I am not so indiscreet as to actually post my wife’s age on the Internet, but suffice to say she is over 25. She is also a full time college student, pursuing a degree in Special Education. She recently went online at StudentUniverse looking for discount airline tickets, and found a pretty good deal on Northwest Airlines. She went to buy the ticket, only to be told that Northwest does not offer student discounts to ‘non-traditional’ students and that their good deals were only available to students between the ages of 17 and 25.
Let’s put aside the blatant age discrimination inherent in the policy. The only difference between my wife and every other college sophomore who does qualify is her age (and her grades, her taste in music and her ideas concerning what constitutes a good time on a Saturday night). Let’s examine the business logic for such a policy. Somewhere high in the NWA executive penthouse, some highly educated folks have come to the conclusion that excluding people with the drive and intelligence to go back to school later in life in order to skin an extra couple hundred bucks from them makes sense. Next week for example, Eleanor Gershien will receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Maryville University at the ripe old age of 75. Clearly she is not the sort of person NWA would like to let in on any deals. I guess they figure that Eleanor has had plenty of time to save up enough dough to pay full price, and NWA ought to get their hands on any cash she set aside while she went to school full time.
I struggled with that sort of business thinking and figured I ought to look a little deeper into things to try to understand it. The business principles driving NWA did not become clearer, however, they got muddier. For instance, I found something called NWA’s "Customer First" Customer Service Guide. Incredibly, it includes the statement, "Ensure that you receive a response to your written complaints within 60 days of their receipt by our Customer Relations department." That’s right – you tell them about a problem in writing and, by golly, within two months they’ll get back to you.
Compare that with the policy of the EPA who says "The section chief will maintain a log of all incoming issues/complaints and will respond within 10 business days of receipt." These guys at NWA are six times worse than the Federal government. The rest of the Customer First Guide reads like the fine print at the bottom of a car dealer’s ad. They commit to nothing. Instead they will ‘make every reasonable effort’ and go so far as to tell you if they have sold you a ticket on an oversold flight – but only if you ask. They are not going to volunteer that handy bit of information.
Of course, lunacy at NWA is hardly limited to Customer Service policies. These are the same people who came up with the scheme to charge an extra fifteen bucks for a window or an aisle seat – then when the howling got too loud, backed off for people with enough frequent flyer miles. If you have spent several thousand dollars with them, they will cut you a $15 break. They quietly lowered the baggage weight allowance from 70 pounds to 50, leaving a group of high school kids who had collected used computers for needy kids in Africa high and dry. NWA told ’em to cough up $1,100 or the computers don’t go. The computers didn’t go. NWA’s explanation: Hey, we don’t cut a break on the weight allowance for people taking medical supplies to third world countries, so why should we help out these kids?
So how’s it all working out for NWA? They are in bankruptcy, of course – and they blame most of it on their employees. The most recent reported revenues are down substantially. According to the Airline Quality Report, NWA deteriorated last year in all four areas they measure: rate of customer complaints, on time arrivals, mishandled baggage, and denied boarding rate.
So who is running this three ring circus? Mr. Douglas Steenland, who just so happens to have received his law degree with the highest honors from George Washington University. Under the lawyer’s leadership, the company is driving customers away in big numbers, but the good news is that he has protected the shareholders from opportunists like my wife from getting student fares, and the high school kids in Seattle from using NWA’s airplanes to haul a few hundred extra pounds of stuff to people in need, and from tall people trying to hog all the aisle seats. Yes sir. No one is going to get something for nothing from NWA while Doug Steenland has anything to say about it.
What, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with lean manufacturing? I’ll tell you.
NWA is hardly alone in seeing a critical need to have lawyers and accountants engaged in protecting the business from its evil customers. It is sadly widespread in manufacturing. In fact, it is so pathetic that an outfit with the warm and cuddly name of CakeLove.com has the following customer service policies clearly posted: Refunds are limited to store credit (even if the cake made grandma deathly ill, I assume); same day service is an additional five bucks; advance payment is required – no personal checks; no same day delivery service; all deliveries must be paid in advance and the driver will not accept payment; and, of course, all prices are subject to change without notice. Policy number one is "We work hard to please every customer every time", unless of course that customer gets a bad cake or needs one in a hurry or does not have their credit card with them. In that case, CakeLove could care less about the customers.
Who writes this stuff?
How about Tyan Computer Corporation, who says that, "In the event that a product needs to be returned to TYAN for service, the customer must obtain a Return Materials Authorization number from TYAN in advance, and that number must be clearly printed on the outside of the box. TYAN will not accept any shipment without an RMA number." So, Tyan’s failure to comply with its manufacturing quality standards in no way justifies a customer’s failure to comply with Tyan’s return policies. I don’t think I’ll be shopping for Tyan products anytime soon.
It is a sad commentary on American business when the best benchmarks for taking care of customers are in the government. If you want to see a great policy on taking care of customers, read the one set by the USGS. As pathetic as Northwest Airlines is, the people at USGS are that good. How about the Customer Service Policy at the US Navy Exchange. They basically say that if you’re not happy, you get your money back – period.
If your company needs to have lawyers and accountants editing and approving the commitments you are making to your customers, fold up your tent and go home – no amount of manufacturing excellence is going to help you. If your company cannot lay out in clear terms just how far they are willing to go to make sure that someone who buys something from you gets exactly what they paid for, forget it.
I wrote an email to Mr. Steenland at NWA that for me, was downright nice, asking him exactly what NWA was going to do about the way they treated my wife. I’ll let you know what he has to say – by no later than June 29 – guaranteed.