Marketing, Thank You

How To Save Your Brand

AA TicketerThe most successful companies are those that everyone can place in a good story with a happy ending.

So it is that I can report to you that American Airlines gave us back our money, no questions asked.

It is a seemingly daunting challenge to get money out of a mega-giant company.  $45 billion in sales, 339,000 employees, protected by walls of service teams separated by deep moats of phone boards, websites, fax numbers, procedures and protocol.

Still, it only took two phone calls and a personal letter to initiate a resolution that delivered two valuable e-vouchers which we will use by January, 2017.

The Customer Relations Department looked at our problem and said, “Yes!”

Ironically, the same day we received the prized e-vouchers we also received an email from an earnest worker in the “Refunds Department” saying, “No.”  That was a belated response from our website submission of the original request, over three weeks ago.

We were delighted and satisfied with the turn of events, on many levels. First, we got our money back, no small deal in itself.   Second, American did the right thing quickly, within 4 days.  Third, and most important, American had recognized the value of a happy customer.

This last accomplishment is a twofer: of course, we will advocate on AA’s behalf, contributing to that word-of-mouth phenomenon wherein reputations are defined for good or bad.  But on top of that, American reinforced our belief in the goodness of the relationship, and that is the ultimate customer satisfaction, knowing we haven’t been ripped off by someone we thought was our friend.

I can’t stress this last point enough.  Brands live by their customer relationships.  The better a customer knows a business, the more profitable the relationship.  That’s because we buy more, we come back often, we cost less to service, and we bring our friends.

American Airlines’ Refunds Department, inappropriately named, failed on this test, but kudos to the Customer Relations Department that got it right.

Thanks for reading!  Please share, and to the readers who wished me luck in this venture, I can say it all worked out just as I hoped, and expected, that it would.




Customer Loyalty In The Balance

PrintCan a world class company get out of its own way to keep a satisfied loyal customer?

Hopefully by the time this thought is completed, the answer will be “Yes”.

Right now I am waiting for a phone call from American Airlines, whose world wide revenue is $42 billion with 1500 planes in the air.  339,000 employees and 11.9% profit.  The satisfied, loyal customer is me, and I am banking that AA will understand its role as my first choice in air travel.

Actually, it’s my second choice. My first choice, since I was a child has been to fly without mechanical aids of any sort. Or feathers. After that however, American it is, all the way.

We all have flight horror stories.   Actually, not true again.

I do not have any nightmarish tales of terror-filled dives from 30,000 feet. No images of luggage bound for Hawaii disintegrating into shreds under a marauding gang of monkeys in Mumbai. I have never been displaced by an AA employee who didn’t try to make amends efficiently and with a smile. I like to think of myself as the perfect customer, and I want them to think that way too.

So it was, on September 22, 2014 that I paid American $1520 for two round trips to Barbados, departing February 3, 2015.

On flight day however, a severe medical event put our plans on hold. Speaking to American, the reservationist said, “No problem, we will get you on the same flight tomorrow. Here’s two new tickets. Hope you’re feeling better!”

Next day comes, and we don’t feel any better, so the trip is off.

Calling the reservationist at American, they take it all in stride.

“That’s okay Mr. Brown. You have until February 3, 2016 to use these tickets. It’ll cost you $400 in change fees, but there it is.”
Writing all of this down, we circled our calendar to plan a trip before February 3, 2016.

I am pausing here to listen for my phone to ring. I was told to expect a call from American shortly.

Anyway.    Just before Christmas, I opened up the AA website, and scheduled a trip to California. Then I called American to see how to use my old Barbados tickets.
“Oh, sorry Mr. Brown. You needed to use those tickets by September 22, 2015, the anniversary of their purchase.”
“That’s not what I was told.”
“You were misinformed.”
“What do I do now?”
“You can go to our website and try for a refund. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

All those warm and cosy feelings of customer loyalty and goodwill are drifting away, like 1,520 dollar bills swirling around the sewers of my jaded imagination.

No call yet, as I stare at my phone, but I am still confident that the Supervisor of Customer Service Supervisors is going to call me with understanding, and good news.

As instructed, I submitted a claim for our two tickets to be refunded.   This was tricky, because they only give 250 words capacity to state one’s case.   This is compounded by the site timing out, which means I  had to enter it twice.   I recorded the case numbers, as the site said it would require 4 days to review the request.   Ever hopeful of a logical, fair-minded manager seeing the obvious justice of my request, I closed out and went on Christmas break.

Yesterday, recovering from Christmas, I visited the website, plugged in my case number, and was informed, “No.”

Stunned, I troubled myself with doubt. There has to be a mistake.  Heck, there IS a mistake.  They said “No.”

So, an hour ago I decided to re-wind the tape and try again.    Back onto American’s website, I scheduled our California trip again, put the booking on hold, and then called American reservations to use my Barbados tickets.

I had my story prepared.   The California trip is $984, so I figure this is a satisfactory deal: they honor their $1520 client with a less costly trip.

Linda, a friendly and concerned reservationist listened to my story.

“Yes, you were misinformed all right.  Let’s talk to a supervisor.  Please hang on.  Don’t go away; this may take several minutes, but I won’t lose you.”

I think then she may have gone to help some hapless flier whose baggage was crushed by a forklift, but as promised, she came back on to introduce me to Stacy, another friendly and concerned, super-supervisor.

After hearing my story, she advised that I need to speak to a Super-super-supervisor, who unfortunately does not take incoming calls,  but will call me within 2 hours.

Before we hung up, I asked Stacy, “Do you know what it’s like to have $1520 taken from you?  If you had that money right now, what could you buy for yourself?”   I went on, “I am a loyal American Airlines customer, an AAdvantage member since 1990.   I have earned over a million miles.  Please be sure you pass that along to your supervisor.”

I nearly tore a hamstring just now as the phone rang.  Leaping to the desk to answer, after a pause I heard a tinny voice on the line: “Hello, this is Carmen.  This is about your credit card, and will be your last notice…” .

I wish.  Slamming down the receiver, I returned to the keyboard to wait for the important call.  It should be soon.   Within the next 60 minutes or so, anyway.

Since this issue first arose, I have had time to think back over the years of traveling on American.  Living in Chicagoland, I have parked  hundreds of times next to the south elevator on Level 4 at Terminal 3, and taking the escalator to AA ticketing.

Back then, security was pretty simple.  A pat down and you’re on your way.   The main concourse of H&K gates is festooned with flags from all the countries American flies to.  There was a time I walked under those flags as US troops were welcomed home from Kuwait.  That was a moving experience.

I recall a late night trip from LaGuardia which was ground-stopped due to weather.  That night I slept on the ventilator in LaGuardia, in my suit, but with a chuckle thinking of the tireless, patient ladies standing in tight shoes behind the ticket stand at the gate, making reservation changes until 11pm.

I was last in a long, grumbling line to greet them.   They had just finished with a noisy, self-important little man whose world was not revolving on its axis right.   They were hammering away at the keyboard for his satisfaction.  He walked off in a huff after unloading on the ticket crew.

I was next.  This lady looked up.  She could have been Mom.

“Boy! I’ll betcha you’re gonna be glad to see me!”  I added, “Won’t they at least give you a chair?”

Her face broke into a smile.  Just then, her colleague noticed,

“Do you know that last fellow has put himself on standby on over ten different flights??”

With that, she looked over.

“Hmm.  We’ll fix that.  Delete all those.  Leave the Wichita on.  He earned it.”

These ladies were gracious under the most demanding conditions, and they got me a spot, not direct, but quicker than a stopover in Kansas for the martinet before me.

Well, no call yet. But I am still optimistic that I am in queue for some relief.  

The last time I flew, I opened up American Way magazine to the North American map of AA’s destinations.  I checked off the city dots I had flown into.  Thanks to the airline’s network I have seen virtually all of the majors and nearly three quarters of the intermediate cities on the page.  I may not know much about the cities, but I know the airports.  This may not be the feat of a Magellan or a Captain Cook, but I can claim that American took me there.

The call just came in.

“Mr. Brown, this is Starr.  I am sorry you are having difficulties.  Tell me again what happened?”

Starr and I discussed the situation.  She has news.  “I can’t help you.   Reservations doesn’t have authority to refund tickets.   You need to write a letter to Customer Relations in Phoenix.  Here’s their address.  They have a fax number too.”

“Starr, do you think this is an unreasonable request?  Asking for an exchange based on the misinformation?”

“Oh, not really… I don’t know, but it’s over my head.  You have to write them.”

Starr gives me the name and title of the Director of Customer Relations.  Hopefully, that person has authority.   We hang up.

So, ever optimistic, I am preparing my written request to a manager.  It’s going UPS tomorrow.  My hope is that their antenna are up and sensing this pivotal opportunity to make this customer happy, to reinforce the goodwill I have cultivated and nurtured for a quarter century.

All it takes is “Yes.”


To be continued….



Good Fences Make Good Customers

Tele Switchboard-OperatorsThis is how some empowered employees saved the day for AT&T.

Once admitted, it becomes easier to say I am a traditionalist.  As a result, I can explain and defend my choice of AT&T for our long distance carrier way back in 1990.

After all, what can be more solid a foundation than  American Telephone & Telegraph, even today?

It was with a sense of comfort too, that we chose Illinois Bell as our local service provider.  Again, “The Bell” is as American as it gets, though there are worthy claims that Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone in Brantford, Ontario, just a few miles from my home town.

Over time we were whip-sawed back and forth between Ameritech, Cingular, SBC Communications and Comcast Cable, but at the end of the day it was AT&T that ran the table.

Today we have two land lines, two cell phones, cable and Internet courtesy of AT&T.  It is no surprise that they send us separate bills for each service, because when you add them all up, we are a primo account.

And despite the onslaught of Comcast who pursued us for years, we have stayed with AT&T.

Why? Three reasons, straight from Customer Goodwill 101.

First, AT&T brazenly gave us a $300 new account cash bonus, plus a monthly discount of about $50 for three months.

We shamelessly accepted.   And then endured a three-hour visit from a techie in sanitary shoes who puttered around our house and basement drilling holes and tapping keyboards.  He flashed a TV remote in front of us, and wished us good luck.

We are still trying to figure out the remote, but never mind.

Second, the modem died once, and after some tense withdrawal pangs, exacerbated by a frustrating phone diagnosis, a techie “snuck out” to our house under the pretense of doing a new install, and gave us a new modem.

“Don’t tell anyone I did this.  We are really supposed to handle only new customers during the sales contest.”   He fixed our problem, very much against the rules, I think.

Third, with the authorization of the Village, AT&T announced they were installing a new VRAM unit at the back corner of our lot.   Armed with an “easement”, they came to take our tiny little green cable post away and replace it with a small nuclear reactor the size of a Uhaul trailer.

“It’s for Internet Mr. Brown.   WiFi.    We gotta put it here.  We got approval from Village Hall.”   He stared at our flower bed.  “You want we should move your Mums over there maybe?”

Stunned, I asked, “You can just come here and do that?”

Waving a sheaf of papers, the contractor confirmed it, but then he went on.

“Actually, we’re gonna fix this up nice.   We need about 30 square feet for the pad.  We’ll put a nice cedar fence around it, and then some new dogwood and forsythia in front of that.”


“There’s more actually.”  The contractor eyed the shaky stockade fence across the back of our lot.  “We’re gonna hook the fence up to yours.  But while we’re at it, why don’t we just give you a new fence, too?”

“Really?  You’ll do that?”

“Why not?  You’re a good customer.”


True to their word, the new box went in, the new fence went up, and the bushes flowered the coming spring.

In return, we still pay egregious amounts of money on three separate bills.   Once a week I mow around their humming VRAM, faithfully and carefully so as not to upset whatever it is doing in there.

And, we still scratch our heads about the remote.


Thanks for reading this through to the end!  You know, a good customer can be hard to find, but another good customer can be even harder.  Train your employees to keep the ones you have.

Marketing, Thank You

What Makes Your Brand Stick

1950 Chevy 990 copy

Our 1950 Chevy: ready to roll.

Some imprints last forever. Your first bank account. Your first cola. My parents’ car was a strong imprint for me. We had GM cars since the dawn of life it seemed. So my compass was frozen on GM: Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, even the Vega!

Old Olds

The 1986 Olds Cutlass Cruiser Wagon.

Our first big car in my family of four was an Olds Ciera wagon: the Cutlass Cruiser. We bought it 1986, and loved it so much, we bought another, just like it, in 1990.

Recalling the day, I walked in to our local Cadillac Olds dealer, pointed out our car to the sales rep, and said, “Just give me another, like that one.”

Within the day, I drove a new Cutlass Cruiser off the lot. Pretty much the same color, had the same cool rear-facing third bench seat the kids loved. The only upgrades: Electronic Fuel Injection had replaced the carburetor, and air conditioning and FM radio.

Olds Back Seat

People still ask if there’s a rear-facing seat today.

I kept the hand crank windows just in case we drove off a bridge into water and couldn’t get the doors opened.

When people asked why I liked the Cruiser so much, I had a bunch of responses, but always described how I could get a 4×8′ sheet of plywood in the back window without opening the rear door.

So the day came along when I decided to get a new wagon, and I returned to the dealer, walked in, pointed out my Olds to the sales rep, and I said, “Just give me another, like that one.”

The guy looked at me like I had just wandered in from the woods.

“You’re kidding, right? No wagons here. Not anywhere.” A bit of a smirk, “Oh wait, maybe you can get a Volvo, or a Saturn.”

I was stunned. I had been in the woods, asleep for at least 7 years during which time “station wagons” had been driven (haha) to extinction by GM.

“How about a Hummer?”

I walked out in a daze.

Olds Plywood

One of GM’s innovations: the hatch window.

Knowing I couldn’t let the Cruiser go, I chose instead to get it painted. I could live with it if at least it looked new.

Olds Cutlass 97-99

The last Cutlass in 1999. A low-fat ghost of prior greatness.

In 2007, I wrote GM a note about my car, filling in the owner’s survey.   I was 17 years late.

They wrote back: “It was especially interesting to hear your Oldsmobile has traveled 229,318 miles…”   I was pleased to get the response, and also from a real person.  I read on, “we would be remiss, however, not to suggest that you look closely at our new Cutlass at your local dealership..”

Alas, unbeknownst to GM, the last Cutlass had rolled off the line in 1999.

You can listen to the humming of the wheels...

It went for miles and miles…

Fast forward, the Cruiser became my commute car, and I tacked on the miles.

Incredibly, it never ground to a halt.  With the occasional makeover on wheels, alternators, batteries, brakes, suspension and mufflers, the Olds just kept on rolling.

How?  By regular, faithful tune-ups.

Olds March 2011 copy

Jiffy Lube gives me and my Olds a pat on the back.

Every 3,000 miles I drove in to JiffyLube and let them soothe the Olds’ jangled commuted nerves.  That’s where they knew my name, too.  Pretty cool!

Lo and behold, in March 2011, I notched 300,000 miles.

Jiffy Lube (Shell Corp) blessed me with a year’s free oil changes, and a PR push that got me radio interviews and some pub in the local news.

Olds New

A 2014 testimonial to a brand that won’t quit.

Is there a lesson here?  Several.  First off, stick with the one who brought you to the dance.   I still drive my Olds wagon. And I hold a torch for General Motors.  Who knows, the Cutlass may return.

Second, seek out faithful, loyal customers and celebrate them.  I always take my cars to Jiffy Lube.

Third, never smirk at a potential sales inquiry.  I have never purchased another car from the dealer who said, “no” in so few words.

That is the view from the rear-facing seat.


Customer Service: Loyal Forever

PeerlessOne simple act of thoughtfulness committed me to ACE Hardware forever.

Sunday morning, nearly 25 years ago, I discovered our kitchen faucet dripping uncontrollably into the dark spaces below our sink.

Ever notice how they bury all those pipes in tight dark spaces? If you are 2 feet tall, you have infinite opportunity as a plumber.

The ACE Hardware in our town was one of our happiest discoveries while moving to our new home. It was where I found that most plumbing solutions were assembled and designed for do-it-yourselfers like me.

Fully confident that I could replace the faucet, I walked into the store and with a foggy image of what I needed, armed with drawings and measurements, I bought stuff.

I had help. The plumbing guy there picked it all out for me.

At home, I took a break for lunch, and afterwards spread all the new parts across the floor, preparing to install a brand new faucet, with all the fixings.

One of the basic life rules that I adopted at early age is: “You will need to go back to the hardware store at least once.”

Indeed, after turning off the water, and undoing some foundational pipes, I realized I had measured badly. So packing up the merchandise, I returned to the store, and the plumbing guy set me straight with new stuff.

The afternoon slipped by as I puttered with the pipes, and rings and washers and bushings and other pieces I had never seen before in my life.

The truth is, we had a cold Sunday dinner as the water was still turned off, and I had encountered additional under-the-sink challenges which had telescoped my supposedly quick DIY job into a kind of major plumbing overhaul.

The kitchen floor was cluttered with wrenches and pipes and fittings lined up like the landing craft on D-Day.

A second life rule is: ” ‘At least once’ means ‘probably more like two or three times’ .”

As it turned out, I returned to the store 15 minutes before closing time, desperate to get my pipe problems resolved. The plumbing guy was there, packing up his stuff, thermos on the counter, ready to go.

He walked towards me as I held a plastic bag with the parts, the manufacturer’s instructions, and a look of defeat on my face.


I explained how some part wouldn’t work, how water oozed out, and how I was now the source of my family’s extreme disappointment.

With that, he emptied the bag onto the floor of the store. Next he arranged every piece in sequence according to the manufacturer.

“Yunno, the instructions don’t always account for little details.   Let’s add a couple of these.” He added an additional set of washers.

Satisfied, he watched as I drew the configuration onto my notes, and smiled.

“OK, that’s going to work. Count on it.”

He gathered up all the plastic and bars and steel fittings, put them back into the bag, and walked me to the door as the counter staff was heading for the light switch.

Back home, I was greeted by the family, who looked like relatives called to the hospital, waiting for the surgeon’s bad news.

Again on my knees in the kitchen, I assembled the pipes and clinched the last into place. Down in the basement, I turned the water back on.

Then upstairs to the sink where I flipped on the brand new sparkling faucet, and rejoiced with the steady clear stream of water. Under the sink: dry as a bone.

The lesson from all of this was that DIY is challenging, but also very satisfying when it works. More important, ACE’s plumbing guy had stuck by me, and saw the job through.

As a result, I have been a raving fan, ever since.