I’ve written a lot on the topic of startup advice, but it’s still a hot issue in today’s business world especially as it relates to entrepreneurs and startups, so I’m writing about it again. The topic? The speed required by startups versus speed in the world of Corporate America. Read on.
I remember speaking with a friend with whom I had worked before at two different organizations. One was my own startup, which I later successfully sold, and one was a large, well-established company. He had been having some challenges at his place of employment, specifically with the speed at which things were getting done (read that: “not done”). We had some fun talking about the startup environment and how it differs from Corporate America. It was an interesting conversation, and I thought I’d share some of our discussion points and startup advice.
Startup Advice — Speed is Everything
I’ve now sold two startups, so I’ve worked in everything from small companies with less than ten employees to big, public companies with tens of thousands of employees, so my startup advice comes from the trenches. One thing is for sure, there’s nothing like the speed of a startup to keep you engaged and motivated. It’s like a special kind of drug, and one that entrepreneurs thrive on. Have an idea on Sunday, discuss it Monday morning, do a bit of research and flesh it out on Monday afternoon, start ideating on Tuesday, and start developing on Wednesday. A short time later, you launch. Sure, more complex ideas and builds take longer, but you get the idea. When things get done at this speed, you get to try things, lots of things. If they work, great! If something doesn’t work, fix it. If it still doesn’t work, toss it and start over. I’m someone who likes to keep things moving. Stagnancy is excruciating to me which is why I’ve always included at the top of my list of startup advice this adage: “Fail quickly, fail cheaply, and fail often.” Let me explain.
Startups and Corporate America — And How They Are Similar
Whether you’re running a startup or working in Corporate America, the reality is that there are often many similarities. Especially when it comes to having great ideas, implementing them as quickly as possible, and evaluating the results. Failing quickly is critically important. When it comes to failing, what you don’t want is one of those long, painful, expensive failures.
Chances are good that you’re nodding about here, because you’ve found yourself in this position before. You know what I mean. The project that swallows thousands of people hours and hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. Worse yet, during that time, the company isn’t really trying anything else, because everyone at the company is so focused on the project, they let their collective brains take a vacation from creativity. Then one day comes the realization or actually, it’s more like a validation, that the company’s brain-child isn’t going to be the great success everyone had hoped. Worse, there will be some people who will want to keep it going to save face until a more “suitable” time is found to kill it.
Having found myself in this situation in the past, with data in hand, I would politely and appropriately and yes, sometimes even passionately, voice my concerns and offer alternative points of view. Sometimes my points were taken into consideration, sometimes not. In the end, you win some, you lose some. So goes the life of being an executive in a big company.
Accomplishing Digital Transformation in Corporate America Doesn’t Have to Be Difficult
As evidenced by my statement above, when I’ve worked as part of a large organization in the Corporate America world, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that being a good corporate citizen is a critical component of success. This is especially true if you’ve been hired in a role that requires you to disrupt the status quo, move the company in new directions and essentially be a “Change Agent.” Human beings inherently don’t like change, and if that’s your job, understanding how to navigate through the process of digital transformation and culture transformation is essential. The best way to do that is with a people-centric focus, working to build the proper, internal partnerships, working together to define and establish goals, gather support for your projects and initiatives, and get them approved and in motion. Getting them over the finish line? Another important goal, and you’ll have buy-in from leadership and your team supporting you on those initiatives, which will make a big difference.
A Story About Innovation and Disruption: From a 150-Year-Old Company
One thing I’ve learned from my experiences is the size or age of a company doesn’t predestine it to over-complication. I ran digital strategy and business development for Rand McNally, the maps and directions company. Though it was a 150-year-old company, things ran pretty quickly there. As proof, they acquired Tripology (where I was the CEO), soup to nuts, within two and a half weeks. Trust me, this 150-year-old company could move quickly and understood the importance of disrupting the business-as-usual mindset.
As is often the case, this aspect of speed came from the top. Dave Muscatel, Rand McNally’s CEO at the time, understood the need for speed and how speed drives innovation. As a result, he was relentless. He pushed me and the rest of his executive team to keep things moving along at a good clip, and we did. Everyone (okay, almost everyone) was on the same page—business teams, engineers, the operations staff, and even the attorneys. Obstacles and roadblocks were dealt with quickly, together, as a team. I really enjoyed my time at Rand McNally and one of the reasons was the culture of innovation and disruption fostered by the leadership team. It felt like working at a startup, even though it wasn’t. In today’s business world, that’s often not only what you need to thrive and grow, it’s also what you need to be able to attract and retain top talent. Working at such a rapid pace, and experiencing the reality of failing quickly, cheaply, and often was invigorating. It was how I had run the companies I had previously founded and a culture my team and I flourished in. Being able to work in a larger organization, a 150-year-old bastion of Corporate America, that operated in much the same way was a great experience.
Where Corporate America Gets Innovation and Disruption Wrong
For every story like the Rand-McNally one, there are twenty other stories about Corporate America flailing when it comes to innovation and disruption. Why? In general, Corporate America is so consumed with lawyers, fear of failure, quarterly reporting, etc. that good old spaghetti throwing against the wall is often all but gone. That’s not the case everywhere of course, but it is evident in a lot of places for sure.
Have an idea? Shhhhh. Let’s make a plan to unveil it at the proper time. Make sure you have NDAs ready just in case you want to sniff-test the idea with someone outside your company. Go contemplate every single little detail, document it, come up with an ops plan, get budget approval, and line up the focus groups – lots of them. Then, talk to the dev team, though they’re likely going to tell you it’s going to take ten months and a million bucks to build it – even though you could easily get it done in half of the time for half the cost. Don’t forget, you’ll likely need a few versions of a deck to get buy-in from a boatload of other people who likely won’t appreciate what you want to get done. Okay, let me take a breath here.
In fairness, at big companies, the projects that align with the overall corporate strategy and those which will create the most revenue usually receive the support needed to get done. And just because it’s a big company doesn’t mean resources are unlimited. You’ll have to deal with allocation—of everything; staff, funding, marketing, and a myriad of other resources along the way. I’m not suggesting these things and the process aren’t important—they’re absolutely critical. I’m merely saying that speed is important as well. To be truly successful in Corporate America, you have to be able to sell the concept that speed (and innovation) matters. You have to push, not steamroll. You have to collaborate, not dictate. You have to persuade, not demand.
Startup Divisions Within Big Companies: Do They Work?
Startup divisions within big companies are an interesting concept. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. On paper, a separate startup team within a big company often looks like a pretty decent plan, especially by senior executives who want to shake things up. But here’s the rub; at the end of the day, if your “startup team” needs to go through the same red tape, the same product development team, create the same documentation, and follow the same legal process timelines as anything else within the organization, well then, it’s not really a startup team, is it? All you’ve done is branded the team as ‘renegades and disruptors’ without empowering them to actually go off and be renegades and disrupt. Been there. Done that. Got the tee-shirt. And those people? If you don’t let them do the things that they love most, which is innovating and thinking and creating and doing, they’re likely to go somewhere else where they can.
What If All Companies Acted Like Startups
So, what if all companies acted like startups? No, I’m not suggesting they all rush out and get air-hockey and foosball tables—those are symbols of startup culture that are largely irrelevant. What I am suggesting is simple: I think we would see a lot more innovation, exponentially more disruption and change, a lot more activity, not to mention an improved corporate culture, if leaders in the Corporate America world could lighten up and speed up.
Before you call me crazy, know that in my corporate roles I’ve had a lot of great corporate attorneys, analysts, and development teams with whom I’ve worked. They moved quickly and helped me get products built and launched and were instrumental in helping me and the team get deals done and sold. Creating great, internal partnerships helped tremendously in this respect.
Unfortunately, many people in the Corporate America world have never seen or experienced the concept of “startup speed” and they’ve certainly never had to deal with the real-life pains of small business. They casually throw around budget numbers in the millions, even though the amount to which they’re referring is twenty or thirty times their salary. If you’ve ever been responsible for making payroll, you know the pain I’m talking about. At my first startup, which was bootstrapped, by the way, I remember thinking “I really need to make payroll on Friday. If I don’t, some of these people are going to hurt this weekend.” That’s pressure.
Let’s Marie Kondo This Thing
Bottom line, in today’s business world, speed matters. Whether you’re a startup or operating in Corporate America, speed is critical in today’s business environment. I think it’s time we all make efforts to Marie Kondo our efforts. Let’s get to the stuff that makes our companies profitable, great places to work and brings us joy! Let’s quit getting bogged down in the minutia and speed up what we do. I’m all for having meetings, but keep them short, keep them tactical and implement, implement, implement. I’m all for documentation, but keep it in bullet format and quick and easy. I’m all for emails, but can we all agree to stop cc’ing the entire world in every blasted message? Oh and hey, how about we pick up the phone and/or jump on a video chat and let’s resolve to actually talk more. These things? They’re part of the DNA of speed, and not one of them is difficult to do.
What about you? Have you seen speed in action? Was it in a startup or a big, corporate company? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Make sure you follow me here for more. You can also find me on twitter at @johntpeters. If we’re not connected on LinkedIn, let’s fix that right now—John T. Peters on LinkedIn. I’m always up for meeting new people and having great conversations.
Throughout my entire professional career, I have focused on creating strong, mutually beneficial, strategic partnerships. I’ve done hundreds of them. I have partnered with companies of all sizes, both public and private, for a variety of projects. Most partnerships were successful, though some were clearly not. Even in the cases where mistakes were made, I have learned from all of these experiences and I believe I have “partnering” down to a science. Partnering is part of my professional DNA and I’ve always looked to create a culture of partnerships, both external and internal, to help me accelerate growth, drive innovation and improve the customer experience.
Creating partnerships has always made perfect sense to me. Lately however, I seem to be bumping into people who don’t know how to partner with other companies or worse, people of the “I can do this myself” mindset. So, I thought I’d write about why and how to create a successful strategic partnership and include key components where I not only use, but rely on, LinkedIn.
There are plenty of great reasons to create a strategic partnership with another, complementary organization. A good strategic partnership will allow you to:
- Quickly create a larger following
- Grow your business and drive revenue
- Get access to new markets, new ideas, technology, innovation and resources
- Speed up the time-to-market timeline for your product or service
- Improve customer satisfaction
- Spread and enhance reputation
- Provide extra brainpower
- Reduce risk
- Reduce costs (through economies of scale)
- Obtain an alternative point of view
Think about it; you likely have a great idea to build, launch or promote something. Ideally, you want to do this as quickly, economically and as successfully as possible, all with the least amount of risk. What better way to accomplish this than with the help of a partner or multiple partners? Before you do however, there are some key points to consider.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR MARKET
Before you start pitching a partnership idea, you have to be sure you have a solid understanding of your market. I know, your first response is “Of course I do!” Well, let me be clear; this is one of the most important aspects of a good strategic partnership. If you’re a startup, you may very well have some initial research you included in your investor pitch deck. If you’re working for an established company, you may have some applicable (but possibly dated) information. Either way, while these are good starts, you’ll need even more information and more data. Make sure your research is up to date and as complete as possible. There’s nothing worse than a partnership proposal with dated or incomplete data. It kills the validity of your proposal.
FRAMING THE CONCEPT OF THE PARTNERSHIP
Picking the right partner is key. However, before you actually approach anyone about a strategic partnership, you have some work to do. You’ll first want to clearly define your goals and they shouldn’t be vague. Rather you’ll need to clearly articulate specific goals as this will make your partnership proposal more meaningful and more attractive. More importantly, they will also allow you to decide which potential partners to approach.
Then, you’ll need to identify your strengths. What are you good at? What is easy for you to do? What are the best parts about your IP. This is what you’ll be bringing to the partnership and what the potential partner will most be interested in. If you walk into a partnership proposal with nothing but a list of “wants and needs” but nothing to offer in return, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The goal here is to make the proposal win-win!
Next, you’ll have to be completely honest with yourself and identify your biggest weaknesses. They may be technological, financial or having to do with customer acquisition, etc. These weaknesses are your gaps and it is these gaps which will help you identify the best potential partner. In other words, you will be most successful if you find a partner who will fill as many of your gaps as possible. Remember, you’re looking for synergy here. Keep in mind you may have to partner with multiple companies to fill these gaps, even if it is for a single project. Note though, adding more than one partner at a time for any given project makes things a little more complicated.
After you’ve identified your gaps, start thinking about the type of company you would like as a partner. Is it a big, established company? Is it a smaller, more nimble one? Is it a company with a large social following? Would it have to be local or could you partner with a company in another state or even another country?
Taking all this information into context, you should now be able to brainstorm and make a list of the companies which fill your gaps and with which you would like to partner. Or, at the very least, you’ll have the criteria for potential partners.
INTERNAL FRAMING OF THE INITIAL, BASIC PITCH
For your initial outreach to potential partners, you’ll need basic bullet points for conversations and emails. You’ll want to concisely convey enough information about the potential partnership to get them interested, but not so much that someone else could take your idea and run with it. You also don’t want them to simply judge, from your first outreach, they’re not interested. Make sure you mention the basics of your idea, what you bring to the table, how you would like them to be involved, and how they (the company) would benefit. Remember, the goal here is to secure a time for a short, initial conversation so you can convey an exciting opportunity, over the phone or in person.
FINDING THE RIGHT PARTNERS
The first thing you’ll need to do once you have a preliminary list of potential partners (or at least the criteria for potential partners) is to start your research. Clearly, the best way to do this is on LinkedIn. If you don’t know which companies you would like to approach, start with a search of the criteria items, in both LinkedIn and Google. This will help you start a list. You should also reach out to contacts to see if they have ideas on who would make good partners.
If you have a target company in mind, visit the company LinkedIn page. On that page, read the “About” section, see when they were founded and pay close attention to the number of employees. This will give you an indication of the company’s size. Most importantly, see what they have listed as their company specialties. Read their LinkedIn posts. If they’re interesting to you, make sure you follow them on LinkedIn. If you have a LinkedIn Premium Account like I do (it’s well worth the investment), you’ll also see an “Insights” section. Here, you can see a lot of information about their employees, including the growth trajectory, distribution and tenure of their headcount. This will give you tell you if they’re in growth mode, staying the same or reducing their headcount.
Now, with all of this information, ask yourself if the company appears to align with yours and with your project goals. If so, or if you’re not sure, do more research by visiting their websites and read their press releases and social media posts. Do they have a large social media following? If they do have a significant following, where are they the strongest; Facebook, Instagram, etc.? You should also research how they treat their customers by reading reviews about them, their products and their services. The partners you target should be credible and respected. Then, if you confirm your belief they’d be a good partner and align with your brand, you will now have to find your way into the company. More importantly, you’ll have to find the right people at the company to approach.
Clearly, the best way into a company is through a referral versus a cold call. You greatly mitigate trust issues when someone refers you to the person you’re trying to reach. So again, head over to LinkedIn and go to the company page of your first target. On the company page, toward the top right, you’ll see, in blue, the words “See all # employees on LinkedIn.” Click that and you’ll get a list of all of the company’s employees on LinkedIn. The list will include their names, positions, location, what level connection they are to you and which connections you share with them. The first thing I do is look for the right position of the person I’m trying to reach depending on the type of project. I pay close attention to LinkedIn connections in common. Usually, the more connections you share, the easier the initial pitch will be. More shared connections generally means more trust will be afforded to you. The ultimate goal here is to get to the decision maker and if you can, get referred from a connection in common via email. I know you might be tempted to cold-call the person, but trust me, getting to them via a referral gives you a better chance of success. There’s one exception to this; if you work for a large, very well-known company, making a cold call is fine.
ASKING FOR A REFERRAL FROM A MUTUAL CONNECTION
If you have LinkedIn connections in common, display the list of the connections. Who on that this is most able to positively talk about you and your company? Have you successfully worked with any of the people listed? Next, send a LinkedIn InMail message to that connection (or you can also call them) to determine how close they actually are to the person at the company you’re trying reach. If they’re close with them, tell that person you’ll be sending them an email and that you’d very much appreciate them forwarding it to your target partner contact. Do not, under any circumstances, have them send an email on their own. The goal is to have them forward YOUR email, making sure they ‘cc’ you. By doing so, you’ll have your initial pitch conveyed the way YOU want and an easy way to follow up with your target.
IF YOU MUST MAKE A COLD CONTACT (CALLING VS. EMAIL)
If you don’t have connections in common, you may have to get a little more creative and you may have to make a cold call, send a cold email or send a LinkedIn InMail (though you need a Premium account to do so. More can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/help/linkedin/answer/1584/inmail-overview?lang=en. Each has its pros and cons. Do whichever you feel more comfortable doing. It’s up to you.
I have found, in general, the people in business development, sales and marketing are more willing to entertain a partnership conversation as long as you show them the potential financial upside for them. After all, these are the people who are tasked with growing the company. So, even if your partnership is to be based on the sharing of technology, don’t shy away from the business folks. Remember, the purpose of a cold call (or e-mail) is to make an appointment for a longer conversation, be it over the phone or in person. This isn’t the time to lay out your whole plan. I suggest you use your previously created partnership bullet points and remember to point out how they will benefit. Again, make sure you’re contacting decision makers or people who can influence the decision makers.
Finally, if you are calling, be prepared to leave a short, concise voicemail, not more than twenty seconds long. Make sure you use the person’s name, mention your name, provide a sentence or two about why you want to speak with them and mention your phone number twice. Practice a few times before leaving a message.
MAKING THE INTIAL CONTACT
Once your referral has connected you via email to the right person at your target partner, you’ll need to be more specific about your partnership idea. Your return email to the person should be clear, succinct and compact. It should also mention that you’re going to send them a LinkedIn invite to connect, which you should do within a day or two.
Since your goal is to get a meeting, either on the phone or in person, your email should briefly explain what you do, your idea for a partnership, why you think they would be a good partner and how a partnership would benefit both organizations (but focusing on how they would benefit). Finally, mention how you’d appreciate ten minutes of their time, at their convenience, to talk about your idea. Done properly, you’ll pique their interest and get an appointment with this person, and it will likely be for more than ten minutes. You may get a rejection and that’s okay. It happens. If it does, respond politely saying if they change their mind you’d be happy to have a conversation. Mention again that you’d like to connect on LinkedIn (and send the invite). Then, move on to your next partner target until you get a meeting.
TEN MINUTES TO GET THEM EXCITED
If you get a ten-minute call on the books, you should send a one-page overview of your proposal to them a couple of days in advance. If you have their email, great. If not, send it through LinkedIn InMail. Either way, this gives them some time to review it and have put a little thought into it. Note though, it should be short and easy to read. It should briefly mention who you are, what you do, your idea about a synergistic partnership and what the goals are. Include only a few sentences on each section. You should also include a couple of data points as this will show you’re serious. Your goal here is to get a longer meeting scheduled, preferably in person. So, during your ten-minute call, go through your pitch overview. Make it short, sweet and exciting. Done properly, you’ll get a longer meeting.
CREATING THE PITCH DECK
I like to use PowerPoint decks with limited, bulleted talking points to go through an initial proposal in person. It is also good material should they ask you to send something in advance of your meeting. It shows you’re serious, that you have done your homework and it lays out your plans. However, it should be brief enough to require this meeting to go over the details. Don’t throw the kitchen sink into it.
The deck shouldn’t be too long or too verbose. It should be an overview of a win-win proposal that includes bullets and data points on:
- Your background highlights and I stress the word “highlights.”
- Your clear objectives. What is your end goal?
- What you bring to the partnership and why you are an ideal partner.
- Why they are ideal partners and why did you decided to approach them.
- What they bring to the partnership and how you would like them to participate.
- The potential for mutual wins of the partnership by joining forces.
- What the end state of the strategic partnership looks like.
- And, just a hint of what other things could you possibly do together in the future. This shows you’re a good investment of their time.
For the actual meeting (i.e. not for the deck), you should put a fair amount of thought into the economics of the partnership. You should know what you’re willing to spend (minimum and maximum) and what kind of return, financial and otherwise, you want from your investment.
Finally, make sure you allow time for and encourage questions and discussion. If you get a thirty-minute meeting, your presentation shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes. The extra time should include conversation about what challenges they are facing, what their motivations are, what their overarching goals are and their reaction to your proposal. The more your partnership proposal helps them with their challenges and reach their goals, the more likely it will be you’ll get a deal. Remember, your goal is to come up with a shared vision of a mutually beneficial partnership.
Throughout this whole process though, it is important to remain realistic and keep it as simple as possible. Asking for too much is a mistake. You should also be cautious and protect yourself, your data, your customers and all of your IP. Speak freely, but don’t give away so much information that would be damaging to you if they reject your proposal.
Assuming you’ll be successful and that your target partner finds your proposal interesting, you’ll meet, discuss, iterate and hopefully move to the final step before implementation; the agreement.
THE AGREEMENT DETAILS
Once you get an approval to more forward, you need a written agreement. Don’t even think about skipping this step. I strongly suggest hiring an attorney to come up with your agreement template and you can use it as a starting point for other, future partnerships. Of course, you can also find agreement templates online. Personally, I would only suggest this if you’re adept at writing contracts. Otherwise, have an attorney write it.
The agreement needs to be complete and detailed and include non-disclosure statements. Your proposal should lay out your ideas, your goals, who does what, what each company will bring to the table, the related expectations of these items and how expenses will be shared. It should also list your measurement of success and what the KPI’s (key performance indicators) will be, what you’ll do if the KPIs aren’t being met, how often you’ll meet to discuss the KPIs and the project progress in general. It also needs to include everything related to IP and who owns what at the start and who will own what as a result of the strategic partnership. Of course, it should also include a section on the duration of the partnership and what will happen at the end of the partnership, with options for extension.
While all of these things pertain to a successful partnership, sometimes things don’t go the way you planned. So, you should also include a section on what happens if things go wrong. What happens if the partnership is a bust and it doesn’t work? What if one of the involved parties completely under-performs or worse, wants to back out? Who will own the products created during the partnership? Who will own the IP (intellectual property)? There’s a lot to cover in an agreement, which is why I always recommend hiring an attorney to write this for you. Noe last point, if you’re partnering with a big company, you are going to have to use one of their agreements, I assure you. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask for changes or additional clauses though, so be diligent. They may make the changes, they may not. That’s just the way big companies roll. If you are using a big company’s form, then I would definitely use an attorney to help you understand all the terms of the contract.
ONE FINAL PIECE OF ADVICE
The best strategic partnerships are those between two or more organizations that have the same values and share the same goals. A successful partnership requires a lot of work. It isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of project. Keep communications open, regular and honest. Most important, make sure there are multiple people involved. Create relationships with as many people as you can at your partner company. You don’t want the project(s) to fall apart if someone leaves the company.
As you can see, there is work involved, but a good strategic partnership can catapult your efforts. With the right partner, you should be able to do more, faster and cheaper than you would on your own. LinkedIn can be an important tool to help you create a successful strategic partnership.
If you’d like to see a PDF of this complete guide, you can find it here: Creating Strategic Partnerships_Final PDF
I’ve written about this before, and I have a feeling I might catch some heat again. However, before you throw stones at me, read the whole post.
For years, I’ve been traveling on planes listening to screaming, misbehaving, and crying kids. I must admit something very dark; I hated kids on planes. Just the sight of them made me cringe. I would spy them in the waiting areas and try to judge how misbehaved they’d be and what my odds were that they would be sitting within one row of me or worse, next to me! I’d also look at their parents to see how attentive they were.
I recall one flight when I was sitting next to a man (he in the aisle and I in the middle seat – so, as you can imagine, I was already pissed) and the two children behind us wouldn’t be quiet and were amazingly rambunctious. The man next to me continued to read his Wall Street Journalas if there was nothing wrong. As the kids bounced and yelled, he kept reading. Then the kids started playing “go fish.” As they did, they threw their cards, proceeded to slam the tray table connected to my seat repeatedly. All the mother did was kept repeating “Calm down, you are bothering the nice man in front of you.” (Ya think?) However, after one hundred times of saying this, I’m sure all the kids heard was “way to go, make more noise.” One last slam and I turned around and said to the mother something like “Look, I’m normally a nice guy, but the fact you continue to sit there and do nothing while your children bang on my chair is unbelievable to me.” Her response? “Sorry, but they’re only children.”
The slamming stopped for a few minutes, and I turned to the guy sitting and reading his newspaper. (Note: he hadn’t moved and, to my amazement, was still calmly reading.) I commented to him, “Do you believe this?” His response? “I’ve got four kids at home. This is nothing. I honestly don’t hear a thing.” I couldn’t believe his response and thought for a moment that he might have been their father. You know, a dad who travels with the family but acts as if he doesn’t know them?
As for me at the time, I never thought I could deal with kids on a plane. That is, until my wife became pregnant with our first child. I knew, at that moment, I was going to have to grow up and get with the program. One thing I learned from my travel experiences was 90% of a child’s behavior on the plane was in direct proportion to the effort put forth by the parents. Yes, Mom and Dad, your children are your responsibility on planes or in hotels or anywhere else for that matter. Ignoring them in your own home is fine, but ignoring them while they significantly effect someone else’s travel by slamming the back of someone’s seat isn’t.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN
Fast forward many years, I now have two children, 12 and 10. Both are avid flyers, and I wanted to share our tips, especially for younger children. The following is a list of what we did when our children were younger to make sure we, and the people around us, had a good experience. It’s not a foolproof plan, but it worked for us, so here goes.
- Plan. Plan out the trip and leave yourself extra time to get around, get to the gates, etc. “Winging it” with small kids is never a good idea. You’re better off being early than frantically trying to make a flight. And speaking of flights, try to time them so the kids will be sleeping. I’m not suggesting the red-eye flights, but early morning or later flights always worked well for us.
- Snacks! Kids love snacks. Pack plenty of them (stick to finger foods) and not the messy kind. (Think pretzels, gold fish). Since you can’t take fluids with you through security, remember to buy extra bottles of water after you get through security. Stay away from the sugary juices so they don’t get more active. Plus, drinking extra water on flights is beneficial to people of all ages to prevent dehydration. If your children prefers milk, make sure you purchase some of that too since the drink cart on the plane doesn’t always have some.
- Packing. In general, don’t overpack like crazy. Yes, you’ll see me say below to bring extra clothes, but don’t go crazy.
- Kill Germs. Airports and planes are dirty. Bring disinfectant wipes and wipe down everything around your child on the plane: arm rests, tray tables, wall, window shade – everything. Carry Purell and wipe/disinfect their hands and yours regularly. OK, germs killed. We still do this today as a way to keep us all from getting sick.
- Bring Extra Supplies. For younger kids, the diaper bag has to be filled, complete with any supply that might ever be needed for any possible reason. Extra diapers and supplies (30% more than you think you need – just in case of delays), paper towels, a cloth towel just in case you have to mop up a spill, plastic bags and Ziploc baggies and an infinite supply of wipes. Plus don’t forget and extra change of clothes. Bring a little air-freshener too. Trust me, you may be used to your little-one’s spit-up smell, but everyone around you won’t appreciate it. My wife also has a toiletry bag that she stuffs with basic medication, just in case. A small supply of things like Tylenol, Benadryl and anything else you’ve used is good to have. You don’t want to have to find a 24-hour Walgreens at 3:00 a.m. with a sick kiddo.
- Keep ‘em Busy. Children’s attention spans are short at a young age. When the kids were younger, I planned the 15-minute activity list; one surprise activity per 15 minutes. Keep them busy and they are less likely to aggravate you and the other people on the plane. Activities can be repeated, but only once an hour. For us, these included: NEW crayons on coloring books, NEW hard picture books, sticker books, etch-a-sketch mini, and one of those books with the special marker that reveals hidden pictures as you color. New is key. Kids love opening new things, and you’ll get a lot more mileage out of it. One, used coloring book and a few crayons isn’t going to cut it; they’ll be bored so quickly, and you’ll be wondering why you didn’t bring something else for them. Bring things you might enjoy as well to do WITH them. My friend said she loves to bring paper and pen for tic-tac-toe so they can do it together. Bring a stuffed animal too (a washable one).
- Technology. On a plane, technology IS your friend. Bring an iPad. Download a couple of kid-friendly movies in advance, more for longer international flights. Luckily, many airlines offer on-board entertainment, so you should be all set. The on-board technology isn’t always working, so plan for that too. For shorter domestic flights, some airlines, like United, require you to have their latest app installed on your device to be able to access the entertainment system. Do this at home so you’re not scrambling in the moments before takeoff. Also, remember to pack COMFORTABLE headphones for your kids. Even though they’re easy to pack, tight-fitting earbuds don’t work well for young children and there is research which suggests earbuds aren’t safe for kids, especially at high volume.
- Popping Ears. Infants cry during take-off and landing because their ears hurt. So, make sure they’re drinking a bottle during those times to alleviate their ear-popping pain. It always worked like a charm for both of my kids.For kids that are a little older, water and snacks will help with ear popping, as will sucking on hard candy or chewing a piece of gum.
- Extra clothes. As mentioned, bring extra clothes for the kids…and for you. Sometimes, young children get sick, so plan for it. Sometimes children get sick on youwhich my wife learned on one flight when my son threw up on her. From then on, we each carried an extra t-shirt with us, just in case.
- Thou shall not kick. Do you have young children? If your child is a fan of kicking the seat in front of them (why do they do this?), take off their shoes. One kick and it will hurt, and they’ll stop doing it. And don’t let your children bang on the seat-back trays.
- Hear no evil. No matter how well-behaved you think your kids are, they may cry. We always carried extra sets of inexpensive earbuds (or bought some from the flight attendants in the old days). On one flight where our son kept crying, we gave earbuds to the man sitting next to us. He kept saying “you don’t need to do that.” They were inexpensive though and he appreciated the offer.
- Thank you and Sorry! Sometimes, children are just going to misbehave. It happens. Yes, they are just kids (Okay? There, I said it.) Or, they’ll be sick, or something just won’t go as planned on the plane. You’ll make a few people miserable. You won’t want to, but you will. When we flew with our young children, we carried a dozen gift cards (from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks). Most were for $10, but a few were for $50. We used these as “thank-you” and “I’m sorry” for people that either helped us (like the flight where my wife was flying alone with my infant daughter and a flight attendant held my daughter when my wife had to use the rest-room.) Once, on a flight that was delayed for three hours ON THE RUNWAY, our daughter spilled her apple juice on the man next to her. It was just juice, and she didn’t mean it, but she was fidgety. He wasn’t upset, but I felt I should at least pay for his dry-cleaning. He didn’t want to accept anything but was pleasantly surprised at the gift-card.
- Parents – this one is for you. Work together. Take turns holding your young children or taking your children to the bathroom. Do more than your fair share. Traveling with kids can be fun. To this day, my daughter and I love to look out the window on take-offs and landings. We love to look at the clouds or the city lights below us on evening flights.
As you can tell, I’m a firm believer in over-parenting on flights. It’s the right (and polite) thing to do. Your children and your seat-mates will thank you. I acknowledge that things always won’t go as planned, so you should plan for that as well. It won’t be easy all the time, but you have to make the effort. Traveling with children can be a great experience.
For those parents who think that ignoring their misbehaved children on the plane is okay and the rest of us should just deal with it – well, no. You deal with your kids. At least, please, make a real effort. We understand they’re just kids, but you are the adult.
For the rest of you on the plane, including people like the anti-child-on-plane person I used to be, people traveling with kids (especially single parents) need help, so offer assistance. Every little bit helps. You’ll see how much they appreciate it. My mother always says, “Be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you.”
So, do you have any tips to add? If so, put them in the comments section—I’d love to hear about them.
Finally, if you’re not following this blog or if we’re not yet connected on LinkedIn, let’s fix that. You can enter your email on the right side of this page to follow this blog. You can also follow me on LinkedIn here: John Peters on LinkedIn. I look forward to getting to know you.
(This post has been updated to clarify that the ETIAS authorization is not a “visa.” Rather, the application process is for travel “authorization.”)
As American citizens, we’re spoiled. We’ve got an incredibly strong passport and traveling to Europe has always been easy; just book and go. As long as you’re going for fewer than 90 days, there’s no paperwork and no hassle. Well, that’s about to change. In 2021, less than two years from now, US citizens will need a three-year, ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) authorization. The ETIAS authorization is technically not a visa, but rather it is a travel authorization to enter most European countries, including Greece, France, and Italy (full list of the 26 countries below).
Apparently, it’ll be a simple online process to be done, and paid for, in advance through secure online payment. To get an authorization to enter these countries, you’ll have to apply online at the ETIAS website. To enroll, you’ll need a valid US Passport (valid for at least three months beyond your intended stay return date), a credit or debit card and a valid email address (to be able to receive the ETIAS confirmation). You’ll also have to enter a valid street address for your permanent residence and valid phone number during registration. The cost is said to be roughly $8 (eight dollars) per person, so no big deal there.
According to the ETIAS website, the authorization will be multi-entry, meaning you can use it multiple times in the three-year validity period and you’ll be able to use the same authorization to visit more than one country. This authorization will specifically apply to the 26 European countries of the ETIAS Schengen zone. These include:
- Czech Republic
The EU countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland are not part of the Schengen Area and have their own regulations regarding visas, if required.
The ETIAS website states there will be few restrictions on the applications to “promote tourism while maintaining a high level of international security.” I’m all for international security, believe me. However, I’m fairly certain this will hurt European tourism, because this isn’t just for US citizens. This impacts travelers from 60 countries to which this new authorization requirement applies.
Now, you’ll tell me that many people around the world are accustomed to having to apply for visas to travel, even Americans traveling to certain places. Then you’ll tell me that having am authorization system in place indicates a higher security level. That may well be true, but I still think this will hurt European tourism – though just a bit. After all, we enter our basic contact information and credit card pretty regularly online to shop on sites like Amazon. Travel however, is a little different. Having to take out your passport and apply for an authorization online will deter some people. We’ll have to see how the traveling public will react.
If I were (still) an international tour operator and yacht cruise line company, I’d be preparing to make this as easy as possible for my clients. I’d immediately start working with every single middle-man vendor and travel partner in the travel booking process, to make sure the application procedure (with links) are mentioned everywhere online and with travel agents. I’d even offer tele-support assistance for the application process, despite it apparently being an easy online form.
For my travel friends, all I have to say is let’s get organized and make a, hopefully, easy application even easier for travelers. For my fellow travelers, a simple online authorization application is but a small, extra step to see some of the most beautiful places on earth and have an experience of a lifetime.
For more and updated information, visit the ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) site for updated information.
A few weeks ago I went food shopping at my local (but regional chain) grocery store. I shop for food in a few places as I can’t seem to find one store that offers me everything. I wandered the store gathering my items when I realized I couldn’t find this one type of snack my daughter likes. I swear I went up and down every aisle, but no luck. I finally found an employee walking my way and I asked politely if she knew where these snacks were. “Aisle twelve I think” and she kept walking. She was polite enough and clearly had someplace to go, but she wasn’t very helpful. I went to aisle twelve, again, but still no luck. I was exasperated and left without the snacks. My experience definitely soured me on the store and the brand. This got me thinking about branding and how clearly the company hadn’t aligned their brand building efforts with their customer service actions. But what is a ‘brand’ really?
What is a Brand, Really?
So, what is a brand, really? There are many definitions of ‘brand’ of which you might be aware. Since you’re not likely branding your cattle (the older definition of brand), let’s focus on what people think is the newer definition. A brand is a logo and what it stands for – what comes to mind when people think about a company or something it offers. Think search engine, think Google. Think fast internet product delivery, think Amazon Prime. Think organic, think Whole Foods. You get the idea.
Here’s the problem. The older definition of brand limits us to what people see. The newer definition of a brand limits us to what people think. Guess what? They’re both wrong as far as definitions go. They’re wrong because they only focus on perception, on what happens in the eyes of the customer and potential customer outside the company walls. But your brand is more than your logo, more than what’s in your ads, more than what’s on your website and more than what’s in your sales presentations. Your brand is who you are, what you believe in. It’s the relationships that you’ve made; both internal and external. Your brand is how your employees feel when they show up for work. Your brand is your operational processes. Your brand is your core purpose and this is something you can’t broadcast, rather it is something that is believed and built by everyone working at your organization and by every one of your customers and potential customers.
Your Brand is Who You Are
You ARE your brand. You might not think so, but every single employee has a role to play in working together to build your brand. From the front-line folks to the back-office staff to the team out in the factory to the executive management – all of you are your brand. How you talk to and interact with customers, how you treat employees – THIS is your brand and this goes far beyond the cool logo and website you’ve created or even the unique service you offer that you think people care about.
How Do You Build That Brand?
So how do you build a brand, that brand, the brand that personifies you and your company? You do it by working together to deliver unique value. Doing that in a polite, responsible, meaningful way is the only way to build your brand. Don’t forget, each day your customers are besieged with ads, calls, emails; literally thousands of messages. And, if you don’t have the budget to outspend your competition on marketing, you can compete with value. But in the end, what really matters is this: People will remember how you made them feel more than they’ll remember what you said.
People like to do business with people they like. So, in addition to offering a wonderful product or service that your clients need, you can build your brand through the experiences you offer customers. How were they treated when they called your office? How were they treated when they had a complaint? Did you deliver on your promises? Did you make them wait days or weeks for an email response or transfer their call three times? Did you, even once, point to some fine print during a customer service issue?
It all comes down to human insight. Do you really know your customer? Do you know what drives them? Do you have the human insight to really connect with them? You have to tailor your approaches to clients based on their personality and ambitions. You already know you have to offer value, but you have to do so in a way that makes them feel good about doing business with you.
When you understand your clients on a human level, you can create win-win relationships based on who your customer really is. Again, this can’t be broadcast. Your marketing is purely a way to begin a dialogue with customers. Then you have to deliver value with every interaction, not just value for money, but value for their time and value for their trust. Make them FEEL special. THIS is your brand.
So, how do you build your brand? It starts with you. It starts when you believe you ALWAYS have to be at your best to truly offer value to your customers. Being at your best takes insight, it takes empathy and imagination on how you might connect with customers better, on how you’ll make them FEEL.
Why a Trip to Whole Foods Can Teach You About Branding
Last week I went to my local Whole Foods store. As I walked in, I was greeted by the person behind the juice bar. As I shopped, I realized (again) that I couldn’t find something so I asked someone who was stocking shelves; “Excuse me, do you know where the fig bars are located?” I waited for him to tell me they were in aisle twelve, but instead he stopped what he was doing, got up and said with a smile “I’m happy to show you.” He then walked me clear across the store to where the fig bars were stacked. “Can I help you find anything else?” At that moment, the Whole Foods brand was more than the organic fig bars, more than the neat logo and more than the Whole Foods gift card I had in my pocket. At that moment, I FELT like a VIP. I walked in a Whole Foods customer and walked out a brand ambassador. This wasn’t a one-time thing either. Whole Foods employees are always polite, helpful and knowledgeable. Whole Foods has clearly aligned customer experience with their brand building because I always feel like a VIP when I shop there. Given Amazon’s attention to customer service, I don’t expect this to change. My family has had nothing but positive customer experiences with Amazon. Plus, now that Amazon has lowered some prices at Whole Foods, maybe people who weren’t customers are now likely experiencing that humanized brand for themselves.
You want another one? Just yesterday I went to Joann to buy some fabric (I like to sew – you have a problem with that?). When I got to the check out, the lady said the total was $80 and asked for my coupons. When I said I forgot them at home, she suggested I go online with my phone and get one, which I did, and I found a 50 percent off coupon as a result. That kind cashier saved me $40! Now that’s service!
Aligning your brand building with your customer service is incredibly important. The good news is that its relatively easy and completely within your control. If you do it properly (and regularly) you’ll build brand loyalty with new and existing customers. If you don’t align your brand building with your customer service, you risk serious damage to your brand.
So what about you? Is your brand aligned with your customer experience? What are some of the amazing brand experiences you’ve had—I’d love to hear about them.
Also, if we’re not yet connected on LinkedIn, let’s fix that. You can follow me here: John Peters on LinkedIn, or follow this blog. Looking forward to getting to know you.
I was recently on a plane. This isn’t unusual for me as I’m on a plane a few times a week. I proudly use “Road Warrior” as a description of myself because I’m in travel, so you can say I practice my trade all the time.
Like most road warriors, I’m always surrounded by people, though amazingly, it’s still very easy to be lonely while traveling. Days, weeks and months pass (airline miles and hotel points rack up) and time seems to disappear before your eyes. While I consider myself pretty good about keeping in touch with people (via phone, social media, etc.) I started to think about all the things I’d want people to know in the event, well, that I wasn’t around anymore. I know, it’s a bit morbid so hear me out. In the event you weren’t here on this earth tomorrow, what would you want the important people in your life to know?
So, I started to type an email. I imagined not being able to ever speak to anyone ever again. I typed and poured my heart out and I kept typing. I’m not going to give you all the details, but the evolution of the email was pretty amazing and what I’m going to do with the email might interest you.
I started with my wife. I reminded her about all the things I love and admire about her. I reminisced about when we met, how I felt, etc. Mostly, I thanked her and told her how much I appreciated her, because I don’t do that enough. I imagined we were having the last conversation we’d ever have, and these were my notes. I also reminded her of my washboard abs and long flowing hair, not because I actually have those, but I wanted to be sure she’d smile. You can imagine, the words kept flowing from my brain onto the screen.
Then I wrote to my children. Both under ten years of age, I needed to keep it relevant to their lives now. I wrote about how much I love them and how proud I am of them, especially how kind they are. Then I thought I should write things that would be pertinent to them as they grew up. Again, I told them how much I loved them, but now I added things like how they needed to cherish one another and yes, take care of Mommy. As I kept writing, I had to change my tone, giving advice for the things I know were likely to happen as they grew up; love, heartbreak, picking the right friends, the right job and making all sorts of decisions.
Then I wrote to my parents. I told them about how much I loved them and I thanked them for everything they’ve ever done for me. I also apologized for nearly burning down the house when I was a kid, but that’s another post.
Then I wrote to my sister and then to my extended family and then to my best friends. Then, I even wrote my last social media post entitled “If you’re reading this, it was nice knowing you.”
When I thought I was done with the email, I re-read it and made changes. Turns out, this continued for many flights. Honestly, I’m still not done, but I have to say, writing this email has been an amazing experience. I have since taken the time to call people just to tell them I love them, to thank them and basically tell them everything I wrote, using it as a script.
So what am I going to do with this email (after a few more additions)? I’m going to send it to the people I love. Why wait? What is worth saying, is worth saying now.
Breathe. Think. Type. You’ll enjoy this as will the people you love.
If you’re upset about something at work or if you’re otherwise stressed about your commute or something someone said, this post is for you.
The other day, I was on a Delta flight. It was a small plane (maybe 15 rows in all) flying from Ithaca to Detroit to connect to Chicago. It was a short, smooth flight. The flight attendant (a woman who I guess was in her early 60s) was expertly and quickly serving beverages. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, so she was wearing a pink ribbon pin. The female passenger sitting in front of me asked the flight attendant “Are you a survivor?” Her response, delivered with a smile, was “Twice!” The passenger then said “I just lost my sister last month…” and they proceeded to have a quiet, personal conversation. As they conversed, the flight attendant continued prepping cups with ice, etc. but not in a way that was disrespectful. They talked for a few minutes. I saw the flight attendant put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and the passenger’s head leaned towards the flight attendant’s hand. It was a raw, beautiful moment between two strangers who found an immediate connection. Just then, the man sitting behind me, who couldn’t hear the conversation, started complaining to his seatmate about the slow service. I turned around and said “There’s a reason they’re talking, just chill a minute.” His response? “I can only imagine.” Well, I thought, no you can’t. There’s a lesson here; we need to take a step back and evaluate what’s really important in life.
I have family members who are ill and friends who are ill and friends who have lost their spouses. You think they care about anything other than getting better? No, because they’ve been given a glimpse of reality. They know health is the most important thing. They know life is fleeting. You’d think we too would learn to appreciate life more. We see these things and for a moment, or an hour or a day, we do, but sooner or later, we forget.
I’m blessed with a special needs niece who has taught me more about what’s really important in life than most other people. You want to get a better perspective on life? Spend time in a children’s hospital. You’ll *never* look at your work email inbox the same again because, and here’s the point of this post, in the scheme of life, it’s irrelevant. That person at the office who always disagrees with you? Irrelevant. Being upset or annoyed about most anything work related? Irrelevant and a waste of time and energy. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be passionate about what you do, but take it all in stride. Do your job to the fullest, be passionate but don’t sweat the small stuff.
I proudly serve on the board of Make-A-Wish (Mid-Atlantic region) because helping children is a priority of mine. Plus, it grounds me. So, if you know me, you know I don’t take myself too seriously. You know I inject humor in most everything. You know I love my family and doing just about anything with my kids, including sewing patches on my daughter’s Girl Scout uniform or making funny art with breakfast food just to make the kids smile. Some people at work may think I come off aloof sometimes, but really, I’m listening to you complain about something so stupid, I only wish there were some way I could help you see what you’re missing. The truth is, it’s hard. We’re so embroiled with our days. It happens to me too.
The other lesson here is you never know what is going on with someone. If someone is being an idiot at the office, maybe they just had a fight with their spouse or maybe they’re in financial trouble or maybe someone they love is sick. Hey, its life, it happens. So, before you rail on them, pause. Don’t attack, just relax. Don’t complain, just explain. You’ll likely find there is more to that person than you realize. You may even find an opportunity to be there for them, like the above mentioned flight attendant. Sure, they may genuinely be a toxic, negative person. That happens too sometimes. If that’s the case, just walk away and forget it. Let it roll off your back, just like water off a duck. The thing to do with these people is avoid them.
Then, call your spouse and tell her or him you love them. Kiss and hug your kids. Call your parents to say you love them. You never know what tomorrow will bring. Breathe. Enjoy today. Enjoy now.
Business travelers! I insulted someone this week and learned a lesson; one I believe you’ll want to know about.
I travel a great deal. I’m in hotels 200+ nights and fly over 150,000 miles a year. Want to know something else? I think I do my share of tipping. I have believed for a long time that we in the travel industry and those who are road warriors, need to set an example for everyone else when it comes to many things “travel,” tipping included.
Let’s start with the taxi drivers. I tip 20% for rides where the taxi was clean, the driver courteous and the ride smooth. Dirty taxi? You lose 5%. Drive like Mario Andretti and make me nauseous? I’ll ask you to slow down. If you don’t, you lose another 5% or more. Does your car reek of body odor or too much air freshener or cologne? You lose a couple of points there as well. If the ride is under ten bucks, I tip 25% and start with the same deductions. If you do something extraordinary, like say “Please” and “thank you” I offer more of a tip. Help me with my bags? That’s a couple extra points as well. By the way, the lack of service in most taxis is why I use Uber as often as possible (though I’m disappointed to hear of recent price gouging accusations).
Next is hotel maid service. I tip $3 a day when I stay in a hotel, leaving the money on the desk in the room before checking out. I think this service is overlooked by many. Sure, it “comes with the room” but why do these folks get shorted by most people? They work hard to clean our rooms and make our beds; they should be rewarded for good service.
Here is where I learned a big lesson last week; tipping hotel porters and doormen. Yes, I tip these folks as well. I have one hotel at which I spend a great deal of time; more than 120 nights a year. The other day I arrived at the hotel, and the hotel porter, an older gentleman in his 60s, offered to take my bags. I said “That’s okay, but thanks for asking.” I then offered him a few dollars because I watched so many people turn his service down. His response: “Sir, thanks for the offer, but please let me earn it.” There it was; by offering a tip, a truly honest gesture of goodwill, I insulted the man. This was a man simply trying to earn a living, yet I offered charity. I felt horrible. I immediately placed my bags down, and said “I’d love for you to help me with my bags – thank you.” Inside the lobby near the check-in area, he asked if I’d like help getting my bags to my room. I, of course, said yes. All I have when I travel is a small roller bag and a briefcase (both with wheels) and I really did not need any help. I navigate obstacles, shuttle busses, moving walkways and airplane aisles with ease (though remind me to tell you about an unfortunate accident where I skewered my own privates in a horrific escalator dismount). Yet, by asking for help with my bags, I offered an opportunity for a older gentleman to earn a tip and prove, to all who watched in the lobby, that doormen and porters are still a useful hotel service. What did I tip? $8, about $1 for every minute he was with me. I wanted to give him more but I worried I’d insult him again with an over-tip.
The lesson? While wheeled luggage makes it so easy for us to get around, we in travel and those who travel need to tip more. Let’s take care of the people who help us and those who work to preserve hospitality services we all remember so fondly. Somewhere, someplace, we made a maid smile and made a hotel porter feel like a man.
What advice do you have for tipping while traveling?
Remembering friends and neighbors lost. Remembering not knowing where my wife was for hours and feeling so relieved when I heard her voice. Remembering wondering if my cousin and other friends made it out. Remembering finally realizing who didn’t. Remembering finding out about those who charged in to help others out, but who never made it out themselves. Remembering my next door neighbor who sat on the front stoop for days waiting for her husband who never did come home. Remembering those jumping from the towers to avoid the flames. I remember the smell of NY. I remember 9/11/01 and I will not forget it. Ever.
I’m writing this particular post, and it is a long one, to address all my friends and family who give me that look when I say I’m on a Southwest flight…. “Southwest? You?” Yes, me. Apparently I am a travel snob, so read on. (And remember, this is my personal view from personal experience and has nothing to do with the companies for whom I work or have worked.)
If you know me, you know most of my flying lately is, unfortunately, domestic. You also know I *love* Southwest. I’m on two or three Southwest flights a week. Truth is; I’ve been flying all my life, but I hadn’t flown them until four years ago. All I knew about Southwest was they were the “wacky” airline. Their flight attendants sang, you didn’t have assigned seating and apparently, they were a cult who would secretly brainwash you into never wanting to fly another airline again. Boy, was I right.
As most of you know, I am from NJ. Yes, I’m from Jersey. Got a problem with that? I didn’t think so. Four years ago, I moved to (ready???) Indiana. Yep, I’m a Hoosier-in-training though I complain about the horrific pizza and the lack of real bagels in the state. While I’m in northwest Indiana, under 20 miles away from Chicago, it might as well be another planet because I actually believe it *is* another planet, but that’s another post.
Since I moved, I have worked, for the most part, either in NY or in DC, meaning I commute to work via plane. For the first couple of months, I flew out of O’Hare to LaGuardia. O’Hare is big, but at 4:30AM, you manage just fine.
I’d normally fly another airline from O’Hare to LaGuardia. Let’s just say my experiences were less than “okay.” Sure I was “preferred” and got access to special security lines and to clubs. While these special “privileges” made me feel important, the travel part was such a hassle, especially since so many others were part of this so-called “preferred” echelon. It was hardly exclusive.
One day, I saw an announcement about Southwest starting flights to LaGuardia. Price? Next to nothing. So, I thought I’d give it a try. Southwest departs from Midway though and I’d never flown them and had only once flown into Midway before. My first Southwest flight out of Midway changed my travel life forever.
Midway is the near perfect secondary airport; small (but not tiny), convenient and clean. It has a sufficient amount of shops and eateries and you can practically park your car at the gate. At 4:30 AM (to make a 6:00AM flight) it’s nearly empty. It does get filled as the day progresses, but what airport doesn’t?
I have to admit, my first SWA flight was a bit confusing; it felt like the deli line at the supermarket, complete with numbered tickets (a.k.a. boarding pass). The boarding passes are numbered; A1-A60, then B1-B60, then C1-C60. You line up and board by number (A’s first, then B’s, then C’s) then you get on and sit where you like. If you look confused while in the boarding area, these Southwest cult members (a.k.a. passengers) will gladly explain the system and even do so politely. Really, everyone is nice and happy to point a new guy in the right direction.
The flight? Fun. Really, fun. The first flight attendant announcement I heard included “We’ve got three of the best flight attendants in the sky. Unfortunately, none of those people were available, so you’re stuck with this crew.” The oxygen announcement continued “if you’re traveling with children… or with your husband who acts like a child…..” Half way to NYC, the flight attendant had the entire plane sing “happy birthday” for a child passenger.
They say companies should treat their employees the way they want their employees to treat their customers. I can only assume SWA employees are happy, because they “get” customer service. If singing flight attendants, open seating and helpful seatmates don’t do anything for you, here are my top ten reasons I love Southwest Airlines.
- Employees give great service. From the flight attendants to the gate agents to the stateside call center employees, these folks “get it” and prove it at every opportunity. They even provide great service when things are not their fault. On a trip from LGA to MDW two years ago, all flights were stopped in or out for hours due to a bad storm. They made announcements regularly and after a couple of hours, even brought out food and drinks. The other airline passengers at gates next to ours were screaming, saying “they get announcements, drinks AND food and you can’t answer a question for us? Why didn’t I fly Southwest?”
- Secondary airports rock. I’ll take Fort Lauderdale over Miami or Midway over O’Hare any day. Traveling is hard enough and not having to cover long distances within an airport is nice.
- Earning free flights is easy. Rapid Rewards has to be the easiest airline program out there. A little known secret; after “A-List” and “A-List Preferred” class, there’s something called “Companion Status” where if you fly enough with them (100 o/w flights), your spouse / companion can fly with you, on the same flight, for FREE…for a year! I defy you to find a better rewards program.
- Reasonable rates. Book at least 14 days out for deals. Anything less, I find the rates to be comparable to other airlines (yes and sometimes a bit more). I actually book months out and get very reasonable rates. Frankly, it’s because of Southwest that I and quite a few others can afford to commute to work.
- Specials and other internet fares are awesome, with some fares during sale times for as low as $59 each way.
- A great website. Southwest.com is easy to use, always up to date and includes many utilities. Want to book with points / miles? One click changes dollars to points. Want a list of all your current, future and past flights, two clicks. Check in online? One click. And changes are easy too; changing from one flight to another is a breeze. Their app is awesome too.
- Two bags fly free, at least for now. Sure, fees here and there are increasing, but compared to what’s out there, I still find Southwest to be very reasonable with advance purchase.
- Southwest planes are the prettiest in the sky. Not just the normal corporate colors, but thematically painted planes, like the Shamoo plane which looks like a huge killer whale for Orlando flights or flags covered in the Texas flag. This makes flying fun for kids.
- Great for families. Speaking of kids, families get to board a bit earlier (but not before the most loyal passengers.) My wife and I each sit with one child and sit one row in front of the other. It’s perfect family seating.
- Roomy seats. I haven’t fretted about getting the other airline seats with extra leg-room because on Southwest, they all have plenty of leg-room.
- Yea, I have more than ten…. Again, you gotta problem with that? … Preferred Status also gets me priority lanes at security called “Fly by.” Sure, you get this with the other guys, but on Southwest, if you’ve not yet reached Preferred Status, you can buy “Fly By” for $10 per person, per flight.
- Free wifi for “A-List” passengers. Need I say more. Free and quick connections…
Now, I know there are those of you who look down on Southwest. That’s okay, it’s not your fault. I was one of you so I understand. You have been told for so long that special boarding lanes with colored carpets (on top of other airport carpet) means something. You have been trained to watch, like Pavlov’s dog, at TV screens in hopes your name appears on the upgrade list. For me, whenever it appeared, I was always far down the list and rarely got an upgrade (because I was competing for the upgrade with international flyers who had three times the miles I did.) You do get airline clubs and that’s nice (but that is because you *need* it to make up for the rest of the flight experience.) By the way, if you fly internationally, well then this post isn’t for you, but you already knew that.
So, now that I fly mostly domestic routes and after years of being trained to appreciate/need/want other airlines “benefits” I have made a change; I joined the elite group of travelers loyal to Southwest because this airline knows their business and treats me, well, like a customer. Imagine that.