When Service Companies Shouldn’t Talk about Products

I like Continental Airlines. If you have to fly in the US, they’re best of breed. I go out of my way to fly them, and I fly a lot.

Which means I get many chances to hear Larry Kellner, Continental’s CEO and Chairman, do his recorded schtick on the drop-down TV screen at flight’s outset. I still miss Gordon Bethune (what a shame about the silliness that drove him away), but it seems like Kellner’s doing a good job.

Except for one thing. In his spiel, he talks about Continental’s fine “products and services.” And that just rubs me the wrong way.

I do get it, of course. If I were consulting to Kellner, I’d use those words too—in my conversations with him, that is. The abstraction that “P&S” provides is valuable for seeing patterns. Such abstractions are a consultant’s bread and butter, and I dished out a lot of that over my consulting career. I do get it.

But I’m not consulting to Kellner.  And while I am a million-miler, a platinum frequent-flyer for years, a President’s Club member since the days of Eastern and the shuttle, as far as I’m concerned, my main identity is–I’m a passenger on their planes.

I’m not a “frequent-flyer” first—I’m a flyer. I’m not a “customer,” much less a “consumer”—I’m a passenger.  I’m not buying services (and I’m sure as hell not buying a “product,” despite what I might say with my consulting hat on).  When I’m a flyer, I’m buying a plane flight.  And while I’m certainly buying an “experience,” I don’t want you to call it that—I want you to call it a flight.

I trust my life to the insane belief that tons of metal can hang in the sky.  And when Newton’s law of gravity asserts itself, as it inevitably must, I want to believe in Sully, that guy who can float me down onto the Hudson River just like he was landing on a pillow. (And hey Larry–Sully works for that fershlugginer airline affectionately known as Useless Air—heir of predecessors Agony Airlines and SloHawk.  So Larry, I know you guys at my airline, Continental, must have dozens like him–even better!)

I don’t want a high net worth credit product, I want my Platinum Card. I don’t want the best value in the mid-size performance vehicle segment—I want my Ultimate Driving Machine, 5-series please. I don’t want to see the sausage made—I want my Jimmy Dean telling me how great it is, and sounding like Jimmy Dean when he says so.

Larry, I’m sure that when you and Gordon used to kick it back at the crib, you both talked about “product.” But I don’t recall Gordon using the p-word in public. If you’re going to seduce someone, you don’t do it by reading aloud to them from the book “How to Seduce Someone.”

If you’re going to sell me a “product,” just don’t call it that. Talk dirty to me, Larry; tell me about flying, the glory of sitting alone in the front of the bus at 30,000 feet, and about how I’m so, so special. Use your marketing MBA on me–just don’t tell me you’re doing it.

Unless, of course, you want to hire me as a consultant.

In which case, here’s some free consulting.  When the Friendly Skies get wired, treat cell-phone talking just like you treat smoking.  Smoking is not a "product" you choose not to offer.  Ditto cell phone calls.  

Call them both a sin against the glory of flying, and tell us you’re having none of it.   That’s marketing I can believe in.