Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Fifteen

First Class Service Versus Tourist Class

She was pert and pretty, but most of all she was good. She was a waitress, and I was a customer at a Black Sea resort in Nessebar, Bulgaria. It was the summer of 2001, a time when I wore a black eye-patch like Calico Jack, the pirate. In a few months, I was to have surgery on the bum eye. The menacing patch was not an affectation, but necessary medical equipment. Otherwise, the so-called "good" eye saw spots and shimmers, sort of what I would imagine a 1960s LSD trip would have been like if I had tried the stuff -which, of course, I did not.

My then wife and I had our first of several vacation dinners at the seaside establishment, and through the luck of the draw, Julia was our waitress. Her English was fair, and she went out of her way to explain the menu that was in Bulgarian. She didn't hover over us like a plane in a holding pattern, but she did seem to be there every time we wanted to move the dinner onward. She was also good with our daughter who was with us, chatting her up as if the two were about the same age. They were not.

The next night we went back to the same restaurant, not because the food was extraordinary, for it was the same fare found in numerous eateries along the coast; greasy pork, scraggly chicken and beef too tough to chew. We went back for the service. I was curious as to what makes the Julia-types tick, and whether they come with a "nice" gene built in, or is it an acquired trait. She was scurrying around like a water bug at the edge of a pond, hardly causing a wake. Amazing, I thought.

The second time we were not so lucky. A young gentleman was our waiter. He was adequate, but clearly did not measure up to the previous night's attention. However, before long, we saw that Julia had started to direct our dinner service, even though we were not at her table. The service picked up measurably, so much so that the third night of our vacation-next to our last-was spent at the same restaurant. This time, Julia again waited on our table.

"How would you like a job in our company in Kyiv?" I asked, out of the blue. "We could use a great receptionist." At that time, I didn't know whether she even typed. I didn't care. A computer can be taught in a fortnight. Some people, no matter how long they are at the job, never get the concept of service. They are tone deaf when it comes to the concept, even though they might be able to do calculus and play a piano like Sergey Rachmaninoff.

Here I was, the old and odd fellow in the black eye-patch, the adornment that conjured up images of white slavery and bottles of too much rum, asking the 22-year-old Julia if she would like to, in essence, run away and take a job as a receptionist in my company; and yes, in a far away and strange land. It was not that far-fetched, for she had a Russian mother and did speak perfect Russian, as well as Bulgarian, and, as noted, her English was passable.

She said she would like to join us--actually she gushed because I was offering her more money in a month than she would make all summer waiting tables in Bulgaria. But first, she would have to ask her mother. Remember. This is a corner of the world where women are bought and sold, where unscrupulous thugs kidnap young girls, take their passports and keep them as chattels. She didn't know me, even though I did come with a fairly respectable looking family in tow, and had ordered the right wine at dinner, something red, I believe.

There was too much at stake. By this time, I was determined to hire Julia. I asked her if I could go with her to see her mother. I had this image of Julia attempting to describe to her mother this lecherous old man she met while she waited on tables. He wore a black-eye patch and spoke with the hoarse whisper of a Jack Palance. He was truly evil.

In the end, she was brought on, and worked first as our receptionist for three years, and then headed up the first months of what became known as The Willard Group's First Class Service Program. Hiring Julia was a no-brainer. She had service written all over her. She wore it like she wore her faint perfume, ever present, not overwhelming, but just so right. When she left, I shed a crocodile tear, and went looking for someone with Julia's unique talents. I searched most of the globe, but in the end that person, Irina, was right down the street, a waitress at O'Briens Pub.

Rule No. 20101: The receptionist is the most important person in your office. Compared to her, you are a plain old tin of white lard, probably Crisco. She is usually the first contact that a customer or client will have with the firm. She can make or break you. You want everyone who calls or walks into your office to have the feeling that this receptionist and this office is the nicest, kindest and most knowledgeable contact they will make all day. You want your clients to know this, and you want those who serve you to know this. They will spread the word.

Over the Years
I have found that a client will forgive an occasional mistake, so long as it is not a fatal one, so long as the company serving the client consistently gives good service. Good service builds a bond between the vendor (another word I hate) and the client (a word I really like). In this regard, I think the word "partner" is most often overused and most often phony. It is something to which everyone aspires, but in reality the relationship between (in our case) agency and client is one of client and servant. Note that I did not say servitude, which serves up the mental picture of plantations, cotton and sweaty bodies

A First Class Service Program
A lot of airlines have the equivalent of First Class Service Programs. What they really mean is that there is the steerage class, and then there is you, the holder of a business or first class ticket. You are still cattle being moved, but at least you are cattle in the front of the plane where there are fewer cows. On some planes in Europe, you would need the Hubble telescope to measure the space difference between coach and business class.

However, airlines are limited. You have to feel for them since their inventory goes up in the air each day multiple times, and they are at the mercy of an oil baron in a land far away. I read the other day that the airlines have figured out how to put a few more seats on the new Air Buses, more than the manufacturers had intended when they built the aircraft. Making a buck is difficult in an industry that depends on energy whims and that are drastically impacted by earthquakes, hurricanes, international currency fluctuations and, of course, terrorism both in the sky and on the ground. Still…..

The Workers' Revolt

There is another thief of time that business professionals tolerate for absolutely no reason. We need a workers revolt for better service.

A significant time saver is comfort. Business warriors spend much of the time in the air, and a good bit of the time on the ground in hotels, waiting for that next appointment. However, the businessperson is the galley slave of the 21st century. He or she sallies forth from city to city, country to country, but with a support system that seems to take fiendish delight in torture. You can almost hear the drum beat keeping rhythm with oars slapping water.

This, of course, is one of those general statements to which a thousand rebuttals can be made. There are airlines that offer extra seat room, there are hotels with adequate Internet access, and there are planes with battery-power sources built into the seats. These, however, are the exceptions, particularly in Europe. By and large, a business warrior takes to the road expecting to metaphorically sleep in the rain on the muddy ground. Such is the inadequate support system.

In the new paradigm of the 24-hour workday--laid out here not as a forced labor regimen but as a comfortable accommodation of business, pleasure and necessary activities - the businessperson needs a break. Services aimed at the business traveler simply, as the saying goes, "don't get it."

We're not talking about coddling, merely accommodating. A fashionable West End London hotel costing 300 pounds a night has a single business center with a single computer and Internet connection for 300 guests. Why bother? There is nothing more annoying than people lined up at 7:30 a.m. because they thought they would get first dibs on the Internet connection in the lobby.

A vacation spot on the Southwest Coast in the nicest hotel on what was billed as the "Riviera of England" had a lone Internet hookup in a conference room. When I visited, viruses had ravaged the one computer and nobody, it appeared, had the slightest idea where to find an IT person. During a two-week span in Great Britain, I finally ended up my final night at the Gatwick Renaissance, a hotel that understood the business traveler. For a mere 15 British pounds per 24-hour period, one could hook onto the Internet in his room - a procedure that took less than 30 seconds. I would imagine it would be a moneymaker for any hotel. Why didn't they do it? Better yet, why not have a free Wi-Fi connection? Surely, the goodwill generated would result in more business travelers staying at that particular hotel. However, most hotels charge for Wi-Fi, which is ridiculous. Do they really want their clients going to Starbucks next door?

As noted earlier, the 24-hour per day, seven day per week, working span leaves a considerable time for leisure and other activities, but it also brings with it the realization that, at the professional level, one has a responsibility to clients and customers. As business people, we do get it. Our support systems, however, haven't a clue. They often appear conspiratorial.

I travel mostly in the United States and Europe (West and East) and find it exhausting. It is like having to watch hours upon hours of "Gilligan's Island" reruns. Airlines are sinking because they don't cater to the golden calf-the business traveler-- and one wonders whatever black hole those customer satisfaction forms disappear. When one gets off the plane, there is a feeling of having gone 15 rounds with a youthful Mike Tyson. The seat tray, somewhat convenient for dining, requires a contortionist to use as a base for the smallest laptop, and if the passenger in front reclines, a serious and very personal accident could occur.
There are some exceptions to this, of course. Airbus advertises that it has no middle seat in business class, and there are some super sleepers on transcontinental flights. Virgin seems to have kept up with the needs of the business traveler. Mostly, however, I am talking about those short one hour to three-hour jumps governed by the airlines' attitude that a customer can stand anything for 120 or so minutes.

However, the long distance flights are really puzzling. A business class ticket from Moscow to Washington, D.C. costs in the neighborhood of $4,500. An economy ticket the same distance on the same international airline costs, provided no special fee is applied, about $1,200. One would think that for $3,300 more the airline could afford to provide really special treatment, just short of a full-body massage.

One gets the feeling that the airline industry believes that people really care about the food during flights. Good chow is a Lucky Strike Extra. However, on those postage-stamp-sized trays it is much more trouble than its worth to manage two forks, two knives, and an assortment of other goodies tossed in with the meal. Think about it guys. How many ties have you ruined over the years while in flight.

What do people want? Space. This is not a scientific observation, merely one makes after going elbow to elbow with fellow passengers for twenty years. I could go back to a more prehistoric period, but, for some reason, airline flight seemed different then. I think it has something to do with stewardesses becoming flight attendants and acting like army sergeants. This has become worse since the terrorism scares after Sept. 11, 2001.

What ever happened to politeness in the skies? The flight attendants have become more like hall monitors, just waiting to pounce on anyone who is slightly indecisive in grabbing a newspaper from the tray, or who has the audacity to forget and leave a cell phone turned on. This is in business class. One can imagine those economy flyers being treated like lepers.

Let's face it. Business travelers need a union. I am not talking about one of those powder puff associations, but bona fide Teamsters crossed with United Mine Workers crossed with the Rabid Dog Local 2212 union. We need to get the attention of airlines, hotels and other services that cater to businesses.

Service: A Business Differentiator
Because service in many industries is so marginal, it is the one area a company can differentiate itself from competitors at a bargain basement price. A company thinks nothing of adding a piece of capital equipment that cost a jillion dollars to improve production efficiency; and it is, indeed, a wise purchase. However, spending money to teach employees about better service and how to deliver it-which costs relatively little-often appears too large a gulf to jump.

However, it is not. It is merely a small puddle after a rain. It does take loads of creativity, and generally a little cash, but not much.

Perhaps the best way to impart this information is to talk about what we do at The Willard Group that sets us apart from what I call the alphabet agencies in the advertising and public relations business. I say alphabet because they toss their acronyms into the noodle soup. Once soggy they are indistinguishable from one another.

I awoke one day to an epiphany - or at least a revelation, of sorts. We needed to advise our own business what we would advise a client. It was simple as that, and it was an ingredient in my business plan that had been missing. We needed to apply creative firepower to our own brand. On Jan. 2, 2003, I declared that The Willard Group was my favorite client. It fit in nicely with my other selfish New Year's resolutions. If we could not be world-class advisors for ourselves, how could we advise others-and get paid for it. My Indian tailor with the Hong Kong made-to-order suits surely didn't dress up in rags to come visit me in my office. He was and is a fashion plate. We needed the same approach to presenting The Willard Group.

First Class Service
We are a service business. Our inventory is people. To a person, I felt, this inventory was the best in the world, or at least our little corner of it. Our employees built brands that moved off the shelves, and they advised public relations clients on how to keep away from impending disasters. But Smoky Joe's agency down the street did the same, or at least claimed they did. In fact, if you pick up a snowball and toss it in most any direction--in any of the markets we do business--you would clobber a PR or advertising agency. They proliferate like crab grass.

Thus, I came up with the First Class Service Concept. This would be added to the company mantra to which I previously referred, i.e., every agency says it is creative. Every agency says it is strategic. Every agency says it gets results, so we must be better. I added service as a qualifier and put it under the umbrella of "must be better".

An Attitude
First Class Service is an attitude first. Secondly, it is a plan. For my small company, it meant the establishment of a First Class Service Club for our best clients, those with whom we wanted to establish a Krazy Glue bond. This is not being elitist, but realistic. If everyone is a member of an organization-no matter what kind-then it has the exclusivity of a U.S. census roll. We wanted a reward system for those folks who really brought us our daily bread, and served it to us with black caviar on top.

We began with the thought that everyone would receive great service, but that particular attention should be paid to the special clients that kept the lights on. Out of a continual and changing client list of about 50, a dozen or so fit into this category, what I call the "over-dog" client as compared to the "underdog client". We set aside a sacrosanct budget to fund the program, which we envisioned on several levels:
1. We would be the clients' concierge. Heck, we would be their consigliore, as in Tom Hagen in the Godfather. We would walk the client's dog before breakfast. In other words, those little every day things that confront and make business life a bitch, particularly in Eastern Europe, we would smooth out like hot fudge spread over a three-layer cake. This included, but was not limited to, facilitating visas, tickets, special gift ideas, etc. If the client had a pesky problem-short of bumping off the opposition (not unheard of in the wild East)-our staff would attempt to take care of it.
2. Each member of the First Class Service group received a credit card-sized membership with fancy and impressive lettering, though we warned them not to attempt to charge their next meal on it. It was something they could carry, and it went beyond all the other discount cards weighting down wallets. It was actually useful.
3. To remind them that they were special, we had a small gift delivered each month to the cardholder. If Leo Burdett was known for presenting apples to clients-as a sign of commitment-we would present nice bottles of wine as a sign of, well, contentment. Each gift carried our company's First Class Service logo. Though a rather common name, we registered FCS, and First Class Service as a brand.
4. On top of this, we launched the First Class Service Dinner each month, inviting a handful of clients to an exclusive restaurant, sprinkling in a prospect or two, and inviting special but non-intrusive entertainment. We wanted to own a smoozing opportunity.

All this would be just so much window dressing, if it were not for a dedication in service that I had instilled in me about 150 years ago, or at least back to the time I was sacking groceries at the Piggly Wiggly in Cordele, Georgia. I can still hear the reedy voice of the manager whose name I long forgot. "Willard, never ever put the flour in the same sack as the ko-ky-ko-la" (Coca Cola, I presume). Where did you buy your brains-Safeway?"

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