Whatever you do, don’t imitate the airlines

I recently declined an invitation to go sailing in St. Martin. I love sailing down there. The trade wind sailing past palm-fringed beaches is spectacular!

Several factors combined to make me decline the invitation, but the flights home were a major one. The flights down are the typical cattle-car experience the airlines subject us to nowadays, but the flights back are even worse. I can spend a week building up this sailing euphoria and lose it all before leaving the airport. Why spend all that money if I can’t even take a little joie de vivre home with me?

On the return trip, it’s like they never heard of you. You have a reservation, but they cancel your seat assignments and boarding passes. You have to stand in a long, long line to do again what you’ve already done.

When you get to San Juan, again, it’s like they never heard of you. Your hours-old boarding pass is no good and the long, long line is even longer. I know someone, who had a house in St. Martin. He and his wife loved it there, but they sold it because of the hassle getting back and forth. I keep seeing airline advertisements for the Caribbean. They don’t seem to realize our last experiences are far more powerful than any ads they can produce.

One of my cousins was recently killed in an automobile accident. I and other family members traveled to Pennsylvania for the funeral. None of us flew, not even my youngest brother, who has lots of frequent-flyer miles. Why get on an airplane unless you absolutely have to? Four cars made the trip from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania and back.

My cousins from the West Coast had to fly, but they were the only ones who did, and their tales made us glad we didn’t.

Customer disservice

No doubt, driving was cheaper, especially when purchasing airline tickets on such short notice (Do they even have bereavement fares anymore?).

When you drive, no one charges you an extra $100 for a change in schedule. Most passenger cars have something called legroom; you don’t feel like removing your legs to put them in the overhead compartment, where there’s no room for them anyway. And we weren’t sitting on top of each other.

There was no trouble fitting the luggage in the trunk, and no one tried to charge us extra or make us feel guilty for having luggage. The only unpleasant service was from a surly toll-taker. The people who work in rest area food service seem no worse than those at airports.

Even New York traffic wasn’t a problem, although it’s always a risk. Unless you get bogged down in traffic, the trip is about six hours. All told, flying takes about four, when the plane is on time. Even so, if they made me comfortable and treated me like a human being, instead of like a side of beef heading to market, I’d probably fly.

Do they even have a clue about how much business they’re losing?

Unfortunately, the airlines are not the only industry that thinks it can make more money by treating customers poorly. What about you and your company? I know times are tough (Believe me, I know!), but do you really want to cheapen your products and/or services? Even if your competitors do the same, you will still lose customers, and that may prove to be far more costly.

I’ve noticed some restaurants have smaller portions and fewer selections. Amenities like cloth napkins may have disappeared. Interestingly, reservations may no longer be necessary. No doubt, people aren’t eating out as much because of the economy, but are even more being discouraged because it’s no longer all that special?

By all means, do everything you can to cut costs by improving quality and reducing inefficiencies, but don’t cheapen your product and/or service in the eyes of your customers.

Think about it — there is no government stimulus that’s going to fix this. If you aren’t making enough money, you have to attract more customers, and you can only do that by making what you’re selling even more desirable.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; fax 603-894-6539; bourq@att.net; bourqueai.com.