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Flying the Friendly Skies: A Lesson in Customer Loyalty

October 15, 2010

My friends know that, as a general rule, I don’t talk to strangers. I don’t talk to them in line at Starbucks. I don’t talk to them in the elevator. And I especially don’t talk to them on an airplane. Why? Because once you start with a little small talk, before you know it you have become your neighbor’s entertainment and rescue from boredom for the duration of the flight. Plus, I don’t like small talk. It’s exhausting. That said, put me on a plane next to a friend or colleague, and I become a Chatty Kathy. – truly, my legal first name is actually Katharine.

But, back to that age old rule your mama taught you…Don’t Talk to Strangers… Last week I was flying home from Indianapolis and learned just as we were boarding that I got the one and only upgrade seat to First Class. Now, every Traveling Coach will tell you that being a Traveling Coach is awesome! But it’s way better to be a Traveling Coach in First Class than a Traveling Coach in…Coach. So, this put me in such a good mood that I couldn’t help myself when my seatmate leaned over and asked if I was flying home or leaving home. Usually that familiar question makes me whip out my iPod and earbuds faster than you can say “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”  But this time I answered. And even more amazingly, I returned the question. And then, the miracle continued as I actually started a new conversation with him. I asked him if his smart phone was a Blackberry Torch and how was he liking it. This was definitely a first for me! But, I was in such a good mood AND I was personally motivated because I’ve been wondering if the Torch is in fact the perfect solution for both its cool “touch” technology like the iPhone and its Blackberry physical keyboard (important for the iPhone touch-typing impaired like myself).  His short answer? This was his second Torch in two weeks. The first one he had to send back. And this one wasn’t much better. Sigh. Guess I’ll stick with my slow-as-a-snail typing on the iPhone.

As we continued our discussion around smart phones, the stranger asked if I knew what HTML stood for. And (gasp) I actually pulled the answer out of the deep blue past…I mean seriously…that’s like asking what NASA stands for, isn’t it? I have no idea. I just know it’s pretty important! Anyhow, it turns out that he is a really nice person and enjoyable to talk with.  Who knew? Are other strangers like this?

I suddenly turned into my Chatty Kathy self and started talking his ear off. We covered everything from my JetBlue flight to Bermuda in a couple weeks to the WiFi service and wine selection on our flight. Finally after about 2 hours in the air, I asked what line of business he’s in. (I know I should have asked sooner. I’m new at this small talk thing!) Anyway…turns out he’s a VP for American Airlines. I’ll spare his identity here, even though there are only positive impressions to be made. I couldn’t believe we went on for so long talking about his competition, American’s offerings and routes, etcetera, and it turns out he’s the man in charge of all those things! I guess I can understand why he wouldn’t offer that up sooner. After all, he was getting some terrific market research and insight, and had the rare opportunity to probe an Executive Platinum loyal customer on everything she likes and dislikes about his company and competition. Truth be told, once I knew who he was I was more than happy to give him even more feedback.  But, I’m sure he valued the honest and raw input he was getting back when he was just a “stranger”.

This got me to thinking…we all have loyal customers. Traveling Coaches has loyal customers. Our customers have loyal customers. Trainers have loyal customers. How do we get those customers’ raw, honest feedback? And, how do we get that from our customers who may not be so loyal? I mean, I did spend the first 10 minutes talking to him about his competitors. We tend to use tools like surveys, evaluations, interviews and general word of mouth to seek feedback. Those are certainly valid tools, but how much more valuable would it be to sit and observe or embed ourselves in the worlds of our customers? As a training professional, can you embed yourself in a practice or work group? Sure, you won’t be an anonymous stranger. But, I have a hunch you will learn so much more about how you can bring value to that user group by walking in their shoes, relating with them, observing their workflow and ultimately just listening to what they have to say. You may even get a stubborn, stand-offish stranger to turn into a Chatty Kathy for you!

I have to say, I think this experience changed me. As I sit here typing this very blog entry, I’m on another American Airlines flight. For one thing, I feel more attached to the airline after my conversation with the VP stranger. I feel a little more loyal than I was before. And for another thing, I actually struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. I was a little shocked when he pulled out his iPod and earbuds before I did.  He even asked “oh, did you want to keep chatting?” Uh oh…maybe I’ve become that annoying seatmate! Oh well. It’s always better to be friendly, right? You never know who you might be sitting next to! But, I’ll still keep my iPod and earbuds nearby…in case of emergency.

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