May 2010 Newsletter: Every Business Is The People Business

May 2010 Newsletter: Every Business Is The People Business

It’s a familiar scene, people standing around the boarding area of a flight complaining about the airline and how much they hate to fly.  Eventually someone says what everyone knows, “There are no good airlines today.”  Well…almost.

 I’m flying a lot these days and I dread every time I have to do it.  I hate going through security. I hate having to be there an hour ahead of time. I hate the baggage policies. I hate the nickel and dime attitude, and I hate being crammed into a small plane with no room to do anything but breathe.  My sense is that people generally hate the airlines – except for those of you who fly one particular airline, and are saying, “Not me, I love Southwest.”  Yes, in an industry where the majority of companies are struggling to make money, and where most of their customers hate them, one company has managed to not only be profitable, but also to be loved by their customers and employees.

The topic for this newsletter is “Every business is in the people business,” and there may be no better example of this principle than Southwest Airlines.  Several years ago I read an article about Southwest that quoted Colleen Barrett, its President at the time as saying, “We’re in the people business, and we just happen to fly airplanes.”  I love that quote and think there is a direct correlation between her attitude and why the company is profitable.  When you are in the people business your perspective changes.  You recognize that if your customers love you then they will be loyal to you, they will keep flying with you, and they will tell their friends to fly with you.

Twenty years ago I heard the leadership guru John Maxwell speak to a group of pastors.  He told the assembled ministers that they were not in the “God business,” but rather in the people business.  He said, “You’re not in the God business because God doesn’t need you in His business.  You’re in the people business because people need you.” 

Your entire perspective changes when you realize that whatever your business, you are in the people business. A restaurant isn’t in the food business – it’s in the people business, because people are the ones who eat at a restaurant.  A financial services business isn’t in the money business, it’s in the people business because people own and generate the money being managed.  You can insert your own business here and ask yourself the questions: “What business do I think I’m in, “What (people) business am I actually in?

There are two corollaries to this principle.  1) Every problem is a people problem and 2) Every solution is a people solution.

When Southwest has an overbooked flight they don’t have a “seats” problem or a “capacity” problem, they have a people problem.  Some people are not going to board that flight.  The solution to the problem isn’t to add more seats to the airplane – they can’t. The solution is to have gate agents who know that they are in the people business and that they need to find volunteers willing to be “bumped.” Why would someone be willing to be bumped? Easy, they know Southwest will reward their willingness.  Every airline has to “bump” passengers at some time, but it’s the way you treat the passenger when you have to bump them that makes the difference.

This point was driven home to me recently when dealing with my wine club.  The wrong wine was shipped to St. Louis, leaving me with ten extra cases of wine that needed to be sold and a retailer who freaked out over the mistake.  I didn’t have a “wine problem” (it was the wrong wine) or a  “warehouse problem” (they shipped the wrong wine).  I had a people problem. Someone somewhere screwed up and someone was freaking out about it.  The solution was a people solution.  I called my wine club members and some friends and asked if they’d like some additional wine.  The wine was sold quickly and half the problem was solved.  Then I confronted the retailer and we talked out our problem.  In the end I changed retailers – different people. I needed someone who wasn’t going to freak out anytime something didn’t run smoothly, because as we all know, mistakes happen.  Flights are overbooked, markets crash, food is overcooked and the wrong wine is shipped.  The challenge is how the people will solve the problem for other people.

This all may seem obvious and basic to anyone who runs a business, but how often have you been treated like a commodity instead of a person, and wondered, “What’s going on with this company that they don’t think their customers are important?”

I flew to Paris last month on Delta and it was a quintessential example of being treated like a commodity.  Delta has just taken over the Philadelphia to Paris route from Air France so I thought I would try it out.  They are flying a basic 757 with six seats across and an aisle down the middle.  For eight and a half hours, everyone was crammed into this small space and everyone was miserable.  A full flight at high international rates makes good bottom line sense, but everyone grumbled about how tight the space was and no one was happy to be on that flight.  At one point I got up to stretch my legs and the flight attendant told me I had to return to my seat because I couldn’t block the aisle.

So, while I’m sure this flight was profitable in the short run, will it have the staying power to be profitable in the long run? When I fly to Paris in June I’m flying Air France – and I’m willing to drive to Dulles (three and a half hours away) to do it because I’ll never subject myself to that Delta flight again.  Why would an airline lose an international passenger?  The answer is simple – they forgot they were in the people business. 

Do you know what business you’re in?

About the author / bobperkins

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