02. We Will Miss You

Have you ever fired a customer? We spend countless hours and thousands of dollars to increase our business every day. But the question remains. Have you ever fired a customer?

Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where we navigate the difficult currents in business and life. My name is Trent Theroux.

A pioneer of flight and icon of business, Herb Kelleher founder of Southwest Airlines passed away this week. There are many Herb stories, some raunchier than other. I would like to share with you my favorite Herb story.

One woman who frequently flew on Southwest became known as Pen Pal because she filed a complaint after every flight. The complainer didn’t like the lack of assigned seats, she didn’t like the lack of food, she didn’t like the jokes told by the Southwest attendants. In one egregious letter she enumerated all of her complaints. The customer service department didn’t know how best to respond and they sought help from Herb. Kelleher read the letter and swiftly wrote back, “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, we will miss you. Love, Herb.”

There are two great concepts in this story. First, the fact that the leader of a large domestic carrier took the time to write to a customer. How many of your employers would take on that responsibility themselves? I’m not sure how many. I can’t pretend to know how many letters Herb wrote or how many he read. This may have been the only one. But, the fact that he stood up for his employees and his company speaks volumes for his character and courage. Second, and my point today, is that he was prepared to fire a customer.

It seems almost antithetical today that we would fire a customer. Companies spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars cultivating customers, seeking to develop long standing relationships. Tossing one away feels fraught with unintended consequences. This letter was written by Herb nearly two decades ago, before the proliferation of social media. I’m curious if Herb would have thought differently if it happened to be Perez Hilton writing the letters?  Knowing that media whore it would have been front page news. Herb also had this going for him. According to Michael Porter’s Five Forces model, the power of buyers is predicated on their level of concentration. Mrs. Crabapple was one single buyer in a market of hundreds of thousands. Her voice, and her power, were weak to change the industry, much less affect the bottom line of Southwest Airlines.

So, at what point should you be willing to fire a customer? Now, before you start making your corporate hit list take it to a personal level first. What are you willing to fire in your life? Let’s start with items around your house.

The hysterical LetGo.com commercials are spot on in defining the challenges of firing something. I remember one commercial where a guy is hanging off a cliff holding onto his bowling ball and he’s unwilling to release it. A second stuck guy snaps a picture of the bowling ball and post it. Instantly, a rock climber appears and takes the ball from him. There are points in our lives and business where customers and items outlive their purpose or their value. How many times do you think that guy moved while owning that ball? Me? I have crap in my house that’s been moving with me since the 70s. I bet you all can name five things you own that you’ve said to yourself, “why am I moving this to my new place?”

I’m going to go off on a tangent here. My Uncle P passed away 13 years ago. He had no children, so I became executer of his estate, which for those of you who haven’t been charged with this responsibility, is quite a bit of work. My uncle died suddenly so we had to organize and pack his entire house up. His partner put some items into boxes and labeled other with masking tape. Wrapped in newspaper and labeled Mr. Buttman was some twenty-pound rectangular stone. I opened the package a month later and found a type of art, I guess. The stone is 18” high and 8” across.  Carved in the stone is a roman centurion. He’s wearing his plumed helmet, has a toga draped across his shoulders and his holding a spear. Mr. Buttman is facing away from me but looking back and is completely nude! There are two round reasons why my uncle’s partner named him Mr. Buttman. The question I am asking myself at this precise moment is, “Why is Mr. Buttman in my house?” In the 13 years since my uncle’s death Mr. Buttman has moved with me three times. I have never once brought Mr. Buttman out of the closet so why is it that he keeps making the moves? The stone has no art value and certainly no sentimental value. Yet, for some reason Mr. Buttman lives! What is he still doing here? Do you have a Mr. Buttman in your house? Someone who’s traveled under the radar for years just taking up space?

Today is the day for change. Today is the day I start practicing my new unscientific theory on this subject. Are you ready?  Got your pencils out? The theory is: Let It Go. Let It Go! It has been proven to work by at least one Disney Princess in an ice castle. The theory states that we need to have the courage that everything we collected in our lives – both things, customers and people are not always worth keeping.

Have you ever fired a friend? If we measure people against the standard of purpose and value then we all may have a friend that we need to fire. I’m sure that we can all identify someone that we can say, “Why am I friends with this guy?” There was a 2016 Harvard study that concluded that having solid friendships in our life helps promote brain health. Friends helps us deal with stress, make better lifestyle choices that keep us strong, and allow us to rebound from health issues and disease more quickly. If that is correct then the converse might well be true. Bad friends cause stress, make us weaker and lead us to health issues.

It’s human nature to desire bonding, relationships, and communication with others. When people become friends and remain friends, they do so because they enjoy each other’s company, or they have common goals and interest that have brought them together. Alternatively, we see that without common goals and interests, why are we friends.

Here’s the rub. The friends I’m talking about are not the ones you see and talk to on a regular basis. They are the friends you make on social media. Friends here is a very loose term. You become friends with someone on Facebook because you were at a party and talked to someone for ten minutes. They found you and friended you. You accepted because their name was fresh in your mind. Sound familiar? Where are the common goals and interests? If that friend, (can you see my air quotes), spews thoughts and ideas that are negative to you – how do you respond? I’ve often felt harassed by Facebook friends who seem to have nothing better to do than rant and complain about the increasing price of milk and impending Armageddon. Do you have friends (air quotes) like these? I guess I’d ask you why? Last year I went through my account and eliminated several people who fit into this category and I will tell you it was refreshing. I took a lesson from Herb and fired some customers.

Herb is one reason why I’m a Southwest Rapid Rewards member. Truthfully, I also like the no baggage fees as well.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood. It’s tough navigating life’s currents but with one tact or another we can get there together. You can find more podcasts and videos on my website at www.trenttheroux.com. You can also find information about my speaking at your corporate event.