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I’m sitting in New York listening to Richard Owen, co-author of Answering the Ultimate Question. He has just asked for two volunteers from the audience of 450 people, from 20 countries and 40 of the United States. Their job. To hold up a sign. One says “What I Expect,” the other “What I Want.”

He proceeded to illustrate a very simple exercise in creating promoters. Many companies have a goal to exceed customer’s expectations, very few put any real muscle behind that goal. Many will try (dabble) and end up in the big fat nebulous bell curve of, satisfied. One of the biggest problems, we don’t know what people want, and we really don’t care.

Consider the airline industry. Customers expectations got lowered (dude holding the “what I expect” sign took a step to the left) in the past two years by a new policy – charging for bags. One big player starts it (American) and everyone follows. Customers don’t want these fees (dude holding the “what I want” takes a giant step to the right) but now because everyone is doing it – expectations get lowered, complaints slow, but no love is gained. No promoters = no profit.

Except at Southwest Airlines. They have always been focused on what people want. People want to get to their destination on time. That’s why they have the unique boarding process. No one can turn a plane like SWA. The flight attendants clean the planes, mechanics only have to service one type of plane, and point to point routes dodge the nightmare that is hub and spoke and snow.

The other airlines are creating even more delays with their bag policy. People are choosing to carry-on all kinds of unwieldy bags to avoid the fee.

Southwest Airlines does not have to charge for bags.  And by doing nothing, they have become what customers want. Truly exceeding expectations. They are having a blast telling that story with these clever commercials.

They just posted a fourth quarter profit and logged their 37th consecutive year of profitability. It’s very simple. Stay focused on the customer, listen to what they want, get out of the zone of tolerance and have the balls to stick with something.

Richard just closed with a great quote from the late great Sam Walton (and I’m paraphrasing here)

Rule #10 – Swim upstream. You should go the other way and ignore the conventional wisdom. If everyone is going one way, there’s a good chance you’ll find success in the other direction. Beware –  people will flag you down and tell you you’re going the wrong way – so swim faster….

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February 2010