Sunday, August 17, 2008


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…“

OK, as much as I love Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” that’s just a bit dramatic even for me.

Still, in one 48 hour period I had the best of times - an exceptional customer experience with Continental Airlines – and the worst of times - a terrible customer experience with American Airlines.

For me this was also a case of brand wisdom and brand foolishness because these experiences will have lasting impact on how I view these companies and how good a customer I will or won’t be in the future.

While on the road, to my complete surprise (and delight), I received a thank you from Continental Airlines for having flown one million miles with them. Inside the expensive looking box they sent was a personalized luggage tag with Continental’s million-miler logo, a new personalized Platinum frequent flyer card with the logo, and a nice letter from Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner.

The gifts were nice and certainly appreciated. But it was the letter meant the most to me. It seemed personal and heartfelt – even to someone like me who occasionally casts a cynical eye on such things. Reading it I felt honored and proud to be such a loyal Continental flyer.

But when I came to the part of the letter that said my perks would be extended to my wife as well, I was floored. Here was a company who really ‘got’ what it’s like to have to fly this much! Heavy flying not only impacts the flyer but extracts a big toll on those left behind. Here was thank you not only to me for flying but to Wanda for her sacrifices too. What insight!

I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better experience with an Airline.

At the other end of the week’s travel continuum was my experience with American Airlines and a cancelled flight.

I understand that cancellations and delays are a part of life and I harbor no hard feelings when these occasionally happen. But how the airline treats me in these instances DOES matter to me.

In this case American put me up in a second-rate (I’m being generous), non-business-travel-friendly motel that smelled of mold and stale cigarettes, didn’t appear to have been updated in decades, had no business facilities, and sat on the side of an Interstate with no opportunity to walk anywhere for dinner.

American gave me a $10 dinner voucher (when was the last time you had dinner for $10 that wasn’t fast food?) and of course it could only be used in the hotel that I already didn’t even want to take my shoes off in.

No one apologized for the inconvenience of the cancellation which, according to the hotel van driver said happened “all the time” and even asked me, “What did they say it was THIS time?”

Had American opted for a modest, business-friendly hotel in a location where one could walk to a restaurant and redeem a $15 food voucher, it would have gone a long way. Instead, I had to shell out for round-drip cab fares to downtown to find a restaurant that was open late, pay for the meal and for an extra day’s parking charge at the airport (all tolled about $75) and – most importantly - lose a half day at home which is so precious to a heavy flyer.

Whether American doesn’t understand what being a heavy flyer in 2008 is like or doesn’t care, I don’t know.

What I DO know is how each of these experiences made me feel. On the one hand I felt Continental tried to do the maximum they could for me. Meanwhile American made me feel that they were trying to do the least they could for me.

American likely doesn’t know that I fly 100,000 miles a year. Nor could American have known that I’m going to have to seek additional carriers this fall as Continental will no longer be serving some of the cities I regularly fly to.

Guess who won’t be first on my list?

In focus groups, listeners tell us similar stories all the time. “The DJs just stood around.” “No one ever came over to talk to me.” I thought they were rude.”

We also hear, “They made me feel important.” “They know my name.” “They just seem to love what they’re doing.” “They treated me like I was their friend.”

Which perception do you think will be more likely to generate listenership?

How do YOU want to be perceived?

You’re in the cockpit.