Customer Service Lessons from Ikea and US Air?

IKEA Empowers Employees and Customers

I took my daughter to IKEA today to help her bring some furniture home to her apartment. As we went to the checkout line, there were three self-service lines, and only attended checkout line. We chose one of the self service lines, and checked out very quickly.

As we took our purchases out to the parking area, my daughter commented that it would have been fairly easy for someone to slip through without paying. This was not one of those stores where people scan your invoices and receipts. There were only a few people checking.

Yet as we left, one of the attendants followed us and said, “Wait, wait you forgot one of your purchases.” Sure enough, we had. So I guess they were watching well enough, and she smiled graciously as we thanked her.

Clearly IKEA did trust their customers to some extent, and it also seemed like they trusted their employees to pay attention and do the right thing. My daughter said the experience made her feel like IKEA trusted her, and was looking out for her best interests at the same time.

US Air Gives a Passenger a Really Big Christmas Gift

The week of December 14, I flew from New York to Cincinnati to Charlotte to Toronto to New York, most of it on US Air. On the leg from Cincinnati to Charlotte, I accidentally left my MacBook Air computer in the seat pocket in front of me on the airplane. (Note to Steve Jobs: can you make the MBA a little less convenient, please?) When I got to the hotel I figured out what happened.

I first called US Air’s central customer service, which was a horrible experience. It ended with the person I talked to saying I should talk to TSA. I said that was ridiculous, and got back on the phone to the local Charlotte airport. There I learned that nothing had been returned from the flight and the plane had left for Birmingham. (Second note to Steve Jobs: can you make the MBA a little more clunky and visible, please?)

I managed to get to US Air’s Birmingham baggage office—and suddenly my problems were over. I met Veronica. Who is your basic goddess of travelers.

Veronica immediately understood my problem and offered to solve it. She called the gate to make sure someone checked the minute the flight landed. As soon as the plane landed, she found the computer and called me. I was extremely relieved, and asked if she could send it back on the next plane.

“Gosh, we used to do that, but insurance and so forth nowadays,” she explained. I asked for permission to speak to her supervisor. “Oh sure,” Veronica said, “no problem; maybe she can help you!”

Lisa is what you’d expect from a goddess’s supervisor. She listened carefully to my story, and explained their policy. They were willing to send it via FedEx. I explained I was willing to absorb the risk of damage. (Third note to Steve Jobs: could you please make the MBA a little more breakable?) What I really didn’t want was to not have it for the next day in Charlotte, and have to suffer the risks of FedExing it to Toronto. (No offense to FedEx, my carrier of choice).

She weighed the data, and made a spot decision. By herself. She asked Veronica to pack it very carefully and get it shipped to me on the next flight back to Charlotte (the last flight).

Good call, Lisa.

I went back to the airport and bit my nails, until a package came down the baggage chute. Carefully wrapped, it had a handwritten note in big letters on the outside: Merry Christmas Mr. Green!

US Air may not be perfect, but they got three things perfectly right. They hired Veronica. They hired Lisa. And they gave both of them the power to make smart decisions, on their own, when it came to customers.

Trust and Collaborative Capitalism

Shout out to both companies. Trust your employees to trust your customers. Trust begets trust, and everyone benefits.

This is collaborative capitalism, folks. This is not your father’s zero-sum game. This works.

Is Your Marketing Poisoning the Well?

I met Joan at a group dinner the other night. When she found out what I did, she said:

The other day I got a call from the local Ford dealership—I had bought my car from them several years ago. They wanted to know if I’d be willing to refer several of my friends to them.

“Refer my friends!” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding! Your dealership behaved very badly towards me twice in the last six months—unethically, even—and despite my complaining about it, I have yet to hear anyone there apologize, or even take responsibility for it.

“In fact, I’ve already told a number of my friends to never do business with you. And you call me and ask me to refer business? Do you know what ‘fat chance’ means?”

Ouch, Mr. Ford Dealer.

In the “olden” days, it was lore that a good customer service story might be retold a dozen times, while a bad customer service story would be told a hundred times or more.

Nowadays: make that a hundred thousand times—or more. And within days. The now-classic example: the United Airlines broken guitar video , which garnered 3 million views in seven days. (It’s a pretty catchy song, if you haven’t heard it).

Reputation Marketing 2.0

Industry after industry has historically made an implicit assumption in their marketing: that the supply of new customers is endless, and endlessly renewable. Don Peppers and Martha Rogers took a head-on shot at this fallacy in their under-appreciated 2005 book "Return on Customer," stating that customers are, in fact, the scarcest resource.

In other words, the very common slash and burn marketing tactics that most companies use to churn through leads—massive emailing, lead culling, indifferent customer service reps—are now poisoning the well.

They were right in 2005, and they’re about 100 times more right in 2009.

How many of the 3,000,000 YouTube views made in one week were of people who were potential customers of United? Existing customers of United? Employees of United? It’s a hard number to calculate, but let’s agree on three things:

  • it’s big
  • it’s bigger than it used to be
  • it’s very not good for United.

Is Your Marketing Poisoning Your Well?

Back to Joan and her local Ford dealer. Can you imagine the impact on that dealerships’ local market if Joan had access to local media? Well guess what, she does. And since all media is local in this age of Craigslist and YouTube, Ford itself could and should be concerned about such things.

The biggest impact of all this bad-news-traveling-faster world is that Darwinian selection can act a lot faster. Businesses using anti-customer tactics are subject to being outed on a massive, nearly real-time basis. Customers can make up their own minds, and increasingly trust surveys show that we trust others like us more than we do nearly all other institutions.

Which means users of classic anti-consumer bad marketing tactics are now more likely to have the gun pointed right back at them.

I’m going to give the Ford dealership a break and not name them by name. But rest assured I’ll send them a link to this blog. They dodged a bullet this time; but bullet-dodging is not a good strategy going forward.

Attract and Retain: People Strategy, or Roach Motel Ad?

The phrase “attraction and retention” falls naturally off the lips of HR people. It’s also common with the customer relationships crowd.

Yet it’s also perfect ad copy for selling flypaper or roach motels; “they can check in—but they can’t check out.”

So which is it? High-minded strategy for people and customers? Or unfortunate parallel with the extermination business?

The phrase “attraction and retention” grew out of McKinsey’s 1990s “war for talent,” crystallized in the 1997 book of that name.


…a company’s ability to attract, develop and retain talent will be a major competitive advantage far into the future. “The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent,” said Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay recently.

Ouch…score a few points for the insect hypothesis.

Let’s have a look at how the phrase has evolved in ten years. Today:

It’s still about employee attraction and retention—in the HVAC contracting business.

For the 7-county Milwaukee area, Deloitte Consulting offers a 5-step process for attracting and retaining new business and industry residents.

It’s about website visitors

And it’s definitely about customers

But just how does one attract and retain?

Well, for customers, you could use one-to-one marketing:

Remember all of those advertising brochures you’ve found in your mailbox over the years from them? Those are the results of a one-to-one personalized marketing strategy. Most likely your relationship with Radio Shack began when you walked into one of their locations and purchased a stereo.

Yup, that’s probably where it started, all right. Though I haven’t been back in years…wonder why…

To attract and retain employees, you could create a retirement plan .

You could also “attract and retain more supporters, members, and donors, through a BrandXcellence consulting relationship.”

Here’s how Brunswick does it:

• Business and financial leadership development programs
• Products managed and engineered by local and regional talent
• Performance management process

You could do it through CRM.

You could read about the Five Key Elements of A&R.

But wait a minute—why is it that are we doing this? What purpose does attraction and retention serve? Ask that question, and we get some consistent answers:

the long-term sustainability of an organization’s business strategy and market differentiation hinge on effective recruitment, talent development, and retention.

Human capital continues to be the single-largest investment a company makes, and now management can quantify the return on investment of its human capital and connect it to business results…"

We use tools such as the Watson Wyatt Human Capital Index ® – which links the effectiveness of human capital practices to shareholder value creation

A primary challenge facing almost every organization today is quantifying human capital investments and their effect on shareholder value.

Ah, yes, that’s it—the reason we want to attract and retain employees and customers is so that we can raise shareholder value. People and customers are the means;  business success  is the end. Therefore the value of employees and customers can be measured by their contribution to financial value creation.

Does it not dawn on these people that they’ve gotten it backwards?  That financial performance is a result, an indicator, of success in serving employees and customers?  That companies should serve people—including shareholders—rather than the other way ‘round?  Causality flowing one way doesn’t mean it flows the other too; people who like things hang around for more, but just because people are hanging around doesn’t mean they like things (prisons, for example, have high retention rates).  

The sin of the roach motel approach is that it focuses on symptoms, not causes—and in so doing, perverts means and ends.

It all comes down to motives, and motives can be slippery. Even the same person, moments apart, can treat customers like ends—or like means.

One of the best—and most vacuous—recommendations is to engineer your entire company culture around doing things that attract people and encourage them to stay. Best, because it’s absolutely correct. Vacuous, because if you don’t start with a profits-exist-for-people mindset, you’re never going to get there by pursuing X-step processes in support of increased shareholder value.

You either live it or you don’t. People are attracted by genuine motives—not by some technician measuring their attraction levels. People stay most if they genuinely want to stay—not because of a program that locks them in in order to increase shareholder value.

The roach motel crowd is dominating the dialogue. In our pursuit of minute measurement of the effectiveness of flypaper, we’ve forgotten motives.

People come if we really, really like them and treat them well. Period. People stay if we really, really like them and treat them well. Period. Not for the sake of shareholder value. For their sake. Period.

Then—and only then—the shareholder value thing works best too.  As an outcome—not as a goal.