When a Swedish businessman named Jan Carlzon took the controls in the hot-seat of an ailing airline back in 1981, he must have wondered if he had flown into the Bermuda Triangle. That airline was SAS (Scandinavian Airline System) and it had just been voted 14th out of 17 airlines as the least punctual carrier. Not only that, the airline was on a steep descent, having just reported a loss of 17 million dollars.
(Statistics Source:Wikipedia. Image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphotos.net)
If he was visibly deterred, it was only to those with X-ray vision. Carlzon had to make some quick decisions and make them he did.
By going back to basics, he captured the minds and souls of his employees and united them with a common purpose – to have that airline flying high again, on a clear course with its pride restored.
Business coaches like me will always tell you that if you can engage your staff, help them understand the purpose of the enterprise, harmonise their values with the company’s values and share and believe in a common vision, then you can boldly go on your mission together with a far greater chance of success. The history books of commerce are as agreed upon this conclusion as are those of the warfare authors.
“When people understand and are complicit with your cause, then you will create a movement that will simply flow around any obstacles like a torrent of intent.”
Jan Carlzon explained the power of inclusion thus, “An individual without information can’t take responsibility. An individual with information can’t help but take responsibility.”
- Do you explain to your staff where your (and their) company is heading?
- More importantly, have you shared with them that often jealously-guarded secret of WHY?
Whenever I go in as a consultant to a reasonably large organisation, I am intrigued by the balance of power and information; the juxtaposition of encouragement and fear; the occasionally confusing contradiction between the hyperbole and rhetoric with the so-called customer service declarations. In other words, the company may well talk the talk, but do they walk it as well?
Carlzon has become synonymous with the archetypal role of the true-to-life, ‘effective executive’ that would later be depicted in 1967 by the management analyst guru and notable author, Peter F Drucker. It is a role that Carlzon earned by not only spearheading a turnaround from a 17 million loss to a 54 million profit the next year , plus being named ‘World Airline of the Year’ in the year after that, but by the emotive way in which he and his people achieved that feat.
Jan Carlzon created a series of slide presentations, with which he lectured his staff. He created a company manual in which he outlined his master plan and he sold his entire team on the dream. In becoming clear about their mission to become the best business carrier and in communicating to his people why every single one of them could make a difference, he began a ripple that would lead to a wave.
(Image courtesy of Vichaya Klatying Angsulee at freedigitalphotos.net)
“We have 50,000 moments of truth every day” declared this iconic manager.
What he meant by that, was that no matter what you may spout about customer service, no matter what you sing in your jingles, the real ‘moment of truth’ arrives when you are put to the test – when any single member of your staff team interacts with a customer (or potential customer). That is when you find out the truth – will you fly, or will you crash and burn?
Carlzon empowered his people to make decisions, but to make them from the solid platform of understanding what the company stood for and why.
“Problems are solved on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission.”
“Mistakes can usually be corrected later; the time that is lost in not making a decision can never be retrieved”. Mr Carlzon did go on to add this small disclaimer, “the right to make mistakes is not equivalent to the right to be incompetent, especially not as a manager.”
So to paraphrase, ‘It’s okay if your staff get it slightly wrong as long as they act with the best intentions of achieving the company’s mission to keep your customers happy’ (subject to some sensible pecuniary controls of course).
(Image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphotos.net)
We business coaches mentor people to understand and evaluate the ‘lifetime value’ of your customers, rather than quibbling over small egotistical battles with them that may be of little consequence in comparison.
For example, it may be better to let a customer exchange an unwanted item and take a small loss on one sale but have the customer continue to shop with you for many years in full confidence, rather than ‘win’ the skirmish by refusing the exchange, but lose the war, as they then shop with your competitor.
Now I will add my small disclaimer that there are some customers whom you absolutely should ‘fire’. There are those who should be encouraged to annoy your competitor rather than inflict their unique brand of misery on the positive minds of your happy team, but we are talking here about numbers. You want your own ‘tribe’ of raving fans as Seth Godin likes to call them – more customers of the ‘right stuff’.
Sir Richard Branson always talks about ‘fun’ being a cornerstone of all of his businesses. To work with colleagues who are equally as happy and committed as you are, in an ethical and supportive environment can mean that work is not a chore to be endured but rather, another fun part of life where you hang out with cool people. His philosophy is that you overcome the fear of losing the good ones by creating a learning environment and an uplifting atmosphere where they COULD leave, but they almost always WON’T.
Jan Carlzon talked about the importance not of doing one thing 100 per cent better, but of doing 100 things at least one per cent better.
Never mind ‘The Devil’s Triangle’, for the ‘Devil is in the detail’ as they say. It’s a collection of lots of little things; striving continuously to progress personally and professionally; looking for little ways to surprise your customers, to get the edge on your competitors; to make the whole experience a fun-filled, win-win. Some 42 years after Carlzon’s feats, Branson is now taking us beyond the skies and into space.
If I am your customer, I want you to be like the Jan Carlzon’s and the Sir Richard Branson’s of the world – “I want you to fly me to the Moon with a smile on your face!”
That begins with a decision about your mission, followed by a lot of little decisions that will drive you through ‘blast off’, gathering momentum for the climb to the skies and beyond!