failure is to never have tried... or to have given up too soon.
Trust me on this one.
Related post: Seth Godin's "What Are You Afraid Of?"
It was bound to happen sooner or later: WOMM is under attack, and this time, the FTC isn't far.
As Yoda would say, "Begun, the semantic wars have."
Tuesday, Commercial Alert issued a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking them to investigate alledgedly fraudulent "buzz marketing" practices by Procter & Gamble's Tremor.
(Read the full story here.)
Among the buzzwords floating around in this, the prelude to what will surely become a heated debate, are "buzz marketing", "stealth marketing", and of course "word-of-mouth marketing".
The basic question is: Are these three terms describing the same thing?
The answer is of course: no... but the critical question is: Will the public know that?
In other words, will most people be able to tell the three apart?
The answer, sadly, is again, no. The lines are still blurred because those three terms aren't clearly set apart from each other. "Word-of-mouth marketing" is too broad a concept. "Buzz marketing" and "stealth marketing", unfortunately, can easily fall into its broad semantic realm.
Put simply, WOMM is facing an identity problem. Not in the sense that it doesn't know what it stands for, (it does) but in the sense that most people don't. Not unless they do some digging.
My fear is that if someone gives them the wrong impression right from the start, they won't bother to dig. They will just take whatever bad press is thrown their way and be satisfied with that.
Don't think "if." Think "when."
WOMM is simply the acronym for "word-of-mouth marketing", which exactly describes what it is: marketing that focuses on word-of-mouth channels. Simple enough? Sure.
But not clear enough.
Perhaps WOMM isn't simply what it does (use word-of-mouth to spread the good word), but what it is about. At its core. At its heart.
I am talking about authenticity.
I am not suggesting that WOMM be renamed AWOMM (Authentic Word-Of-Mouth Marketing), but you get the idea. If the very reputation of WOMM is going to hinge on its ability to separate itself from "stealth marketing" and potentially fraudulent practices, that is the kind of clarity it needs to bring to the court of public opinion.
Think Superman's "S" printed big on his chest.
Think the axes and fireman's helmet painted in gold on the big shiny red trucks screaming down the road to go save lives.
A cool tag lines isn't enough here. Neither is a well-crafted manifesto or code of ethics. In an age of buzzwords and soundbites and thirty-second news stories, there isn't always time to explain your side of the story.
All it will take to sink the very concept of WOMM will be one short ill-researched segment on a major network.
All it will take is a pretty graphic filling up the screen that says "Word-of-mouth marketing under fire".
All it will take will be one news anchor confusing "stealth marketing" with "word-of-mouth marketing".
Game over. Once people doubt your integrity, you are screwed. That doubt will never, ever completely go away.
Think Richard Nixon.
Think Jimmy Swaggart.
Don't think it won't happen. The wheels are already moving in that direction.
Don't think "if." Think "when."
Again, I am not suggesting that WOMM become AWOMM, but that's the idea.
In his latest blog post, Brains On Fire's Spike Jones paraphrases WOMM innovator George Silverman's words of wisdom from the first WOMMA conference:
"If there's money to be made in word of mouth marketing, then every marketing sleaze ball in the world will come crawling through the woodwork."
Yep. You know it. And they will sink this beautiful ship faster than you can say "what happened?"
How do you protect yourself against this? Simple: You create an identity that unquestionably states your raison d'etre.
The fact that one of WOMMA's central goals is to bring authenticity back into the game should be clear to anyone from the moment they hear the name.
The alternative is to spend the next ten years being on the defensive every time unscrupulousous outfit gets caught doing something shady.
Trust me, you don't want that.
The difference between what we like to think of as "word-of-mouth marketing" and its shadier cousins also has to be clearly delineated.
As much as I dislike acronyms (especially long ones), WOMM needs to become AWOMM. WOMMA may need to become AWOMMA. If not in name, at least in the minds of everyone.
All 6+ billion of us.
This needs to happen now, before it's too late.
Innovation begins with insight, not advice.
It begins with curiosity and an open pair of eyes. Or ears. Or hands. Or a few thousand taste buds.
At its core, it begins with people with a talent for both observation and creative problem-solving. These people aren't "inventors". They aren't necessarily scientists in white lab coats testing gadgets all day. They probably aren't PhD's or MBA's. They aren't likely to be tenured executives. They could be anybody. A cashier. A janitor. An art student. A factory worker. A chef. A dish-washer. A police detective. They are simply people with a specific talent. Something they were born with. Whomever they are, when you meet one, you know right away that you've uncovered something special.
No matter what anyone tries to tell you, innovation can't be taught in a classroom. It isn't something you can get a degree in. It doesn't work that way.
Conversely, innovation doesn't just happen.
That's why "asses in seats" as a hiring practice, as an HR mandate, doesn't cut it anymore.
The resumes, the CV's, the diplomas, they have very little to do with one's ability to hand a company its next ten years at the top of the heap. Its next evolutionary leap or two. The next exciting chapter in its epic business adventure.
Innovators, whether they specialize in identity crafting, product design, specific technology or the arts don't exactly grow on trees.
Think about Food. Warfare. Fashion. Web design. Social Programs. Photography. Genetics. Philosophy.
Think Julius Caesar. Think Steve Jobs. Think Fats Domino.
Think the team that developed the mp3 format.
Think the farmer or merchant who designed the first wheel.
Think Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie.
Innovation always changes the world. Even the slightest hint of it.
Innovation leads to evolution leads to growth leads to the future. Innovation is the key to any business' success. Continued innovation is the key to any business' longevity.
Imagine Microsoft without innovation. Sony. Canon. BMW. T&S Brass. Krispy Kreme. HBO. Trek bikes. Nike. Oakley. Fitleist.
The most important thing you have to know about innovation is that it all starts with the right people. Not asses in seats, but talented, gifted people with a particular skill: With an ability to see the world like very few other people can. It starts with individuals literally worth their weight in gold.
But having people like this on your payroll isn't enough. You have to empower them. You have to let them out into the world. You have to get them in front of your customers. You have to let them walk around your stores. Your factories. Your customer service call centers. You have to send them to your competitors' backyards. You have to let them loose. Give them a camera. Give them a notepad. Give them a plastic baggie.
Give them five minutes inside a store, and they'll figure out five things that will boost its sales by ten percent inside of a week.
And that isn't even about innovation. We're still stuck on simple observation and insight, at this point. This is just a warmup. An appetizer. A taste of amazing things to come.
These people, these innovators, they are your contextual interpreters. They are the only people in the entire world who can translate your customers' needs into the next big idea.
Your next big idea.
They are the people who know how to turn your customers into rabid brand advocates after spending ten minutes with them.
The truth about communicating with your customers is that it's harder to do than you think. Focus groups are too limiting. Field testing comes way too late in the game. Customer service is too busy responding to complaints to effectively put them in context for you.
To understand what your customers need, you need an intermediary to intuitively make sense of what they have to say. You need people who can be anthropologists and data analysts and artists and creative thinkers all at once. You need people who can turn a need into an idea, an idea into a concept, a concept into a design, a design into a product, a product into a success, a success into a cultural phenomenon.
Apple's customers didn't ask for the iPod. Moviegoers didn't ask for 'Titanic' or 'Gladiator' or 'The Matrix'. They didn't ask for WOMM.
They asked to be free of bulky CD players. They asked for "blow-us-away" entertainment. They asked for truth in Marketing.
Without these interpreters, these innovators, your business will never be more than what it is today. It doesn't matter how many big clients you land, how many customers you sell to, how much money you spend on advertising. It doesn't matter how many MBA's you hire. For your company to be relevant, for your identity to be worth anything, you need to constantly outdo yourself in the eyes of your customers:
Every year, Versace designs new collections. Apple releases new cool technology. New Balance creates lighter running shoes. Seth Godin publishes a new book. Trek designs a faster bike.
Innovation drives business.
Conversely, McDonalds stays the same. Home Depot stays the same. TV sitcoms stay the same.
Stagnation leads nowhere.
Think 6% annual growth. Think price pressures from imports. Think customer apathy.
This week, fellow brand strategist Jennifer Rice (What's Your Brand Mantra) makes some very valid observations about the role of innovation in business:
- Brands that aren't in touch with their customers miss out on small but critical innovation opportunities.
- Brands that seek customer insight only along predetermined lines of thinking (like taste tests) can easily miss out on the real opportunities.
In her piece, Jennifer also quotes an Ad Age post in which the author erroneously muses:
"Companies spend billions on market research to divine the needs and wants of consumers and businesses. Yet the new-product failure rate remains high. And we're not coming up with better product concepts by listening to the voice of the customer. Why? Maybe the customer isn't worth listening to."
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong x infinity. Your customers are worth listening to. The problem is that...
1) You're just not putting the right people in front of them.
2) You don't understand the relationship you have with your customers.
3) This isn't about divination. It's about dialogue.
4) That dialogue has to be about more than just going through the motions. (Hey, we've spent millions on this. It should be working, no?)
5) Remember that thing Jennifer mentioned about predetermined lines of thinking? Read it again.
Don't mistake customer involvement with design by committee.
Jennifer comes to the rescue with an astute piece of advice:
"My personal philosophy on customer involvement is this: Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it. Customers should be involved in need identification... or as John puts it, they should serve as the inspiration. But it's the company's job to figure out the best, most cost-effective solution to that need."
"Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it."
Without the right people taking care of this for you, you'll waste years and a ton of money chasing your tails, with very little to show for it.
Seriously. Hire talent. Hire insight. Hire those drivers of innovation. If you can't find any, hire companies that make a point of keeping folks like this on staff so you don't have to.
Think FROG Design.
Whether you hire an individual or a team, let them become a part of who you are. Give them the tools and the means and the authority to work their magic. That's it. Really. I'm not kidding. They'll take care of the rest for you.
Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can afford to keep going without this vital piece of the business puzzle. You can't. You'll either see snail-slow growth, or you will see your company crash and burn before its time.
That kind of talent doesn't grow on trees. Seek it out. Make it yours. Don't ever make the mistake of letting it pass you by.
Your competitor won't.
Interesting point made by Brains On Fire's Spike Jones today in regards to the link between employee happiness and customer service:
"Happy employees make happy customers. That’s where a good identity lives and breathes - and grows from. If any of the (wireless) carriers had the buy-in of their employees and actually cared about them (and took care of them), then things could start to change. (...) I'm talking about the real people that represent the identity on a daily basis."
If you've read my recent posts on flight attendants and Lowes employees, you'll know that I couldn't agree more.
What I want to very briefly bring up today is the issue of employee unhapiness, and how easily it can drag a company's image down.
Case in point: Walmart.
I guess it depends on the person, but I think that we can all agree that in general - perhaps with the exception of the elderly greeters - most Walmart employees don't seem particularly passionate about their jobs. I don't think I'm being unfair by saying that. Some even seem to really, really, really hate their job. (More on that in a bit.)
I'm not judging, mind you, and I am not saying that Walmart employees should act as happy as Starbucks baristas... But I can't help but wonder why they don't. Does Starbucks pay that much better than Walmart? Is serving coffee all day that much more fun than stocking or scanning stuff?
Is there really that much of a difference?
Is it just that working at Starbucks is cool but working at Walmart isn't? Are a person's identity and sense of self worth tied-in with the image of the company they work for? (If Starbucks is cool, then working at Starbucks makes me cool? If Walmart sucks, then working for Walmart means I suck?)
Maybe. I don't know.
I guess I could see a little kid wanting to grow up to be a barista: They make coffee, the coffee makes people happy, so it isn't a bad job. I don't know too many kids who would ever find working register 12 at Walmart fun or cool or rewarding.
Obviously, Walmart has an image problem, and the entire company's identity may be caught in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of substandard customer-to-brand experiences.
Maybe it's time Walmart did something to change that?
It's really a lot more simple than you'd think: By focusing on any one of the four links in that wheel would affect the other three. Put simply, improving service would improve customer experiences, which would in turn improve the brand's image, which would then boost employees' sense of worth, which would motivate them to provide friendlier service, etc.
Spike is 100% right when he brings up people as being the core element of a company's identity. Beyond professionalism and happiness at one's job, an employee's sense of worth within the context of this identity directly affects the quality of the service they provide in the eyes of their customers.
(It's okay to read that one again. It had some twists.)
Unhappy employees can turn even the best companies into "have beens". In contrast, happy employees can turn even the most average companies into WOM-worthy lovebrands.
Ask yourself: Do you feel special when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Do you feel special when you buy a BMW or an Apple computer? Do Starbucks, BMW and Apple employees play any role in that?
Do you feel special when you buy something at Walmart or Alltel or Circuit City? Do those companies' employees play any role in that?
Do you think that those employees' sense of worth relative to their jobs has anything to do with how happy or unhappy they are to work there?
Sometimes though, employee unhappiness goes way beyond poor service... and gets a little... trippy. Perfect example: A few months ago, I was walking by the storage systems aisle of my local Walmart when I saw this guy absolutely reach his breaking point - which was kind of entertaining at the time, but is in a very real way symptomatic of the malaise that exists within companies that do very little to inspire, engage or otherwise empower their employees.
Here's a play-by-play of that little incident (see the image at the top of this post):
Walmart guy spots a bin sitting in the middle of the storage systems aisle.
Walmart guy yells "@#&%!!!! Not again!!!!"
Walmart guy grabs the bin and tosses it on a shelf, yelling "I already @#&^%$ put you away three times this morning, %$#&^ %^$#*&!!!"
The bin bounces off the shelf, hits him in the shoulder, and tumbles back to the middle of the aisle.
Walmart guy screams "@#&$%!!!!!!!", grabs the bin, swings it over his head and slams it down on the ground.
Again, but as hard as he can, this time.
Walmart guy kicks the bin into the shelves, still screaming obscenities.
Walmart guy calms down and stops screaming.
Walmart guy calmly walks over to the bin and picks it up.
Walmart guy puts the bin up on its shelf and walks away as if nothing had happened.
Okay. There's a huge difference between the apathetic (see "lethargic") cashiers who are just way too bored to crack a smile or make eye contact, and the guy who goes postal on a product he's tired of putting away fifty times a day. I understand that. But still.
It kind of makes you wonder about just how lousy it must be to work at a place like this every day, where very few people feel pride or joy or excitement when it comes to the role they play in the machine that is their workplace.
This isn't just boredom. This kind of catharsis is the result of a pretty oppressive environment.
Without getting too deep in Dr. Phil Territory here, let's just say that when Walmart guy beats up the plastic storage bin, he's really lashing out at Walmart and its customers because quitting isn't an option, and he can't do it any other way.
It goes well beyond feeling unappreciated or undervalued.
It's really more about a sense from this guy that because his job has no finality, no real impact on anything and no relevance, neither does he.
Worse yet: He feels powerless to do anything about it.
... Which is why he beats up the offending but otherwise stoic storage bin.
Even if you zoned out through much of that sorry attempt at Jungian psychobabble, just understand that what this guy is feeling is not healthy.
What you need to take from this is that you don't build positive customer experiences in this kind of environment.
You can't allow your employees to ever feel trapped or helpless. In other words, when they walk by the lobster tank, they shouldn't be able to empathize with the lobsters. When they walk by the meat department and its endless rows of neat little square packages, they shouldn't get a sense that it says something about their place in the world.
They should be thinking about how pretty the rows of meat packages look, and how healthy the lobsters look, and how they're going to help a bunch of customers today. Blue vests to the rescue. Walmart superheroes. They have to understand their value to the Walmart world and that starts by finding value in helping customers have a fantastic shopping experience at Walmart.
Helping people and being paid in smiles is kind of like pouring them the perfect cup of Starbucks' coffee. Think about that sunny parking lot outside. Think about the droves of happy people taking their blue bags of Walmart stuff back to their cars. Think about the smiling yellow dots all over the place. Think about birds chirping and pretty clouds drifting in perfectly blue skies.
Think about those Walmart employees' role in making that world happen and about how good it feels to have that kind of power.
Yes, Walmart could be a fun place to work AND a fun place to shop. But it isn't, and it has nothing but its management to blame for it.
Remember Spike's words of wisdom: Happy employees make happy customers.
Likewise, unhappy employees make unhappy customers.
There are ways to make your employees happy. Perhaps more importantly, there are ways to make your employees feel proud. And no, rewarding them isn't something you can fake or buy off with plaques and pins and little bonuses. It's something that has to feel real.
If you want to inspire your customers, you first have to inspire your employees. If you want to do that, you have to make them feel like they truly are a part of your company and not just worthless pawns.
You have to make them feel like they are on a mission.
You have to make them feel good about the work they do for you.
Does that sound complicated? It really isn't. It's actually the simplest thing in the world. Starbucks is doing it. So is Apple. So is Loreal. So is Nike. So is Coca Cola.
Treat people with respect. Give them something worthwhile to do. Inspire them to be knights in your kingdom... or at least happy to be there for as long as they want to stay. That's it. That's all you really need to do to get things rolling in the right direction.
As always, it really is that simple.
Maybe you don't see it yet, but it is.
Here's what I love about blogs: They foster discussion. They promote dialogue. They bring ideas together in one place. Natural evolution for the web? You bet.
Natural evolution of word-of-mouth? Yep.
Case in point: Brains On Fire - The blog. I just discovered it a few weeks ago.
Brains On Fire is a cool little Identity Company based out of Greenville, SC. Something you should know about the Brains On Fire crew is that they stay busy. Very busy. But they still make the time to publish a very tight and sometimes inspiring blog. Nothing fancy, mind you. No photos, no illustrations, no 15-page manifestos - like some people (ahem). But I like it because they make simplicity work.
The format kind of works for me, and though I enjoy the occasional long-winded piece, short little bits are very practical.
Unlike this blog, you can be in and out of their latest post inside of two minutes. But that's where they getcha: Just because you spent almost no time at all reading their brilliant little comments doesn't mean you're done. Nope. Chances are, you're going to spend all day thinking about that wicked little piece of prose they laid out of for you.
That little slice of pie they left out on the table.
That delicious little crumb.
That irresistible little lure.
It's going to do its thing somewhere inside your brain and pop out a few hours later with ten new ideas in hand.
No, it isn't viral in the marketing sense of the term, but it is definitely so in its effect.
So back to the point: Blogs foster discussion. Dialogue. The sharing of ideas.
A few days ago, Robbin Phillips posted a little thing about trying to rename RSS feeds. How could we make RSS more mainstream? How could we make the concept a household name? Something that everyone over the age of fifty who knows how to use a mouse would know about and kind of understand?
Think cookies. Think ladybugs. Think worker bees. Think pickles.
And guess what: Comments on posts like these, posts that foster discussion, posts that ask a question, posts that force us to actually type stuff on that thing called a... keyboard are triple what the more straightforward blog entries typically log.
Discussion drives blogs.
The sharing of ideas.
That's what blogs are about. Check out the (ever-growing) selection of fine marketing blogs in the margin, and have fun.
By the way, we did come up with a new name for RSS. It's a good one too.
Also read Friendly Skies? (previous post).
Before I start, I want to say that I have run into some fantastic flight attendants in my travels. Professional, friendly, funny, caring... They're out there. They're rare, but they're out there.
I wanted to start with that because where I am going next probably isn't going to make most flight attendants happy. And unless you're in that first category (the great flight attendants), that's just too bad.
I know that flight attendants wear many hats: They help load and unload passengers. They are in charge of security inside the cabin. They provide safety training and are there to assist passengers in case of an emergency. They serve drinks and food. They babysit 40-200 passengers on who knows how many flights each week. They're on their feet a lot. They're constantly traveling.
It's a tough job.
I get that.
But see, part of their job is to take care of passengers. Customers. People.
Take care of them.
They are called "flight attendants" for a reason.
They aren't called "cabin police."
See where I'm going with this?
I've noticed that many flight attendants these days aren't all that nice, especially in the main cabin.
Well, guess what? The majority of your customers are back here with me. They're not in the front with the half dozen empty couches waiting for upgrades to step forward.
They're back here. We're back here. Your customers. The folks whose cash keeps your airline from going out of business. The folks whose patronage you depend on to keep wearing that uniform.
I know your job is hard, but so is Jane Spears'. Jane is a waitress at a very busy restaurant not far from here. Jane always smiles. Jane gets great tips. People give up their place in line just to make sure they get one of her tables. Jane is one of the reasons why the restaurant she works for does so well.
Part of your job as a flight attendant is serving drinks and serving food. It's only a small part of the job, but you can't walk away from it. I am not suggesting that you are an airline waitstaff. Not at all. You do a lot more. But you get my point.
Jane works for tips, and Jane makes a killing. Not every waiter in her restaurant takes home the same cash. But the thing about Jane is that every day, even when she's having a bad day, she is exceptional at taking care of people. She always smiles. She's always fast. She makes everyone want to come back.
When I spend four hours on a plane and watch flight attendants treat customer after customer like cattle, I think about Jane. I think about how amazing it would be if every flight attendant were just like her. Pleasant. Soothing. Fast. Caring. Personable.
The way flight attendants used to be.
I think about how much I would be willing to pay extra, specifically to fly with an airline that promises that kind of service. $20. $50. I don't know. When you give your customers something tangible to value, pricepoints become less of an issue.
I think maybe that there's a better way to inspire customer loyalty than through air mileage rewards programs.
I also wonder how quickly most flight attendants would start being more like her if they made their money on tips.
This is the part where you stop and read that last line again. That's right. Tips.
Here's the deal: Airlines charge extra for meals now. $7 for a lousy day old salad. It's just a matter of time before the pretzels and the quarter cup of soda aren't free anymore either. Why not go with the full restaurant model?
Now... flight attendants have zero control over the quality of the food being served on their flight, but they have complete control over how it is served. How the drinks are served.
How passengers are treated.
I'm thinking that if the airlines can't pay their flight attendants enough to make them happy, if they can't train them well enough to make them friendly, then maybe they should let us do it for them with our own cash.
Maybe if flight attendants made a good portion of their money from tips, things would turn around a bit. In-flight customer experience would improve dramatically. People wouldn't get talked down to. Food carts wouldn't be used as weapons.
That's right. Tips. Just like waiters. Bellhops. Maitres D'Hotel. Doormen. Bathroom attendants.
Tips give flight attendants an incentive to work a little smarter. To treat us better. To take pride in their jobs again.
Imagine what $1 for every third passenger could add to your bottom-line each week.
Imagine what $1 from zero passenger would do to your bottom-line each week.
I know this is going to sound slimy, but I have to say it: *Cringing* This might be a good way for airlines to save money. The slime melts off when you realize that by putting flight attendants' livelyhood in the hands of passengers, you're giving your flight attendants the power and the incentive to boost customer satisfaction and their own cash flow.
Give us cheaper tickets. Give us a small cash refund on our ticket right at the gate. Tell us:
"If you don't have a great experience flying with us today, here's $3 back, but if you do, thank your cabin crew on the way out."
Would some flight attendants leave? Sure. But they would probably be the ones who need to leave anyway. The food cart bullies. Shame on them.
Will this ever happen? Probably not. There are unions to contend with, for one. It would require a huge paradigm shift in the airline industry. It would require a tremendous amount of scrutiny to prevent management abuses. The public would have to be made aware of it. Airlines would have to provide real value to make this work. A lame "please tip your attendants" plea wouldn't be enough.
Airlines would actually have to start thinking about pulling themselves out of the "also in" mentality that has been driving them into the red for over a decade.
Airlines would have to start focusing on their customers again.
Reward miles aren't cutting it. Crappy seats aren't cutting it. Lousy attitudes in the cabin aren't cutting it. Something needs to change.
Tips for flight attendants might not be the answer, but it might be a good start.
Speaking of carts, I remember a time when flight attendants gently tapped you on the shoulder if they needed to get by. Nowadays, they just roll. I guess they'll keep right on rolling until they finally fracture someone's elbow. I've actually witnessed a pair purposely bump people with the corner of their carts to knock them out of the way.
Instead of saying "I'm sorry," they said "please keep the aisle clear, sir."
That wasn't Delta though, or the MD88. This was on an US Airways A-321, where even a lean, medium-built guy like me can't completely fit in my sardine seat.
As sad as it is, I guess when you spend more time training flight attendants to be cops than hostesses, when customer service is just a line item on a checklist, some of the politeness and basic human compassion that we once took for granted are bound to become a casualty of war.
Maybe instead of a plastic pair of wings on their chest, we should just give them a badge and a taser gun. Maybe we should be read our miranda rights somewhere between the belt buckle instructions and the life vest demo.
"... in case of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will result in the indiscriminate smashing of a giant block of solid metal into the back of your head at the cabin crew's discretion."
What's goin on here? What's this week's excuse for the downward spiral of customer care in the airline industry? Money troubles? Security concerns? Profitability issues? Technology limitations?
How about this: Maybe the airlines just don't care.
But being that I'm an optimist, I'd venture to say that it's isn't as much an issue of not caring as it is an issue of not knowing what's going on outside first class.
Perhaps if more airline executives cared enough to fly coach incognito, say, just for the sake of doing market research, they might get wise and fix the debacle that is the airline industry today.
We're talking shambles, here.
We're talking the last days of the Roman Empire.
We're talking terminal denial.
It's just about come to the point where you have to insert quarters into a meter just to use a filthy 2x3x5 bathroom. Don't think it won't happen either.
So yeah, the airlines could do better. A lot better. And some of them are trying. Virgin. Song. Blue. Southwest, even. It's great... and my hat's off to any airline that tries to raise the bar a bit and make flying pleasant again. Or fun. Or memorable.
But here's the thing: You don't need clown outfits and superminis on leggy stewardesses to lure me into booking a flight with your airline. As a steerage passenger, here's all I really want:
1) Friendly, courteous gate agents. (No, not just polite. I said "friendly".)
2) Seats actually designed for adults of normal stature, not 5' tall space aliens with a bad case of scoliosis.
3) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (Yes, "friendly".)
4) Not to be viciously rammed in my sleep by the unforgiving edge of a 200lb food cart.
5) Free meals on flights longer than 3 hours. Charge it to the ticket. enough with the nonsense already.
6) If I am going to pay $7 for a meal, make it worth my while. I've had MRE's better than this.
7) Prohibit people from carrying their fast food on the plane. It stinks the place up.
8) I don't mean to be insensitive, but if the passenger next to me is so large that half of them is in my seat, I want a partial refund right there on the spot.
9) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (It's worth mentioning again.)
10) Take off on time. Land on time. Don't overbook.
Oh, and one last thing. If your airline uses "zones" to load your plane, here's a tip: Don't start with the front of the plane. If zone 1 is in the front of the plane and zone 5 is in the back of the plane, how about starting with zone 5? See, that way, the people in zone 5 aren't in the way when the folks from zones 4 and 3 and 2 roll in. You could load a plane in ten minutes instead of twenty-five minutes.
Just in case you were spacing out just then: Start loading from the back. It's faster.
If you're going to treat us like cattle, at least drive us like cattle. It's the least you can do.