SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Let Customers Try the Good Seats

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 10, 2008

In a sense, software companies and airline companies are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.  Airlines sell a perishable resource: seats on flights.  If the seat doesn’t sell, the flight goes anyway, and most of the cost (fuel, personnel salaries, etc.) is incurred with no offsetting revenue.  Software, by contrast, can manufacture as many “seats” as demand will bear, with the occasional hiccup due to scalability concerns if demand is too fast and furious.  Traditional manufacturing is somewhere in between.

Imagine my amusement when I read a recent tail (sorry for the pun!) of United Airlines by Ed Cone, which Jeff Jarvis elegantly calls “an airline’s exquisite stupidity.”  United offers “economy plus” seating for an extra $30 on the flight Ed Cone was on.  Curiously, on this particular flight, economy plus was empty and the rows behind were packed.

Passengers started out asking if they could move and were quickly told they had to pay for the seats.  Then, enterprising passengers wanted to take United up on the offer.  Immediately.  After all, Cone muses, you can buy a drink for $5 on the spot, why not a seat for $30.  But no, the attendants were not amenable to that either, saying they were not set up to take reservations.  Heavy dose of disbelief here.  There is no “reserving” involved really.  The doors close, the plane rolls down the runway, the wheels come up, and nobody else is getting on that flight! 

So what could United have done?  Lots of obvious choices.  At the least, they could have agreed to sell the seats for $30.  While I’m sure there are complex pricing algorithms in United’s reservation system and the airline may not always offer those seats for $30 more, offering people a chance to upgrade “in flight” for a fixed fee on any United flight would seem like mighty nice customer service policy to have in place. 

A step beyond that would have been to offer to upgrade frequent flyers before the plane was boarded.  Airlines have tons of miles racked up and getting them off the books is beneficial or you could just give it to the customer for even more impact.  I have actually been fortunate exactly once in my years of business travel to be offered a free upgrade without asking, but it sure put a smile on my face to be called up to the desk and offered the upgrade to First Class. 

In my mind, even better would have been to have the attendants empowered to parcel out the seats without strings attached once it was clear they would not be needed.  When was the last time an airline did something that thoughtful?  Yes, there are potential problems.  There may not be enough seats for everyone, but surely there was a strategy that would make people happier than staring at a big block of empty seats they were barred from using.  Perhaps offering the poor sods seated in the middle seat the first opportunity would have a certain fairness.

But as I think about this, the software world comes back to me, and darned if there aren’t times when we do exactly the same thing to our customers.  Consider the area of self-service.  Do you make it easy for your customers to self-service their way into everything you sell, or do you insist on your equivalent of the “reservation system” these attendants were so worried about?  I remember trying to get more disk space from my ISP for my family web site.  They’re not set up for self-service.  All of their self-service is focused on new customers.  In fact, it turned out to be quite an odd ordeal to add disk space.  Few people had evidently ever needed more than the standard package allowed, so they weren’t set up well for it.  I had to spend a lot of time on two different phone calls to get it taken care of.  Nothing more annoying than businesses who make it hard for you to give them your money for a service they clearly sell.

Contrast that with a conversation I had with 3Tera.  They related that if you make it easy for customers to provision, they will provision a lot more.  Things it may not have occured to you they would even be interested in will suddenly be selling.  I’ve heard this sort of story from multiple places.

And what about the customer experience?  What if you have a many-tiered collection of services, and you were to go to some of your best customers in the lower tiers, and offer them a chance to try the better tiers for a time at no extra charge?  Isn’t that the exact analog of these seats on an airliner?  If you were that customer, wouldn’t that make you happy?

I remember Seth Godin saying one time it’s worth stopping and thinking about the one thing of value you could give your best customers without their having to ask or do anything.  Just take it and give it to them, with your thanks that they’ve supported you.  It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t happen often, so it leaves an impression.

The biggest thing the Web brings us is choice.  What is scarce in a world of endless choice?  Real customer service.  A great experience.  Choice is all about the going in, but experience comes after the choice.  What are you doing to deliver an exceptional customer experience?

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