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.


4 replies
  1. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    Yay! Couldn’t agree more Charlie. Glad someone said it.

    I hated it when British Rail in the UK stopped calling us "passengers" and started calling us "customers".

    Every time I heard the phrase on a tannoy at railway stations it riled me. Still does.

    It just seemed to push the relationship that bit further away. Away from one of duty and care (to "passengers") to commerciality and transactions ("customers").


    PS And yes, for heavens sake, let’s not have mobile phone conversations on planes – bad enough on trains.

  2. Joe Young
    Joe Young says:

    That was an entertaining post.  I fly Continental primarliy and agree that "products" really don’t have a place in communication with their customers.

  3. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Great post, Charlie!  I love the distinction you made about not being a "customer" much less a "consumer."  I’ve always thought that "consumer" is pernicious – it’s crept not only into our language but also our way of thinking.

    A customer has a relationship with a company, but a consumer has a relationship only with a product.  And once the "product" is "consumed", then what? 

    Let’s hear it for more precise language — like "passenger" — and hope that begins to reflect more careful thinking in all of our business relationships.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Ian and Sandy, I’m glad to hear your reactions are similar to mine.  And you’ve both picked up on something I had not, namely the idea of precision in language here.

    We’re all saying "product bad, consumer bad."  At least in speaking with them.  And I like how both of you articulated how that language distances companies from those who buy from them.

    So let’s push it: here are a few other terms I wish we could use more precisely.

    One is commerce, which, Ian, is a term I’d like to rescue from "bad" to "good."  Commerce is a delightful word, if we use it correctly; it conveys that ‘business" is not a solitary battle between buyer and seller, but a joint process which requires collaborative action by two parties.  I’d like to move in the direction of using it as the opposite of "competition," as a paradigm of "doing business."  From competition to commerce.  What do you thinK?

    And Sandy, you were much easier on "customer" than is Ian.  What do you think: good word, bad word?

    Interesting stuff.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *