If You Focus On Customers (Or Voters), You Win

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By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The polls are now closed everywhere, and we are able to project some of the winners:

JetBlue. American Express. Adrian Fenty. Whole Foods. Miramax Films (now Weinstein Co.). Deval Patrick. Toyota. Barack Obama.

In fact, whether you're talking business or politics, you don't need extensive polling or market research to predict the winners. It's actually pretty simple: Just identify the quality players who are focused on their customers.

Which makes it all the more curious why so many people inside politics, and inside business, spend so much time and money making things more complicated than they need to be, even as they ignore the simple things most important to voters and customers.

Businesses, egged on by management consultants and pressured by Wall Street, get caught up in complicated strategies to manipulate customers or markets in ways that have little to do with improving quality, effectively putting their interests at odds with those of their customers.

And in the same way, politicians, egged on by campaign consultants, political reporters and bloggers, get so caught up in the mechanics and tactics of a campaign that they wind up ignoring the voters and their real concerns, and passing up the opportunity to connect with them in powerful ways.

Consider JetBlue, which in just six short years has become the hands-down favorite U.S. airline among readers of Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure. How did they do it?

Its most important decision was not getting caught up in those clever tactics employed by the traditional airlines to use their far-flung route networks and predatory pricing to drive competition out of their hubs, and then to use their sophisticated reservation systems to squeeze the maximum revenue out of each flight.

Instead, JetBlue's strategy, as its executives explain it, was to "simplify the process" and "bring humanity back" to an industry that had lost focus on the customer experience. Spacious, well-lighted waiting areas. Wider, leather seats with more legroom, particularly if you are willing to sit in the back half of the plane. On-board entertainment from XM Satellite Radio and DirecTV. Simplified, no-nag boarding procedures. Predictable one-way fares, with few rules or restrictions, capped even during the busiest season.

There was nothing particularly brilliant about any of these insights. But if you had suggested them to any of the traditional airlines, they would have reflexively dismissed them, spouting all the reasons they were terrible ideas, most of them having nothing to do with customers and everything to do with competing internal objectives.

But you don't have to be a new company starting from a clean slate to provide great service. Just ask American Express, which for years has set the gold standard when it comes to dealing with customers' problems over the telephone.

I don't need to tell you how many hours people waste trying to deal with customer call centers, service departments or help desks. But did you know that if you wait on hold for 20 minutes or have only a 50 percent chance of getting your problem resolved on the first call, that hassle was a conscious choice the company made? All it requires is studying the historical patterns and adjusting the number and training and compensation of the employees involved.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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