business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

To my mind, competition and the drive for advantage is never a bad thing. It’s probably the single most potent force driving most companies forward. It makes us better and stronger and provides vision for the future.

Yet sometimes there are competitive issues that are best left unmentioned; times when saying nothing speaks far louder than an amplified announcement.

Last Thursday I boarded a plane from Washington to San Francisco, and I would be willing to bet that there was a common thought among many of us in the cabin. Just a day before, the news was filled with the story of a Jet Blue pilot losing it - he became delusional and began yelling about Al Qaeda and other things that are especially troubling at 35,000 feet. Thanks to a quick thinking co-pilot, some able passengers and an extra pilot on board, the Jet Blue flight landed uneventfully and the pilot was carried off.

Ambling down the jet way, I couldn’t help but think about the incident. I have no fear of flying, but I am aware that I am in a heavy metal tube soaring miles above the earth, jammed in with all manner of humanity. Intellectually I understand how the entire thing works, and I prefer to stop thinking about it right there.

Sadly, someone on the United Airlines crew thought differently. As we prepared to push away from the gate we heard the final boarding announcement with a twist. Whoever was speaking reminded us that United “unlike our blue tailed competitor” spends a little extra on screening pilots. That little bit more, he said, may make our tickets cost an extra $10, but it’s worth it.

That’s one pretty obvious dig at low-fare Jet Blue. And considering that I often talk about the need to emphasize value rather than price and the importance of adding personality to the every day job, you might think I liked this little jab. But I didn’t and, by the way, neither did all the passengers around me.

First, the joke was at the expense of mental illness. Had the Jet Blue pilot suffered a heart attack or stroke I doubt that anyone would have mocked it. So on humane reasons alone, I don’t understand why a mental breakdown deserves any less sympathy. (Someone at United needs some sensitivity training.)

More to the point though, I don’t think value comes from mocking an incident when it gnaws at basic customer insecurities. For me, that creates a case where no one wins. The jab at Jet Blue wasn’t funny, reassuring or winning for passengers getting on a nearly six-hour flight.

Back in my newspaper days, I remember the rule that whenever there was an airplane crash our paper would lose all its airline ads the next day. No one airline wanted a reminder of the scariest part of air travel in front of passengers. Anxiety isn’t limited to one airline so it is the last place to find or build competitive advantage.

Like it or not, every industry has a spot like that, where the issues of price, service, convenience and more get overwhelmed by basic human emotions. Most of the readers of MNB are in the food industry and live with this daily. Whatever else happens in this industry, food safety looms over us all the time. The billions of meals provided safely week after week are easily overwhelmed by every food safety outbreak. Even when the problem is caused by human error it’s hard to use that to build competitive advantage because consumer fears of contamination easily spread from one company to another.

Sure, you can talk about your enhanced procedures and spell out how you care constantly. Talk about how you never have or never again will use “Pink Slime.” Just remember that both are a long way from pointing a finger at the unlucky operator who just ended up on the nightly news. There’s a time to talk and a time to be silent.

And that’s why I share the United story. Because there are a lot of public address systems - and now social media pages - out there and a lot of people who might find an opportunity to make an announcement that makes everyone losers. Make this a teachable moment because that’s cheaper than apologies and lost sales.

Besides, employees who understand how to do and say the right thing are a huge competitive advantage that speaks for itself almost constantly.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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