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Seaman: For better or worse

For better or worse . . . The client respect game


November 30, 2007
By Rob Seaman

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One of the frequent questions asked of me comes from the FBOs and Charter Providers I work with and goes something like this – “we do not seem to be doing all that well on the surveys that get published. Any idea why?” And then it is followed with something to the effect of “we think we are doing a really great job – so either these things are wrong or we are missing something.” I always equate this sort of questioning to a troubled marriage. When you ask your best friend how do you know when a marriage is over – it usually already is.

We are all so busy in corporate aviation today, rushing around and trying to keep pace with the current flurry of success, that we sometimes forget the basics of why we are there in the first place – to provide exemplary service. Regardless of your role – FBO, flight ops, maintenance, catering, ground transport, fuel supply and especially OEM of aircraft, parts or systems – the reason that we all have a job is because a lot of people have found that a private aircraft serves their travel needs best. It has been said before – but bears repeating – earning a customer is one thing. Turning customers into clients is something else entirely. And keeping them over a long period of time is yet another story.

When a customer becomes a client, you have crossed the line from someone who takes the odd bit of their business, to a trusted and valuable part of a service chain that they build and maintain. Clients are the folks who come back time and again. These are the people that a service industry business goes to the bank on and considers to be a key part of the revenue stream. The thing is – getting clients is something that you may do well – fuss the details and show your best stuff. You get their attention for doing it once. Keep it up and they keep coming back. The problem that rises is this – like a marriage there is a honeymoon period, and once that passes you start to see each other’s respective faults. The extra pounds or wrinkles and blemishes along with certain behaviour traits or habits start to show themselves more to you than before. Now, in the world of the successful marriage, we overlook these things and build on the strengths that brought us together. What I am seeing and hearing more and more in our industry, though, is open complaints, disrespect, and a breakdown of the service values and norms that we all worked so hard to build.

The breakdown seems to be coming from a lack of appreciation for what clients bring to us. Yes, they are demanding – but we encouraged them to be so back when we were ‘dating’. The other thing is that in reality, this is a small business. The gossip factor cannot be ignored as part of the reason clients lose their lustre over time. Stories from previous handlers can and do put a shadow over new relationships – and while a tip about bad past credit or financial dealings is just being a good neighbour – for anything else it has the unfortunate ability to taint the client unfairly before an independent and non-biased opinion can be formed. Sales people can be the worst for this and what never ceases to amaze me is that while they will openly trash someone behind their back – tomorrow they are banging on the door with gifts to woo the business.

What is all comes down to is a lack of respect. When you stop respecting the client it is time to decide if this is a client that you truly want or need. In a marriage, this would be counseling time. In business it is looking to see if you still need or value their revenue and what prestige or benefit your association with them brings. If the answers point to moving on – then by all means do so. Nobody is ever disrespected for being properly honest. If on the other hand that client is a value to you – then look at what has gone wrong and see how to fix it. The answer may involve actually speaking with the client or not. But to sit and let things go unaddressed sends the wrong message all around. It lets your support team know you do not care – which they in turn could read as permission to do likewise. And in general it creates tension and stress that is not good for anyone. The spillover effect can and does affect other client relationships too. And then over time it just becomes a cancer that slowly eats away at your business. In the end, those third-party surveys will show you what your client does not say directly. Your service is not up to standard, and that means that you are losing business.

So love your clients and keep them happy – or get a divorce. But either way, look at your relationships and take action to keep your business as it should be for today. Because the client of today will be the revenue you need when the industry corrects itself next. And believe me – there will be a correction sooner or later.