From “Church of the Customer” blog, Aug.28) — I love this particular blog because it is all about creating excellent word of mouth and customer devotion to your product, beyond mere loyalty. It cites creative approaches, like this one by a United Airlines pilot who really goes above and beyond the job description. I especially like that he takes snaps of pets in the hold so fliers know they are fine in flight.

“A rogue pilot at stodgy United Airlines is creating his own, word-of-mouth-worthy experience for fliers.

Here’s how Capt. Denny Flanagan does it:

* He mingles with passengers in the gate area
* He makes gate announcements himself, updating passengers about weather conditions and sets realistic expectations for delays
* He uses his cellphone to call United operations to ask about connections for passengers
* He passes out information cards to passengers with fun facts about the plane; he signs two of them, whose owners will win a bottle of wine
* He snaps pictures of animals in the cargo hold to show owners their pets are safely on board
* He writes notes to first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers on the back of his business cards, addressing them by name and thanking them for their business
* He personally calls parents of unaccompanied children to give them updates
* He instructs flight attendants to pass out napkins asking passengers to write notes about experiences on United, good or bad
* He orders 200 McDonald’s hamburgers for passengers if his flight is delayed or diverted

“I just treat everyone like it’s the first flight they’ve ever flown,” the very smart captain told the WSJ in a highly valuable front-page story. “The customer deserves a good travel experience.”

And here is the original article on the pilot, from The Wall Street Journal (I cut out the preamble since it repeats what is above):

THE MIDDLE SEAT
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY

To a United Pilot,
The Friendly Skies
Are a Point of Pride

“. . . . So unusual is the service that Capt. Flanagan has been a subject of discussion on FlyerTalk.com, an online community for road warriors.

Mark B. Lasser, a Denver advertising-sales executive, came off a Capt. Flanagan flight and posted a question on FlyerTalk.com about why the pilot had been so friendly. “I don’t trust UA at all but can’t figure out what the ulterior motive is,” he wrote.

Others quickly came to Capt. Flanagan’s defense. “I’ve had this pilot before — what a great guy. He does the same thing on every flight,” said a FlyerTalk regular.

Mr. Lasser says he just wishes Capt. Flanagan weren’t such a rarity among United employees. “Every flight before and most flights since have been so poor in customer service that this guy really came across as representing his own standards more than the company’s. He’s an outlier within United,” Mr. Lasser said in an interview.

UAL Corp.’s United, which ranked in the middle of the airline pack in on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage in the first half of this year and next-to-worst in consumer complaints, has supported Capt. Flanagan’s efforts. The airline supplies the airplane trading-cards he hands out as passengers board, plus books, wine and discount coupons he has flight attendants give away. He goes through about 700 business cards a month, and the company reimburses him for the food he buys during prolonged delays.

“He’s a great ambassador for the company,” says Graham Atkinson, United’s executive vice president and “Chief Customer Officer,” who is leading an effort to boost customer service. He hopes more pilots and airport workers will adopt some of Capt. Flanagan’s techniques such as the frequent, detailed updates he gives to customers.

Air travel isn’t easy for anybody, given problems ranging from storms to mechanical breakdowns to computer snafus and lost luggage. Airline workers have endured pay cuts and fights with management; travelers have suffered poor service and unreliable flights. Capt. Flanagan tries to deal with the cheerfulness challenge — at least on the flights he works. “I just treat everyone like it’s the first flight they’ve ever flown,” said the 56-year-old Navy veteran who lives on an Ohio farm and cuts the figure of a classic airline captain: trim and gray-haired. “The customer deserves a good travel experience,” he said.

Last Tuesday morning, Capt. Flanagan was at gate C19 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport an hour before the scheduled departure of Flight 831 to San Francisco and made his first announcement about the delay before the gate agent had shown up. The time posted for departure was 8:20, but that was optimistic, Capt. Flanagan told passengers, because the Boeing 767 they would fly wouldn’t land from São Paulo, Brazil, until 7:02 and then had to be emptied, cleaned, inspected and towed from the international terminal.

He tried to lighten the mood, using a joke he tells before every flight. “I almost forgot to tell you, this is my first flight,” Capt. Flanagan said. Wary eyes looked up from newspapers and BlackBerrys through a long pause, before he added, “today.”

Capt. Flanagan mingled in the lounge answering questions and using his cellphone to call United operations officials to ask about connections to Asia and to cities on the West Coast.

Ajoke Odumosu, a track star at the University of South Alabama who was on her way to Osaka, Japan, for a world-championship competition, realized that when she began her trip with US Airways Group Inc., her luggage had been checked only as far as San Francisco. With the delay, there wouldn’t be time to retrieve it and recheck it for Japan.

Capt. Flanagan called Chicago and learned that the luggage was already in metal containers ready for loading on the 767, and couldn’t be retagged. He called San Francisco and found a manager who agreed to pull Ms. Odumosu’s bags aside and retag them for Osaka. In all, he spent 15 minutes on the problem.

“I was glad he went out of his way, which he didn’t have to do,” Ms. Odumosu said.

Once the plane was ready for boarding, Capt. Flanagan passed out cards with information about the Boeing 767. On every flight, he signs two of the cards on the back and, if there is wine left over from first class, he announces that passengers with his signature have won bottles of wine.

When the movie ended, flight attendants passed out napkins and passengers were invited to write notes about experiences on United — good or bad. Fifteen were selected to receive a coupon for a 10% discount on a future United flight, and Capt. Flanagan posts the passengers’ notes in crew rooms or sends them on to airport managers when they raise specific issues.

Randall Levelle of Morgantown, W.Va., and his family were flying to San Francisco because his father-in-law had just died. Capt. Flanagan invited Mr. Levelle’s three children into the cockpit during boarding.

“If other folks in the airline industry had the same attitude, it would go a long way to mitigating some of the negative stuff that has come about in the last four or five years,” Mr. Levelle said.”

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