What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It seems like I’m on a roll these days with rants about customer service. And this one is a doozy. A few weeks ago my wife and I were flying to Las Vegas where I was to speak at a conference. We were supposed to fly from Kansas City to Phoenix and then to Vegas. It was a Sunday morning and when we arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, the trouble began. Apparently some joker decided to leave a locked vehicle unattended at the curb outside one of the terminals. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone was late for a flight and didn’t have time to take the car to the off-site rental car return and simply dropped it at the curb and figured he’d deal with the flak later. Well flak there was.

As we got off the plane, we were told that the terminal was closed due to a “security issue.” Passengers were not allowed to move down the concourse with TSA and the Phoenix Police Department enforcing this edict. Shortly thereafter, we were quickly herded to an adjoining section of the terminal where even more passengers were gathered. The line of demarcation was just short of the restrooms and very quickly the scene turned ugly. People were chanting and a full-scale riot was minutes away. Fortunately, someone in authority decided that letting people go to the bathroom might be a good idea, so they began creating bathroom lines and allowed ten people at a time to step under the tape and head single-file to the restrooms – all the while under the watchful eye of those in “authority.” Finally, they allowed the mob to move deeper into the concourse where everyone had access to the restrooms.

This situation persisted for somewhere between three and four hours. And not once did law enforcement provide any information whatsoever. I was able to watch some video on my phone from a local television station that enabled me to understand what was happening. Eventually (I was told), the bomb squad decided they needed to blow something up, so they blew the trunk of the car and the passenger doors to find . . . nothing. I guess I can understand how cautious we need to be in this day and age. But it was absolutely inexcusable that everyone was kept in the dark through the entire ordeal. A public affairs representative for law enforcement should have provided updates every 15 minutes on the overhead PA system as well as on social media along with an estimated time for resolution. Phoenix PD and the TSA did nothing to help their image with this display of arrogance. It was equally inexcusable that the decision was made to cordon off the terminal at a point where the restrooms weren’t accessible. From a practical standpoint, we’re talking 30 or 40 feet – and eventually the decision was made to move the cordon anyway.

Of course a number of flights were cancelled including ours. I received a text message from the airline (I’d “love” to say which one but I won’t) informing me that our flight was cancelled and to click on a link to re-book . . . except the link didn’t work. So, shame on the airline. Eventually we made a standby flight to Los Angeles that took us on to Las Vegas. But of course our luggage was MIA. The one bright spot in all of this was a very delightful lady named Lori at the airline’s lost baggage department in Las Vegas who really cared about our situation and said she’d do everything she could to see that we got our bag ASAP. And later that evening our bag did arrive. Kudos to Lori! Unfortunately, this airline – which is supposedly known for its technological prowess – has still not deployed a bar coding system for baggage. Another major airline we fly sticks a bar code on our luggage and we can look at a phone app and know exactly where it is in the country at all times. So another pox on the airline we used that Sunday for not getting with the bar coding program.

Things can really go wrong for us as entrepreneurs and sometimes they do. We can learn from experiences like this and avoid the mistakes that others are making. Above all, continual, clear and honest communications is paramount as long as the train is off the rails. And it’s also important to make sure all systems and processes are working and that common sense prevails. If we do it right, we can actually score points with our customers as they weather the storm with us.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 119 – Good or Bad Signals?

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Just Figure It Out

Recently my wife and I attended her high school class reunion. For her sake, I won’t say which one, but let’s just say that it’s been several decades since her high school days. The event was well planned and quite enjoyable. As we were eating dinner at the banquet, I learned that the restaurant originally scheduled to cater the food bailed out just two weeks earlier. I inquired as to how this possibly could have happened and it was explained that apparently a new manager had recently been hired and there may have been other staffing issues. The restaurant is well-known and long-established in the community and it’s shocking that it reneged on its commitment. Fortunately another restaurant was able to step up at the last minute and cater the class reunion.

I understand that things happen. Hiccups occur in the entrepreneurial world. However, it’s times like these where the real entrepreneurs shine. When we make commitments we do whatever it takes to honor them. Sometimes this requires a great deal of creativity. Sometimes we actually lose money. But no matter what, we always honor our commitments. In the case of the original caterer for my wife’s class reunion, I don’t know what prevented them from following through and providing the food for the event. I found it interesting that while the reunion was in full swing, this restaurant was open and serving dinner across the street from the reunion site.

Real entrepreneurs have a “we’ll figure it out” attitude. Our word is our bond and we’ll die trying to deliver what we promise. Since I don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the failure of the caterer, let’s game out some scenarios. Perhaps the restaurant found itself with an unexpected labor shortage. The management may have felt that when understaffed, it could not deliver on the catering assignment. I happen to know that this restaurant has locations in other towns that aren’t too far away. One entrepreneurial approach might have been to pull staff from another town to make it possible to honor the catering commitment. I realize that this might have cost the restaurant an extra amount of money, but that shouldn’t enter the equation where a commitment is concerned.

A second scenario might have been one where the former manager made the commitment at a price that caused the restaurant to incur a loss. Maybe that’s why there’s a new manager! Regardless, if the commitment was made at the specified price, it should have been honored. A third scenario might have been one where there was a problem in the supply chain. I find this rather implausible because the cancellation occurred approximately two weeks before the event – more than enough time to resolve an issue with a supplier. However, should that have been the case the restaurant could easily have made other arrangements to procure the necessary ingredients even if it meant buying the items at the grocery store.

The point is that a real entrepreneur would just “figure it out.” Sometimes we do things with bubble gum and baling wire. At other times we deliver a result that is a work of art. The main thing is that the job gets done and the customer is thrilled. Welching on a commitment is simply unheard of to a real entrepreneur. In the case of the caterer, they are running a great risk as a result of their actions. I overheard some of my wife’s classmates who were so irritated that there was talk of boycotting the restaurant and writing negative reviews on social media. I’m sure the word will spread throughout the city and other high school classes will avoid using this restaurant for catering their reunions.

There is a caveat to all of this. It’s important to understand that “we’ll just figure it out” is a fine approach for entrepreneurs at the early stages of our ventures. Eventually we need to refine our systems and processes and create redundancy in every area of our operation. It’s not possible to reach a level of scale if “we’ll just figure it out” is our long-term strategy. While it may sound laughable that any entrepreneur would do this over the long haul, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve seen many, many companies that are in this mode for years.

Real entrepreneurs always honor their commitments. And sometimes this requires them to “just figure it out” through unconventional means.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 108 – Entrepreneurial Insecurities.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Mystery of the Undercooked Steak

Customers quit all the time. Many entrepreneurs work extremely hard to prevent the big screw-ups that alienate and enrage customers. Yet, even with this effort, there are still customers that leave and don’t come back. What’s up with this?

Consider this scenario. An entrepreneur has opened a new restaurant and works 24/7 to develop a loyal clientele. Over time the restaurant grows and enjoys success – it’s even profitable! But then its trajectory levels off. It’s not growing like it was and some of the regular faces aren’t there anymore. The entrepreneur studies his operation but can’t find anything glaring that is causing this trend. His puzzlement and frustration grows. Why isn’t he winning like he used to?

Had the entrepreneur taken a much closer and more granular look, he might have discovered the root cause of his problem. Had he followed one of his oldest customers – we’ll be original and call him Mr. Smith – he might have observed the following occurrences. On one occasion, Mr. Smith made a reservation in advance, but when he arrived the time was wrong. The hostess apologized profusely, but it did cause minor inconvenience to the customer. In another instance Mr. Smith’s credit card was declined. After an embarrassing moment for Mr. Smith, the server found that the credit card terminal was on the fritz. A few weeks later Mr. Smith was in a hurry to leave for a business appointment and his lunch was delayed due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Another time his steak wasn’t properly prepared. In still another instance, one of the side dishes he ordered was forgotten.

These seemingly small and inconsequential issues continued to occur over a period of months. Mr. Smith did not encounter problems every time he ate at the restaurant. But they happened often enough that he began to feel as though this eatery wasn’t the bright and shiny object that it had once appeared to be. Gradually Mr. Smith came to the restaurant with less frequency. The final straw came on a day when Mr. Smith noticed he had been charged for an appetizer he hadn’t ordered. The bill was corrected, but that was the last time Mr. Smith ever patronized the restaurant.

I call what happened here The Cumulative Effect of Little Things. The entrepreneur who owned the restaurant was prone to look at each minor problem on a stand-alone basis. And when viewed in this manner, it’s a mystery to see how a slightly undercooked steak here or a credit card snafu there could be enough to chase away a customer. He was looking for and trying to prevent, much larger issues. What he failed to understand is that the small stuff contributes to an overall customer experience. If Mr. Smith had visited the restaurant only once, he probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that his meal arrived four minutes before that of his dining companion. But Mr. Smith was a regular customer and his impression of the restaurant was driven by an accumulation of experiences.

We can keep The Cumulative Effect of Little Things from causing our customers to quit. How? There are two ways. First, we must be sticklers for the small details. With the right systems, processes and team member training, we can eliminate the small mistakes that seemingly happen every day and yet are excused as too minor to matter. Second, we must be joined at the hip with our customers. It’s crucial that we know what they are experiencing at all times. Continuing with the restaurant example, when the owner or general manager shows up at my table at some point during the meal; chats briefly with me and asks (genuinely) what can be done to make my dining experience better, then I know I’m dealing with someone who really cares about me as a customer. I generally don’t ever encounter problems in those restaurants.

Customers leave more often than not as a result of The Cumulative Effect of Little Things rather than a major malfunction. Caring about the little details AND the customer will go a long way to creating a loyal following.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Steak