Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

Virginia Albanese

Building a leadership team should be at the forefront of developing and implementing business strategy. While the strategy sets the direction of a company, the executive leadership team and those in the manager and supervisory roles are key factors of a company’s future success or failure.

To get it right, start by taking an inventory of your leadership team’s current skills, abilities and experiences, and then match the inventory results to what is required for your strategy. This exercise will reveal any large gaps in talent, or it will display how well your team is aligned to the strategy. In most cases, the findings will be somewhere in between, with many excellent matches and a few people who need retooling for new job positions or opportunities. The key here is to take an honest and realistic view of your leadership team so you can determine where you need to strengthen your talent pool.

Your work does not stop there. Take this same approach with every level of the organization. Leaders at each level must be prepared with the right technical, managerial and leadership skills for executing the strategy with confidence while assuming accountability for the results. The managerial and supervisory positions will likely be the implementers of strategy and change. They can have the greatest impact on achieving your company’s strategic success.

When conducting the talent review inventory, look closely at the team’s diversity. This not only means the traditional gender, race, orientation and age characteristics but also diversity of opinions, perspectives and work styles.

For example, at our company, we use a variety of tools for determining a team member’s development strengths and opportunities. A few years ago, our leaders completed an assessment for improving personal and professional effectiveness. The results gave us valuable insight into how the differing work styles impacted others in the organization. We discovered some leaders loved detail; the more data and analysis the better. They could be counted on to ask lots of questions and needed time to come to a conclusion or take action. In contrast, some leaders trusted their gut feelings and were quick to take action with little data. We had a mix of leaders who required high involvement with others and leaders who preferred an individual work style.

While diversity in style can cause frustrating moments, with education and reinforcement, you can capitalize on the power of having such a diverse group of leaders who complement and appreciate each other.

In addition to examining your leadership pool, you must also plan for the future. This involves more than putting words to a page; it has to involve your people. While you need to develop an actionable strategy with company revenues and profits that project into the next three to five years, oftentimes, a forgotten step is working with the human resources leader. He or she can help build a foundation through succession planning and employee development programs.

I am proud to say that our company has taken succession planning and organizational design to a new level by identifying pivotal jobs necessary for our company’s strategy. While this level of detail is led by human resources, succession planning must be owned by the executive leadership team; they are accountable for the current and future success of the organization.

Upfront work on establishing the right team is a vital first step for achieving the company’s vision and mission. Planning for the future includes staying focused on business metrics, which includes generating revenue, building a strong talent pool and valuing diversity in leadership and work styles. These are the components that pay off in excellent company results and the achievement of your strategic initiatives.

Virginia Albanese is president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical, North America’s largest critical-shipment carrier. The company provides 24/7 service throughout the United States, Canada and internationally, delivering hundreds of thousands of critical shipments each year. She is also the chairwoman of the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce and serves on a number of other boards to benefit the Northeast Ohio community, including Akron Children’s Hospital and The Boys and Girls Club of the Western Reserve.

Published in Akron/Canton
Friday, 30 September 2011 21:01

The other guys down the street

The other guys down the street, across town or in another state are ubiquitously referred to in boardrooms and management meetings in public companies, private businesses, nonprofit institutions and locker rooms from coast to coast.

So who are these other guys? They are the competition. I’m involved with a number of companies and sit on boards of directors for both corporate and nonprofit institutions. Virtually without exception, at every meeting the other guys surface not once or twice but three or more times without fail. What is even more unusual is that no one ever dares to actually mention the other organization by name. It’s as if one is watching a Harry Potter movie in which everyone fearfully refers to the story’s antagonist and evil-doer Voldemort as “He who shall not be named.”

Something about not uttering the name of the other guys makes them less credible and renders them not quite as powerful or threatening. It’s probably much like whistling in the dark — if we hear ourselves whistling, we won’t hear the scary sounds, and therefore, there is nothing to fear.

As a business leader, how can you use these other guys or the people down the street to marshal your team, taking it to new heights? In my office for 15 years, I had two baseball caps mounted on the wall emblazoned with each of my two biggest competitors’ logos. Each hat also had an arrow running through one side to the other. This display sent a strong message to every visitor that I was focused on “my” other guys.

Let’s face it, competition, as unpleasant as it may be at times, is not only here to stay but also forces your company to strive to be better, provide greater value to your customers or constituents and basically continuously rise to the occasion.

The other guys can be very useful as a benchmark to measure your organization against on just about every metric. I’ve always felt that a hidden advantage of competition is that everyone needs someone to blame for something, and you’re much better off having your team blame the other guys for their intermittent woes than blaming you, which proves that in every bad situation there is always some good for someone.

Smart operators know more about the other guys in many respects than they know about themselves. There must be a biological factor in business that makes management secretly think that the competition is smarter, more efficient and does a lot more things right than they do. What most companies don’t realize is that the other guys across town are probably sitting in their conference room talking about you and how smart your company is, of course without saying your name, and how you always do it better and that they need to get their act together before you eat their lunch. It is almost ironic because the competition, in many cases, makes a company much better than it would have been otherwise and serves as a catalyst to take that extra step. Leaders deep down inside should be thankful for the impetus that these other guys provide their company or institution.

Those rare organizations that don’t worry about the guys down the street are probably the companies that just don’t get it and that think they’re invincible. Inevitably they trip over their own hubris and take a bad, sometimes fatal, fall.

Give me a good fight any time, a tough competitor and someone I can use to rally the troops against, driving them further and faster, based on their competitive need to beat the other guys and prove their self-worth. An added benefit of competition is it also tends to keep a company’s ego in check, because just when one company thinks it found the greatest widget of all time, another company comes down the pike that one-ups it.

As much as we hate to admit it, those guys down the street, across town or in the next state keep our blood boiling and energize our creativity. At the end of the day, we are probably better off fighting the competition, lest we start fighting even more with ourselves internally. Because of a worthy opponent, the customer wins, employees stay on their game, and it certainly makes life interesting. That’s what the other guys can do for you — all you have to do is learn how to use them to your best advantage.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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Published in Akron/Canton
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

The worm turns

When I received the results of a new customer service survey a few weeks back, I barely blinked.

According to Empathica Consumer Insights, a Canadian-based customer experience management firm, 55 percent of Americans believe customer service is getting worse. Further, 13 percent of respondents say they’re unsure whether it’s better or worse than in the past and 32 percent of Americans say customer service has held fast at a constant level.

What that level is the survey didn’t mention, but these results aren’t too surprising considering how shoddy customer service seems to be these days. Here’s a case in point: I was waiting to pick up a pizza at a well-known pizza chain a couple of weekends ago. As I stood there, three employees gabbed about their personal lives without regard to the customers. In explaining his latest conquest with a fellow employee — who obviously wasn’t there that evening — the employee went into graphic detail, dropping a litany of profane expletives that were too much for basic cable TV.

The entire incident made me question frequenting the establishment with my children in tow — or even at all. As a regular customer, buying pizzas once weekly for my family at $20 or so a visit, this one encounter quickly added up to more than $1,000 per year lost because of subpar, inappropriate customer service.

If you’re like most business executives, you’re scrutinizing every dollar that your company spends. Value is critical, and how you’re treated as a client by vendors and partners can make the difference between doing business with someone and seeking greener pastures.

This is why Smart Business is proud to recognize 31 organizations that have demonstrated their commitment to delivering world-class customer service.

They understand how to go above and beyond for customers, clients and vendors, essentially rendering price irrelevant. They have systems in place that ensure consistency with every encounter. They know how to make their employees — and customers — feel valued, not awkward.

And they have cracked the code on how to develop company cultures where delivering top-notch service isn’t just an idea — it’s a promise woven directly into the corporate fabric.

In good times and bad, your customer service experience is every bit as important as price points and merchandise quality. Those who deliver service well will reap the benefits of economic growth.

But those who ply it poorly will eventually suffer the consequences and a sadder fate.

Published in Akron/Canton
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

No secrets here

When you’re open and honest, your employees will sometimes walk through walls to help the company survive rough times as it transforms itself. That’s how powerful a cohesive team environment based on trust can be.

However, the opposite holds true, as well. Those companies that don’t engender employees’ trust will often find themselves struggling to keep negative energy at bay. And those CEOs that play too much close to their vest or try to spin the challenges for their employees may find that years of trust get washed away in a heartbeat.

This tenet isn’t lost on Joe Carrabba, chairman, president and CEO of Cliffs Natural Resources. Even when the company was bleeding top-line revenue last year — down 43 percent in the first three quarters — Carrabba’s team was still optimistic that moves being made would help Cliffs weather the storm.

This positive energy helped Cliffs remain profitable while reducing expenses and experiencing an uptick in demand for its mining and natural resources products.

“You’ve got to treat people well in the goods times,” Carrabba says. “So you can get their dedication and respect in the bad times.”

Carrabba offered Assistant Editor Kristy O’Hara a behind-the-scenes look on how he built a great environment at Cliffs that has allowed him to communicate the naked truth to employees and have them step up their efforts to help the company pull itself out of the recession. That story can be found on page 29.

Part of building a powerful environment is ensuring that every person receives a positive and, some might say, awesome experience that delivers beyond expectations and creates something memorable.

Speaking of experiences, by now you’ve probably noticed our new columnist, Kevin Daum, and his column, “The Awesome Experience.”

Daum is a New York City-based entrepreneur, author and business coach, who has owned a former Inc. 500 company and worked with Gazelle’s founder and CEO, Verne Harnish.

His new book, “Roar: Get Heard in the Sales and Marketing Jungle,” hits the shelves of bookstores nationwide this month. Daum’s answer to consistency is for CEOs to embrace the idea of offering every customer, employee and vendor an awesome experience every time there is a touch point. You can read a preview of “Roar” at http://kevindaum.com/awesomeroar.

Published in Cleveland

Ernst & Young LLP is calling for applications for its fourth annual Entrepreneurial Winning Women competition, a national leadership program designed for women entrepreneurs to accelerate the growth of their businesses and help them realize the potential they envision for their companies.

To obtain an application form, or to nominate a deserving woman entrepreneur, visit: www.ey.com/us/entrepreneurialwinningwomen. The application deadline is June 30, 2011. Winners will be announced in October 2011.

The Entrepreneurial Winning Women program identifies and connects a select group of women entrepreneurs with the advisors, resources and insights they need to scale their businesses and become market leaders.  The program is conducted in collaboration with the Women Presidents’ Organization, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, the Committee of 200, National Association of Women Business Owners and Babson College.

“Women employ 16 percent of the US workforce and climbing – starting businesses at twice the rate of men. There has never been a better time to help women scale their businesses, adding even more jobs to the economy,” noted Maria Pinelli, Americas Director, Strategic Growth Markets, Ernst & Young LLP. “Our program helps successful women entrepreneurs to propel their company’s growth, which benefits their businesses, creates jobs, and helps to boost the economy.”

Winners of the Entrepreneurial Winning Women competition will join an elite business network of the country’s best high-growth companies, including accomplished entrepreneurs recognized through the 25-year-old Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year® program. Winners will also participate in a customized executive leadership program designed to:

  • Expand their knowledge with the latest information, research and executive dialogues about business strategies and practices
  • Identify potential partners, strategic alliances, customers and suppliers as well as prospective sources of private capital
  • Provide access to informal, one-to-one guidance and support
  • Strengthen their executive leadership and business skills and identify opportunities to grow through meetings with senior advisors and seasoned entrepreneurs
  • Increase national and regional visibility for themselves and their companies among corporate executives, investors and the media

“Entrepreneurial Winning Women and the Strategic Growth Forum have allowed me to take a step back, focus on my business and think bigger and differently than I did before,” said Dawn Halfaker, CEO, Halfaker and Associates, and a 2010 Entrepreneurial Winning Woman.  “The contacts I’ve made and relationships I’ve built are not just helpful now but will be in the future as I continue to grow my business. I’ve received tremendous media exposure and truly been inspired.”

Each winner will receive an all-expense paid trip to the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum 2011, which takes place November 9-13, 2011 in Palm Springs, California. The Strategic Growth Forum, dubbed by Forbes.com as one of the “Seven Get-Ahead Executive Retreats,” is an invitation-only gathering of high-growth, market-leading company CEOs. The Forum presents a one-of-a-kind platform for Ernst & Young Winning Women to introduce their companies and share their corporate and personal brands within a community of established entrepreneurs, top executives, prospective investors and business advisors. All 2011 Winning Women will be recognized at a special celebratory event during the Forum. For more information on the forum, including speakers from top US companies, visit: www.ey.com/us/strategicgrowthforum.

Competition Criteria and Selection:

To apply for the program, applicants must fit the following criteria:

  • Founding woman CEO of a privately held US company
  • Company must have reported at least one full fiscal year of $1 million in sales within each of the last 2 years
  • Venture must be less than 10 years old
  • Entrepreneur must be able to attend an orientation/preparation session at Ernst & Young’s headquarters in New York City on October 4-5, 2011, and the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum, November 9-13, 2011, in Palm Springs, CA.

"Through Entrepreneurial Winning Women and the Strategic Growth Forum, my network has grown exponentially,” said Susan Rice, President, Cavanagh Services Group, Inc., and a 2010 Entrepreneurial Winning Woman.  “I have learned that even the most established entrepreneurs have similar challenges to me, which gives me the strength to know I can achieve that same level of success. I have gained more confidence to think bigger, and I have real plans for change in growing my company and exploring new market segments.”

The 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women panel of independent judges — representing successful entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders — will name 10 Entrepreneurial Winning Women in October 2011. Applicants will be expected to demonstrate qualities needed to take full advantage of the program, including successes to date that exhibit the creativity, tenacity and plan necessary to realize their companies’ full potential and the confidence and conviction to drive toward market leadership. In addition, Entrepreneurial Winning Women should have the maturity and level of business sophistication needed to interact effectively with potential investors, high-level business advisors and top executives.

About Ernst & Young’s Strategic Growth Markets Practice

Through our Strategic Growth Markets (SGM) practice, Ernst & Young guides high-growth companies to market leadership worldwide. Our multidisciplinary teams of dedicated professionals provide perspective, advice, and insights to help our clients accelerate their growth. Ernst & Young is the undisputed leader in guiding Russell 2000® companies, IPO-bound companies and Forbes’ largest private companies. We deliver assurance, advisory, tax and transaction advisory services to thousands of companies in numerous, selected industries.

About Ernst & Young

Ernst & Young is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. Worldwide, our 141,000 people are united by our shared values and an unwavering commitment to quality. We make a difference by helping our people, our clients and our wider communities achieve their potential.

For more information, please visit www.ey.com.

Ernst & Young refers to the global organization of member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited, each of which is a separate legal entity. This news release has been issued by Ernst & Young LLP, a client-serving member firm of Ernst & Young Global Limited located in the US.

Published in National
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Changing the game

There are few game-changing moments in life. When they happen, if you’re not prepared to adapt, you may find yourself heading down the wrong path from that unique fork in the road, unable to retrace your steps.

Let’s say your target market undergoes a radical shakeup, caused by the economy or new legislation. What do you do?

Taking a wait-and-see attitude isn’t an option. The longer you wait to make your move, the greater the odds that your business will suffer or you’ll fail to be among the early movers that gain competitive advantage.

Reacting too quickly is just as dangerous. You might completely dismantle what isn’t broken rather than simply tweak something that just needs a small adjustment.

Consider Joe McAleese, president and CEO of Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC.

This month’s cover story subject was used to the cyclical nature of his business — manufacturing air brake charging and control systems for commercial vehicles — anticipating cycles that moved about 50 percent from top to bottom.

But when housing starts started to decline as one of the leading indicators for the current recession, Bendix saw a steeper drop in demand for new trucks and thus a greater-than-expected reduction in business. When the full recession hit, Bendix’s cyclical drop from top to bottom reached a whopping 75 percent.

“For us, the challenge is how do you manage through that,” McAleese says.

He could have panicked. Many of his competitors did, some slashing executive pay by 10 percent and laying off double-digit percentages of employees.

Instead, McAleese kept a level head.

“You can’t let yourself get carried away with the current situation and not recognize the context of the long term,” he says.

McAleese assembled a group of staffers that represented a strong cross section of the company rather than relying solely on a small group from his senior leadership team. Together, they put as many ideas and suggestions on the table as possible. Then they identified those that not only gave Bendix the best opportunity to sludge through the recession but also those that put the company in a strong position to emerge from the recession poised for significant growth.

That’s a good example of how to take the long-term view while still recognizing the need to make short-term moves that preserve your company. And when you face a game-changing moment, making the right moves adds up to smart leadership.

Contact executive editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com..

Published in Cleveland
Wednesday, 26 August 2009 20:00

Healthy, wealthy and wise

No less an innovator than Benjamin Franklin opined, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

This formula for health, wealth and wisdom was effective for the Founding Father who not only invented bifocals but also created the first American lending library, first fire company and American fire insurance company.

Humbly following Franklin’s lead, we invented our own formula, which we’re using to explain the relationship among three key components of this year’s Innovation in Business program: Healthy ideas + healthy people + healthy companies = healthy communities.

So what exactly does this mean?

“Healthy ideas” refer to innovation. Ask “what if” and approach the status quo with an open mind. There is no such thing as too many healthy ideas. They appear in numerous forms: new products or services, business models, employee management styles, and strategies for improving customer service or product reliability.

“Healthy people” means wellness. When you and your employees set aside time to maintain your health — getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising — both your body and mind will be sharp enough to make positive contributions.

“Healthy companies” are the engine that drives the economy. They create jobs, generate positive cash flow, and have an impact on employees, customers and vendors.

Mixed together, these ingredients combine to create “healthy communities,” where we live, work and play. These are communities that are vibrant, bustling and electric. Their economic engines are sound, and the ideas generated by the companies located within them impact people’s lives.

At Smart Business, we think this formula works. But if you’re still skeptical, put it to the test by joining us later this month at the 2009 Innovation in Business conference, sponsored by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Help us honor this year’s Visionaries and Rising Stars and engage in a spirited panel discussion with four regional experts on innovation.

You can find profiles of all 15 amazing organizations and the people who power them in this issue’s cover story package.

When you think about it, taking tips from the likes of Franklin makes a lot of sense. After all, he did invent the lightning rod. And before I forget, he was also instrumental in helping create a little thing we like to call the United States of America. So who am I to argue with Poor Richard himself?

Contact executive editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com..

Published in Akron/Canton
Sunday, 26 July 2009 20:00

Great communications

When times are tough, the first instinct of any leader might be to pull everything close to the vest, sequester him or herself, and focus on managing through the challenges.

That would be a mistake.

Pulling things in too close and cutting off communication with the people who most need to hear what’s going on — your employees — could compound the problems.

“If the employees understand the direction you are trying to go in, it’s much easier for them to understand an action that you’ve taken,” explains Anthony J. Alexander, president and CEO of FirstEnergy Corp. “They might not agree with you, but they understand.”

And when you need buy-in from the team that will be tasked with the hard job of execution, that’s exactly the way it should be. Whether you’re running a Fortune 250 company like Alexander, the focus of this month’s cover story, or managing a 50-employee services firm, when you face tough times, the most important thing you can do is keep employees informed about the situation.

In Alexander’s case, he reorganized the $13.6 billion energy powerhouse last year in the wake of a crumbling economy, laying off 335 people as a result.

Despite that, Alexander refused to tinker with his “out-front” management style, continuing to pound the pavement and meet with FirstEnergy employees across the company’s three-state footprint.

Alexander’s actions were prudent for many reasons.

First, he controlled the message. By meeting in person with people who were directly or indirectly affected, he was able to address questions and quell the rumor mill that was sure to sprout. He recognized that if you’re not disseminating real information, someone else who may not have the whole truth will spread his or her interpretations.

Second, he mitigated the inherent fear factor that accompanies budget cuts, layoffs and other large-scale organizational changes. While it’s not always possible to eliminate fear during times of change, when you’re willing to frankly answer questions, you secure good will from employees and often will reduce apprehension.

Finally, Alexander communicated his vision and reasoning to thousands of employees throughout the ranks. This ensured that they not only understood what was happening but were also able to willingly join him in the efforts to push the company forward.

There is no substitute for communication. Without it, you expose yourself to the very real possibility that you’ll just make any difficult situation that much worse.

Contact executive editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com.

Published in Akron/Canton
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Beacons of light

Inevitably, every conversation I’ve had with business leaders over the past few months has turned to the economy and how organizations are coping.

While each person has his or her unique take on the situation, as do I, a number of recent national surveys have put an exclamation point on what makes all of this so unsettling.

First, low demand for products and services continues to run rampant across multiple business sectors. This has created major barriers for both growth and survival.

Second, reduced access to credit has made cash flow an immediate concern. Even for those people who do have access, they’re reporting restricted financing options, tighter lending restrictions, stalled mergers and acquisitions activity, and a higher cost of borrowing. In short, things still aren’t good for many organizations that are on solid footing.

Despite these negative trends, panic isn’t an answer. There is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you’re concerned about how to keep your operations afloat and your next payroll covered.

Recessions are cyclical, albeit this one has hit more sectors than other recent ones, and things will eventually turn around. When we finally do look back at this period, we’ll be able to say that entrepreneurs and their innovations led the way toward recovery.

That’s why I’m excited about this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year awards. It’s an opportunity to set negative news aside and focus on the positives.

Sure, the entrepreneurs that make up the finalists and category winners face the same struggles as their peers, but they have spent their careers facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and overcoming them.

Entrepreneurs are a driven breed. They demonstrate a completely committed belief in their ideas and have the perseverance to follow through no matter how many people say it can’t be done.

That ability provides the rock-solid foundation needed during tough times, when it’s imperative for an organization’s leader to remain calm and keep everyone focused. Only when you’re in control can you bring people together to develop ways to succeed.

As you read about this year’s honorees, let them serve as reminders of just what it requires to survive difficult times and come out on top.

Contact executive editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com..

Published in Akron/Canton
Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

The sky is falling!

Headline news: “Economic wreckage expected to hit the U.S.”

Sure, the economy is in turmoil, but it’s no reason to panic. Doom and gloom sells the news, but we have to stop being the media’s suckers.

Believe it or not, there are many companies surviving significantly better than the competition. How? Because in a down economy, customer loyalty is your stronger asset. More than ever, as leaders of companies, we need to get back to the basics and focus on the foundational formula that has always made the market leaders continually dominate their industry:

  • Selling your service vision to your team members, creating a purpose and a cause that allows them to make a difference

  • Ensuring your organization is doing everything to make the customer experience you deliver significantly better than anyone in your sandbox

  • Developing an internal culture that buys in to your service vision and the opportunities available from successfully delivering on that vision

  • Being creative and finding new revenue streams that benefit your customers

It is an employer’s market again, and while all your competitors are panicking and making decisions that upset their customers, it is much easier to stand alone.

Are you part of the customer service crisis or the customer service revolution?

Recently, the airline industry fought a proposed bill that would not allow passengers to be stranded on runways for extended periods of time without proper food, water and sanitation.

We have all seen how the major airlines have been like blind sheep, following each other in cutting amenities and services, or if their customers still want these services, making them pay for them. The prevailing theory: If everyone else is doing it, we should be, too. So there are no free meals on a long flight, but you can buy a tasteless sandwich for $5. One airline decided to help increase revenue by charging any passenger wanting to check more than one bag, then other airlines, not wanting to leave money on the table, decided to follow suit. Then another decided to charge for the first checked bag — and the rest began to fall in line.

Customer service revolution

One airline did not follow the trend. Southwest Airlines lets you check two pieces of luggage for free. Wow. Why aren’t they playing follow the leader?

I recently flew Southwest to Nashville. I was able to send my two pieces of luggage for free, but what really amazed me was when the flight attendant was coming down the aisle with the beverage cart and the passenger in front of me ordered an alcoholic drink. The employee informed the passenger that it would be $4 and that she could only accept credit cards. The passenger didn’t have a credit card available and asked if it would be possible to use cash. The Southwest employee responded, “I apologize; we only accept credit cards and are not allowed to take cash. But that certainly isn’t your fault, so let this one be on me.” It gets even better, on her way back, she brought the passenger a refill.

Will someone please tell Southwest Airlines how the sky is falling and how much money the company is losing by not charging $15 per checked bag and by giving away free drinks because its employees are afraid to say no to a customer?

Or maybe no one has to tell Southwest Airlines anything. Southwest doesn’t play follow the leader, because they are the leader. Maybe, just maybe, the other airlines should pay attention to Southwest — they carry more passengers than any other airline and have maintained profits while others fall apart and are forced to merge.

Action plan

Educate your people to stop listening to and believing in all the hype and find opportunities to expose your competitors’ weaknesses and capture market share that is dying for someone who cares about them.

In the past month, I have asked several thousand audience members what they would prefer: A stronger economy or to duplicate their best employees — the people who get it, buy in and do anything necessary to satisfy customers.

The vast majority answered they would take No. 2. Well, the good news is you can have that. We can’t control the economy, but we can create a stronger internal culture that produces satisfied customers who become loyal, repeat business. /P>

JOHN R. DIJULIUS is the best-selling author of “What’s The Secret? To Providing a World-Class Customer Experience.” (Wiley, May 2008). He is also president of The DiJulius Group, a firm specializing in giving companies a superior competitive advantage by helping them differentiate on delivering an experience and making price irrelevant. Reach him at john@thedijuliusgroup.com

Published in Cleveland