Among the many hazards of business success is this one: The bigger your company gets, the less contact you have with some of the most important people who have helped get you there -- namely, your customers.
You just can't spend as much time with them as you did in the early days. There are always more pressing matters, such as problems to solve, financing to arrange, people to hire, deals to make. You increasingly count on employees to handle the day-to-day relationships with customers, while you become more and more removed from them. It's a process that can undermine even the most promising young company -- unless you make a conscious effort to ensure that that doesn't happen.
Let me tell you about an experience I had last fall on a flight from New York to California. As usual, I was flying
. I've been a JetBlue fan from my first contact with the airline, and not just because its fares are lower than its competitors'. What I like most of all, is the service.
JetBlue doesn't overbook; I've never seen lines at its airport counters; you can watch live television on the plane; if you need to change a flight, the fee is $25, instead of $100; when you call with a problem, the service reps really do try to help you solve it -- and they don't make you feel as though you're being taken to the cleaners. The company does 100 little things to make traveling by air simple, easy, and painless. So I use JetBlue whenever I can, despite the inconvenience of having to fly into and out of secondary airports.
On this particular trip, I was taking an evening flight from New York City to Oakland, Calif. I had arrived early enough to get an aisle seat in an exit row. I boarded the plane with the other passengers, and the door closed. As we sat there, buckling our seat belts and checking out the televisions in front of us, a middle-aged man with slightly graying hair stood up in the front of the plane. He had on the long apron that JetBlue flight attendants wear, with his name stitched into it. "Hi," he said, "my name is Dave Neeleman, and I'm the CEO of JetBlue. I'm here to serve you this evening, and I'm looking forward to meeting each of you before we land."
There was an audible buzz among the passengers. I was as impressed as everyone else. During the boarding process, I'd heard another passenger tell a friend that Neeleman was on the flight, but I just assumed he'd be sitting quietly in one of the front rows. I certainly didn't expect him to be working as a flight attendant.
But, sure enough, as soon as we reached our cruising altitude, he and the other attendants started coming down the aisle with the baskets of snacks that JetBlue offers passengers, to stave off hunger pangs. Of course, if the passengers in the rear had had to wait for Neeleman to serve them, they would have starved.
Beginning in the first row, he slowly made his way through the plane, stopping to chat with anyone who cared to talk to him, answering every question people asked. I was sitting in the 11th row, and it took him more than an hour to reach me. "Nice airline you have here," I said. "Where do you come up with all these great ideas -- like the televisions?"
"I get most of my ideas on flights like this one," Neeleman said. "The customers tell me what they want."
"Oh, listening to your customers," I said. "What a novel idea!"
He laughed and asked me what I did. I told him I was a businessman, but I also wrote a column in
magazine. "Really?" he asked. "What's it about?"
"It's about customer service, among other things," I said.
"I'll have to read it," he said, and wrote down my name. I asked him if he often came on flights and talked to customers. "Not as often as I'd like," he said. "I can work it in at least once a month, sometimes more. My other responsibilities make it more difficult now, but I get out here when I can."
"Sitting next to me was a young man who sells a high-energy, water-soluble food supplement. He made a pitch for offering it on JetBlue. Neeleman listened closely, nodded his head, and took a sample. The salesman felt good about the exchange.
"Across the aisle from me was a JetBlue frequent flier. He said he was having a problem with his seat assignments. "That shouldn't be happening if you fly that often," Neeleman said. "I'll give you my e-mail address, but you're going to have a hard time reaching me. Here's someone who can help you." He gave the passenger another person's name and contact information. "Tell him you met me on this flight and explain the situation. He'll take care of it."
"After about 20 minutes, Neeleman excused himself and moved on to the next row. I went back to watching television. The other flight attendants continued making their rounds. When they came by my row, I asked if they'd ever worked with their CEO and chairman before. "Oh, yeah," one of them said. "We bump into him all the time."
"An hour or two later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see Neeleman standing there. "One of your
colleagues is on the plane," he said. "What do you mean?" I asked. I hadn't seen anyone I knew.
"There's a young woman back there who just ran the New York marathon," he said. "She says you don't know her, but she knows you and would like to meet you. Can you come back with me?"
I followed him, utterly amazed. When I go to a party, say, and meet a lot of people I don't know, I can never keep straight their names or occupations. Here, Neeleman had just met more than 100 total strangers, and yet he'd made the connection between the two of us and was about to introduce me to a colleague I didn't know.
It turned out that the young woman worked in
's San Francisco office and was heading home with her husband after her marathon run. I chatted with her for a few minutes and then returned to my seat. Sitting there, I couldn't help reflecting on Neeleman's business acumen, not to mention his devotion to his company. After all, he didn't have to spend five and a half hours doing customer service. I'm sure he'd put in a full day's work before setting foot on the plane. I'm also sure he could have used the time productively in other ways.
Instead, he chose to walk up and down the aisle talking to as many customers as he could. That takes commitment. I know from my own experience how hard it is to maintain direct contact with your customers as your company grows. Then again, look what he gets out of it -- all of those wonderful ideas, to begin with. He told the guy across the aisle from me that JetBlue would soon be implementing one of them (Wi-Fi in its airport lounges) and that it was working on providing another (high-speed Internet connection on flights). "There are a lot of things we want to do," Neeleman said.
Second, by keeping in touch, he gets a real-time sense of the market. He knows first hand what's going on out there, and he'll see trends before his competitors. That's one of the biggest advantages of having direct contact with customers. Markets change, technologies change, customers' wants and needs change. If you have your finger on the pulse of the market, you're a step ahead of the competition. If you don't, you run the risk of getting blind-sided.
In addition, he's shaping the company culture. Employees see him working the crowd, going out of his way to help a customer, and they do the same. They hear him talking about the plans to introduce new services, and they spread the word. Above all, they know that Neeleman isn't sitting behind a desk somewhere counting his stock options. He's putting in overtime, and he's doing it with them. They can rest assure that he understands what's happening on the frontlines because he's been there. He's on their team.
And the result? An unusual level of trust, respect, and goodwill all around as passengers discover at the end of every JetBlue flight. As the plane nears its destination, a flight attendant goes on the P.A. system and explains that, to keep costs down, JetBlue likes to clean the cabin before landing, thereby reducing turnaround time. The attendant asks passengers to help by checking their seat pockets and the area around their seats and to give any trash to the attendants as they walk down the aisle.
You hear announcements like that on other airlines, of course, but the response on JetBlue is extraordinary. On every JetBlue flight I've taken, more than 90% of the passengers have pitched in. I didn't see anyone who wasn't helping on my flight to Oakland. Suddenly we were all members of the cleanup crew -- even Dave Neeleman.
The whole experience had an interesting effect on me as a businessperson. As regular readers of this column know, I've long believed in the type of leadership and service that Neeleman exemplifies -- but I don't always demand it from my own suppliers. I have tended to make excuses for them.
After flying with Neeleman, I went back and re-examined some of those relationships, which led me to make significant changes. But that's a subject for a future column.
Norm Brodsky (
) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. This article was originally published in Inc.