From the March/April 2009 issue of eBiz Insider magazine. Download the complete issue as a PDF by clicking here.
Customer appreciation events such as the recent Continental event go a long way to distinguish Continental from its competition while at the same time providing a direct conduit for communication between customers and management, and providing instant feedback on new ideas and innovations being considered by the airline. Continental consistently reaches out to their customers for input, and most importantly, they truly listen to the customers. Such an event not only provides face to face contact with their customers to get this information, but shows customers that Continental values their opinions as well as their continued business.
—Art Pushkin, Chairman and Co-Founder of Frequent Flyers Organized and Concerned about Unacceptable Service (FFOCUS).
In the January/February issue of eBiz Insider, my column was called “Good Riddance 2008” and in it I discussed the new mantra on how we all have to do business moving forward in this “new economy”. I talked about how as small business owners we’re not going to get any government bailout, how we all need to keep a close eye on our balance sheet and expenses, and how we must keep one step ahead of our competition.
I ended the column by talking about the importance of good customer service, giving customers what they want and kissing your customers’ backside in order to earn the business. It is the absolute truth that the businesses that take care of their customers today will be around to service them tomorrow, so pucker up.
After that column ran, I was shocked to receive so many e-mails from business owners who chastised me for even suggesting that they should make things easier for their customers or make an attempt to bend over backwards to make them happy. I wish I could have taken these people to an event I attended in Houston, TX, so they can see how much one company values their customers and works hard to earn their business in an industry notorious for poor customer service.
The customer appreciation event was put on by Continental Airlines and was attended by well over 500 of their most frequent flyers. About 99% of them were also participants in various aviation forums such as FlyerTalk.com, FFOCUS.org and USAviation.com. As someone who frequents many forums, I can tell you, these are the people you want on your side, and Continental Airlines knows it.
With social media so prevalent in today’s world, good news spreads quickly and bad news spreads at MACH 2. The frequent flyers who participate in these social media outlets asked Continental four years ago to put on an event where they can come together, express their opinions and get feedback from management. Continental obliged and for the past four years they have taken a very active interest in hearing from their customers and developing products and services around them.
This year’s event kicked off with a cocktail reception Friday evening where company executives, including Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner, were on hand to meet and mingle with the attendees. The theme of the event was “Fun & Games” and Friday featured a couple rounds of “Deal or No Deal” where lucky contestants could earn up to one million frequent flyer miles. Throughout the evening, Mr. Kellner and company executives stood for photos, listened to attendees, answered questions and made themselves available for anyone who wanted to chat.
Saturday was a fun-filled day which included tours of the airline’s maintenance facility, baggage handling area, catering facility where 9,000 turkey sandwiches are made a day, and some lucky attendees got to test their skills in a flight simulator. From all accounts, the best tour was the one billed as the “Mystery Tour” which actually turned out to be a flight. About 150 people were welcomed aboard a Continental Boeing 757 complete with champagne and were given a scenic tour over Galveston Bay at only a few thousand feet.
Later in the day, the group broke-up for several break-out sessions which covered a variety of topics. The most anticipated session was the final presentation hosted by Mr. Kellner and Continental Airlines President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Smisek. The two top guys fielded questions from the audience for well over an hour and answered questions ranging from “Do you ever fly in coach?” to questions on the new Boeing 787 and Continental’s frequent flyer program, OnePass. They talked about new products and services the airline will be offering including LiveTV on their Next Generation Boeing 737’s and their new lie-flat seating being installed through BusinessFirst class on international routes. They also acknowledged their weaknesses and mistakes, which is what any customer would want to hear.
The event kicked off with a party at the airline’s newest hangar at the Houston airport where the theme of “Fun & Games” continued, along with plenty to eat and drink, and a new Boeing 737-900 on display to tour and photograph. Again, Mr. Kellner and Mr. Smisek were on hand to mingle with the guests and again lend an ear.
Continental Airlines did not have to put an event like this together, but they did. They know that their most important assets aren’t made of aluminum and carbon fiber; they’re made of flesh and bone. They know that the people who paid to fly to Houston and take part in this event are going to blog, Tweet, e-mail and Facebook about the fun they had. They know they are going to tell others who are going to say, “Wow, it’s amazing that a company would do that for their customers; I’m going to try them out next time I fly.” Most importantly, they know these are the customers who deserve to have their behinds kissed.
I came back from this event with a renewed sense of what customer service really means. I’m already looking inside our own organization to see how we can put an event like this together to reward our customers for their loyalty and business. The wheels inside my head are turning! After reading this, yours should be too.