Getting Your Bearings

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image copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard
Business trips are about a lot more than just trade shows, business deals, conferences and plant visits. They are journeys. And like all journeys, they are meant to enrich our lives through experience, adventure, and insight.
No, don't laugh. Believe it or not, those long layovers between connecting flights, the hours you spend stuck in cramped seating, those long lines for substandard airport food, the hotels, the cabs, the shuttles, the rental cars, the name tags, the coffee stands, the time zones, the guest services, the security checkpoints, the meetings, the parking lots, the traffic jams, the receptionists... all of these things expose us to the best and the worst of marketing, branding, business and lifestyle integration. They help you put it all in perspective.
That's right, they help put YOUR business in perspective.
Your client's business.
Even you.
Yep. You. You as a person. You as a brand. You as a consumer. You are your own focus group. You are your own market research. You are your own critic. When you travel anywhere for a whole week, you eventually settle into that analytical mode. You start to notice the little things in greater detail. Your experience bridges the gap between extremes of great service and horrible service. All of the pieces of the puzzle start to come together.
So ask yourself: How would you do as a flight attendant? As a taxi driver? As a receptionist? As a guest services manager? As a waiter? As customer services manager for an airline? As a restaurant manager? As the president of a hotel chain? As the person whose job it is to design the best possible customer experience for a national chain of coffee shops or book stores or automotive service centers? How do you improve the quality and value of touch-points between your company and its customers every day? Yes, you. How do you turn a simple chance encounter into a golden WOM moment?
If you aren't thinking about it, guess what: Your competitors are. They're looking at you, at everything that you do right and everything that you do wrong, and they are learning how to beat you. You're teaching them. The guy at the LAX Hertz counter is teaching them. The guest registration team at the Standard Hotel in downtown LA is teaching them. The girl taking your order at the Baja Fresh in Simi Valley is teaching them. Every time they walk into a new business or travel to a new city, they're learning what works and what doesn't. The world is teaching them, one contact point at a time, one experience at a time, and they're getting smarter.
So the question you have to ask yourself is who's teaching you? What are you doing to stay a few strides ahead of your competitors? What are you really doing? Where are you really going? Are you really going anywhere, or are you tucked in the same safe holding pattern that's kept your warm and fuzzy for the last ten years?
Be honest now. If not with me, at least with yourself. When was the last time a business or person TRULY impressed you? Did you take that experience back to your company? Did you incorporate it into your own customers' experience?
Did you? Really? If so, how did it work out for you?
If not, what stopped you? And what stops you now?
I am going to devote the rest of this week to the experiences that struck me while I traveled to California and back. From filthy airport bathrooms to entertaining bus drivers, from the worst Italian restaurant on the planet to the best fast food this side of the Atlantic, from the beyond-coolness glitz of a relatively unknown hotel to the blandness of its "big" brand nemesis, from the absolute "promote this guy right now" Hertz rental guy to the most argumentative and time-wasting guest services representative at the Sheraton Anaheim, boys and girls, you are going to get the whole scoop, and then some.
Will there be lessons to be learned? Sure.
Am I going to preach? Probably.
Will I keep it short? I wouldn't bet on it.
But you know what? It's going to be fun. And I'll bet a lot of it will sound familiar.
If you're traveling this week, do me a favor: Carry a pen or a pencil on you. Not in your briefcase, but on your person. If you can't carry a small notepad, use an air sickness bag. You can write an entire manifesto on one of those things (assuming it's a white one - not a dark-blue deal you can't write on at all). During a two hour flight, you can map out entire branding strategies. You can rewrite your company's mission statement. You can list all of the things that your customers love and hate about you. About your biggest competitor. About your favorite lovebrand. You can sketch your next revolutionary product design. You can write history before it is actually made.
While you're traveling this week, write stuff down. Names. Times. Places. The good, the bad, the ugly, the wonderful, the genius and the tedium. Write it down. Save it for later. Create your new web strategy. Revamp your corporate structure. Rework your budget. Invent the next big thing.
Learn from the world. Open yourself to its lessons. It might not make those long hours go by faster, but at least it will make them well worthwhile.
Safe travels to all.
Tune in tomorrow for the first of several articles on what people may or may not be saying about your company and brand.

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