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Is your organization like Southwest or United?

Is it just me or is a great customer service experience really becoming a rarity?  Service, perhaps, but often without a smile.  At least one exception to this is Southwest Airlines.  Some of my colleagues wouldn't be caught dead flying Southwest - they joke about the herding of passengers, etc.  But each time I fly the airlines I encounter business travelers who say they'll choose Southwest every time it's an option (as do I).  I have never had a poor customer service experience with Southwest.    In 15 years of flying Southwest, I've been bumped off a flight just once.  And in that instance, they apologized profusely, spent time with me to ensure I could still get to my meeting on time, and issued me a generous flight voucher.  So, even though I would've liked to have been on the flight, no real harm was done and I left the experience feeling good about the situation and valued as a customer.

Contrast this with my United experience last week.  Due to construction delays on the interstate and literally no parking available in the airport lot causing me to circle like a hawk for 25 minutes, I tried to check in via a kiosk 29 minutes before the flight.    The message came back stating that check-in was no longer available and that I was being placed on standby for the NEXT flight 2 hours later.   When I turned to ask a United representative what that meant, she replied "you're late" and turned and walked away.   Finding that "detailed" explanation not very helpful, I decide to try my luck at the gate.  I love KCI - within 2 minutes, I'm at the gate.   The flight is early in the boarding process so I'm thinking this looks good.  But the 3 agents at the gate won't make eye contact with any of us standing there, pleading for assistance.  I finally dare to interrupt, explain my situation and ask what are my chances to get on the plane as stand-by since I was a ticketed passenger on the plane.  I get a "you're joking" look and am told I am on stand-by for the next plane, not this one and even though I have more questions, immediately lose the eye contact again.   Eventually I found out, from other passengers because the agents certainly weren't sharing, that there was no standby because the flight had been so over-booked that at least 20 passengers got bumped.  I'm guessing those that were at the airport at least 1 minute earlier than me got a voucher of some sort.

To make matters worse, I find out (again from other passengers) that the same thing happened to an earlier flight so now there are at least 40 people on the stand-by list and every flight out for the rest of the day is also overbooked.  I asked another agent about this (who affirmed), explained to him that I had a meeting started in Chicago

that night so what are my options.  He curtly replies that I am on the stand-by list, period.  I asked him what my chances were to get on the next flight and his words were pretty meaningless, but I could tell by his expression that it was hopeless.  He did finally share a bit of information with me:  the stand-bys are chosen by 2 criteria - how much you paid for the ticket and your United miles award status.  It does not matter how long you've been at the airport or what flight you were originally booked on.  So, given that I rarely fly United (I wonder why), I figured it was pretty much a given that United would not be taking me to Chicago this day. 

So, I was off to search the Internet to identify plan B.  Here's the kicker:  United was still selling tickets for all the flights out that day/night - for $1200 - even though there were already 40 people waiting to get on the already overbooked flights, and in all likelihood that number would grow.  Although like me, many customers were trying to find different flights or simply giving up and going home.

I booked myself on a Southwest flight going out later in the evening and talked with a very pleasant agent on the phone, by the way, who without my asking, also suggested that I try to get on an earlier flight (she gave me all the flight times) and indicated that since I paid full-fare for the flight, there would be no stand-by fee. 

I approached the United ticket counter for one last insult.  I noticed the individual joking and laughing with her co-workers so I think to myself, oh good, here's someone in a good mood, maybe she'll be helpful. Wrong.  The second she turns away from her colleagues, she immediately replaces the friendly face with a "and what do you want" face.   I tell her that I need to cancel the outgoing flight, but that I do plan to return with United the next day.  I ask for a refund, but not surprisingly, she says the tix change fee ($100) is the same as the flight cost. Funny thing is, that means the flight out portion of the ticket was $100, but the flight back was $250 since the round-trip cost was $350 (doesn't that seem unlikely that the return ticket was 250% the cost of the outgoing when both are mid-week flights?).  BTW, just out of curiosity, I watched the agent for a few minutes - she continued with the smiling banter with colleagues followed by expressionless exchanges with customers.  It was bizarre, almost schizophrenic.

Anyway, my same-day purchase of the Southwest ticket was a mere $126.  I rushed over to the gate where there was a flight leaving.  These agents were busy too, as they were in the middle of calling up stand-by and trying to get the flight out...but as soon as I approached, they made eye contact and added me to the stand-by list.  By some miracle, I was the last stand-by that made the plane (I wonder how many were United customers).  I made it to Chicago and was only 15 minutes late for my meeting (and that's because I flew into Midway and had to venture my way up to an O'hare hotel - which is the only reason I took the United flight in the first place!)

So, sorry about the long story (the wound is fresh).  Consider, is your customer service more like that of Southwest or United, or somewhere in between?  Now consider, of the two, which financial disposition would you prefer?  Coincidence?

PGI Friday: What You Can Learn From the Army

Whether you are trying to market certification, membership, or any other product/service, you are probably already aware that you need to identify your key targets and positioning.  I often use the army slogans as an example of how to talk to different audiences in language that speaks to them.  The following slogans have, of course, always targeting the young to middle-aged adult, but notice how each slogan has a generational twist:

Uncle Sam wants you!  Builds on the loyalty of the Silent generation.

Join the people who’ve joined the Army.  Builds on the Boomer's tendency to join. (Yeah, I know that's debatable, but it was the force behind this slogan.)

Be all you can be.  Builds on Generation X's individuality and prioritization of personal and professional development.

The power of one.  Builds on the Millenial's social responsibility and desire to make a difference.

Consider if your promotional materials speak in a meaningful way to your targets...or do you still use a generic message.  The most overused generic message for certification:  Be recognized for your expertise.  If you're still using that or a similar message, consider who that does and does not speak to. 

And for a little humor, check out the Army slogans that didn't make it, including, "Come play with our privates!"

Curriculum-based Certificates are a Valid Credentialing Option

A few months ago I linked from this blog over to a post on the We've Always Done it That Way blog regarding the value of curriculum-based certificates.  Well the post sure did create a stir within the credentialing community.  Another certification consultant forwarded the post out of context to several NOCA/NCCA leaders with the assertion that I was disparaging the NCCA accreditation standards (lesson to all:  the certification world is a small community and word travels fast).  Fortunately the e-mail recipients called me directly for clarification and no harm done.  In fact, it furthered a valuable conversation within the credentialing community which was the intent of the blog  post anyway!  But, I'm digressing...I just wanted to encourage you to check out the revised post which does a better job (I hope) of making my point without the distracting commentary.  Let me know what you think.

PGI Friday: Adding Value to Certification

Everyone is always looking for ideas on how to add value to certification.   Too often, the focus is on offering tangible benefits like certification logo-adorned boutique items (mugs, t-shirts, pens, calculators, etc.).  These can add some value, but let's be honest, not usually a significant amount.  How many individuals do you know that got a certification primarily for the mug?!  I'm not saying you shouldn't give or sell these.  You should.  Certificants do like them and they also serve a role in promoting the credentials.  When I wear my CAE lapel pin, I often get asked what the initials designate.

Up one notch on the value chain are certificant-exclusive services and events like electronic discussion lists, newsletters, job-boards, receptions, conference sessions/tracks/networking rooms,and  discounts.

Finally, the most important way to add value to certification is to take strategic steps to ensure that certification is delivering on certificants' desired outcomes.  So, you first need to find out what certificants were /are hoping to achieve by attaining certification.  Often, these include recognition (by employers, the public, professional peers), career advancement, increased marketability, and credibility.    The hard part is determining how to best deliver on these.  Usually, a key element is educating relevant stakeholders on the meaning of the credential and convincing them of its value.  So, how do you do that?  An earlier PGI Friday post provided a few examples, and future posts will provide more.

PGI Friday: Certification Reimbursement

If you haven't done so already, follow the lead of the Certification Board for Emergency Nursing (check page 8) and others and get your certification program approved for reimbursement by the government for veterans and military personnel.  There is just no reason to NOT do this. 

Check out and for more information.  Unfortunately, they've removed the specific details on how to apply for approval.  I believe they've shifted responsibility of approval to the state level.  I've got a call into them and I'll post the details when I hear back.