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May 2008


Airlines are curious creatures. All their advertisements, particularly for premium cabins, highlight plush seating, allegedly “award-winning” cuisine, and elegant bewitching personnel to beguile you to a relaxed slumber. And then you board…!

But the truth is…it’s not the hardware, in that business or any other, that finally makes the compelling difference.

I’m going to list a series of experiences and you, dear reader, ferret out the common wick running through them. In fact, you can transplant similar experiences you’ve had, and you’ll probably find a similar pattern emerging.


While living in New York, we have an apartment in Dubai. We have an office in Dubai, and it’s a convenient pit-stop as we deal with some necessary administrative tasks, look after our clients, meet our team, and swap clothes from the West as we head out to Asia.

Due to a voltage surge, our computer adapter blew. We landed in Bangkok the next day with no way to get power to our laptop.

My laptop is a Samsung and the cable required couldn’t be sourced anywhere in Bangkok — not at a computer store, not in an IT mall, nowhere! Apparently, each computer has it’s own idiosyncrasies that way, and Samsung only sells TV’s in Thailand!

We were next heading to Europe. We called our friends at the Four Seasons Concierge desk in London. A concerted search led them to the same conclusion — no compatible power cables. However, they could be ordered online — and would likely take two weeks for delivery (really handy given battery life cycles)!

We called Singapore where we had purchased the computer. Raffles Hotel Concierge this time (the benefits of regular patronage at hotels where service is more than a slogan). They secured the power chord, and sent it on to our next destination (Fiugi, just outside Rome, of all places).

Why in God’s name is getting a power chord for a computer an act that requires sea-parting levels of providential good fortune?

There are I am told universal power chords with appropriate attachments. But three sets of IT malls in three modern cities, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai couldn’t come up with one! Finally a small computer store in Dubai rigged up an Acer power cable with the right voltage and input specifications until the Singapore sent original caught up with us in Italy!


We all know that British Airways’ much touted Terminal Five has been ‘terminal’ in other ways. It has been a drain in resources, has damaged BA’s brand, has led to numerous claims for lost luggage and gotten people to shift to other carriers in droves.

Flying from Rome to London Heathrow, we were dismayed to learn that Rome airport said they didn’t have any “extra cargo containers” that day. Now with all due deference to “la dolce vita” you might assume airports and cargo/baggage containers go hand in hand. Alas not in Rome that day. So the cargo containers from our own aircraft were offloaded and utilized.

Arriving in London, 10 bags hadn’t made it on board. One of them were ours. We were flying Club Europe and went to the dedicated complaint department. The gentleman said he was helping someone else and asked if I wanted to join the other queue. The general queue had 10 people waiting so I told him I preferred the mathematics of my current strategy. It seemed to grieve him that he might have to deal with more than one person an hour.

We were going to be on the ground in the UK for 24 hours. There were seven flights from Rome before our departure. Surely, it would be easy! Alas, not for BA in concert with their “partners” in Rome for whom bungling and ineptitude turned out to be a high art form.

They would make no promises though the bag had been clearly located in Rome. Why not? No answer. They couldn’t tell us which flight it would be on. Why not? They had no control. Who had control? No one knew that either. A few flights later, still no bag. Oh, those flights were full we were told. Yes, but not everyone checks bags, and we’re Gold Card holders of your airline we said (sadly ineffectual as that was in securing any attention), and surely those 10 bags could have made it over, a few bags per flight. The lack of responsiveness was deafening.

The next day, almost 24 hours later we were told the bag was scheduled on a certain flight. But they still couldn’t be sure. We suggested that surely they would know after the plane took off if it’s ON or not! No, they couldn’t say. So they claimed to be flying unaware of the bags they had on board! When the flight landed in Heathrow they then said, if the bag was indeed on board (nail-biting suspense continues!) it could take up to 7 hours to have it be located much less delivered.

Just prior to our flight that evening, after another 10 calls, they admitted it was in the airport. I had to go to ‘lost luggage’ to get it they advised. Where is that I asked? In Arrivals! Ah, behind security near baggage claim I further learned. How do I get there I inquired? The response was to flag a passing by member of BA and have them escort you! Now there’s a process! After fruitlessly flagging people, we intimidated one person to take us back into the inner recesses. And with 20 minutes to spare just got our bag and made the next flight!

What is the point of showing us gleaming photos of luxurious cabins, when you can’t load bags for a single sector journey, or expeditiously get them back even with ample flights and clear customer need? Presumably airlines have some leverage with airports. And anyone with a brand needs partners that help them deliver a thorough service experience. Saying “it’s not me” placates no one and is lowest common denominator equivocation of the worst kind.


We had a morning to ourselves in Marseille, landing in from Frankfurt around 0930. This before we continued onto a week’s holiday in Provence.

Since our first hotel would only have our room in the afternoon, my wife and I thought it would be fun to have a look around Marseille and then have bouillabaisse (Marseille’s exceptional speciality) before heading on.

We contacted Abercrombie and Kent Private Travel who we’ve used in the past. They are bespoke travel operators and also look after the travel needs of various members of the British Royal Family.

We asked them to put together a few hour tour of Marseille, help us select a top restaurant for bouillabaisse and then get us to our afternoon destination.

Two weeks passed and nothing! When challenged, they instead asked why we wanted to look around Marseille? They suggested it was an industrial town with nothing to see (Notre Dame de la Garde, Forte Saint Jean, the famous old port?)! We insisted that there was quite a bit to see by our standards, and any town, much less one of the great ports of the world, would have interesting diversions for a few hours. We weren’t planning a week there!

They absolutely couldn’t make it happen. All it would have taken: contact the local university history department and find a student will to provide a few hours paid guide work, have a car pick us up, book a restaurant. If you can handle the Royal Family, surely you can pull this off?

We instead contacted a travel agent in Spain who was recommended to us, she found a local operator and took care of it. Incredible!

If you specialize in safaris, exotic trips, amazing adventures, then when good clients ask for a relatively simple solution that is perhaps out of your usual ‘box’, why would you insult their intelligence and credulity rather than creating a way?


For my birthday after a bracing walk we rented a barge in Hampshire and floated down the canal for a Sunday pub lunch.

It was a crisp day and so the service provider had put out blankets on one side of the outside deck.

Naturally sitting on that side, nice and bundled up, we enjoyed the lovely and gentle journey…until I tried to get up! My windbreaker was stuck. Gingerly extricating myself, lest I tear the garment, we found to our chagrin that the windbreaker was now coated in a gummy goo. Apparently there had been cushions there, held in place by this adhesive. The seats had now been removed, and no one had scrubbed off the gum! Moreover, they had set up the blankets and other set-ups on that very side!

After scrubbing as much of it off as we could using the blankets for that purpose, we called over the barge ‘captain’. He was intrigued, but seemed untroubled. Instead of apologizing, or accepting any responsibility, he offered some cleaning tips (we wondered if he had developed this expertise after subjecting more than one hapless traveler to his ‘experience’).

Fortunately, a housekeeping ‘alchemist’ at our hotel was able to remove any signs of the substance, but it still left us flabbergasted that renting a barge for a private cruise wasn’t enough to get anyone to give it the ‘once over’ before setting it up for passengers.

Surely if you offer a luxury service, having crudely dysfunctional aspects to your service, or unfinished seating (in the sense of a removed cushion without removing what held it in place), isn’t how you’re going to inspire repeat business!


I’ve selected fairly straightforward examples here. I haven’t delved into the client who spent close to $100 million on a brand and product launch and then had another part of their business unable to have the product on the right shelves in the immediate aftermath; or the conference hotels who refuse to have two-sided buffets so that the line of 60 delegates doesn’t snake around the corner; or the doctor’s office who gives 20 people an 11 a.m. appointment and then works it on a ‘first come first served’ basis inconveniencing and agitating as many already distressed people as possible; or the car company that takes down the wrong requirement and wants to charge you for the vehicle they incorrectly sent (as opposed to what you asked for), and so on.

Everyone focuses on the ‘hardware’ requirements. The computer with it’s functionality, the plane and its accoutrements, the travel agent sporting the royal seal, the barge with a monopoly canal cruise option, the medical degree, the cars in the garage, the product benefits, etc. However people tap into the whole experience.

When Changi airport in Singapore can have my bags waiting in 15 minutes after we land, they have a fan for life. When a Blackberry can be set up in 30 minutes and I can be fully functional with it minutes thereafter, I’m delighted to stay more closely in touch. When the Japanese bullet train is meticulously appointed and superbly maintained and maintains razor-sharp punctuality, I buy the ticket with pleasure. When a luxury hotel can ask me when I want my room serviced rather than having to fend off house-keeping just as I’m heading into the shower each evening, I feel they’re interested in providing a seamless service not just launching functionaries in my direction.

Success Tips:

  1. When something goes wrong relative to the use of your product, how easy is it to fix? Do people have to call three continents (a la the power chord) just to be able to re-utilize your product or service? My tri-band phone was configured (though created for global roaming even in Japan) such that I could only check voice mail when in North America! You can’t make this up! 15 years of patronage with American Express couldn’t get me recognized when I returned home to the US because that is a ‘different operation’. And this for a card that tells you ‘not to leave home without it’ and exudes globalism! Amazing!
  2. Ensure everyone who works with you, partners with you, represents you, whether a part of your supply chain, or a strategic alliance partner, is delivering at the same levels of quality and responsiveness you do. It’s up to us to make sure of that before we charge for an overall experience. Saying “it’s not my department” makes the person uttering it sound like an immediate buffoon. Service staff who refuse to pass on your coffee request to their colleague who is looking after your section in the restaurant come to mind as an aggravating instance of this.
  3. Don’t try to stuff what other people request into your own comfort zone (a la Marseille). Even Burger King now includes healthy options (okay ‘healthier’) in their menu line-up and the ability to configure and adapt is a fast route out of commoditization into more premium space.
  4. Meticulously attend to all the constituents of the experience you’re offering or managing. We often arrange locations and contexts for our clients as they have leadership sessions, journeys or even off-sites. We meticulously have to examine where we’ll be: acoustics, lighting, where relevant Wi-Fi access, room lay-out, amount of lighting desired, movement space, location and timing of refreshments and more. Blaming the hotel which tends to default to ‘layout A’ or ‘layout B’ (see the point above) is asinine. Unlike the barge operator, if we’re asking people to relax on the cushions, we have to make sure they don’t relax into a pool of gum!
  5. Mostly all these instances are signs of laziness, lack of follow-through, low intellectual rigor, ineffectual processes and service torpor. An enthusiasm for excellence, for creating a ‘wow’, hitching a portion of your self-esteem to what you offer, by ensuring details don’t decimate your innovation and your core value, is how you create both professionalism and value.
  6. Never, ever argue for your limitations (why the problem is inevitable, mandated, unavoidable, perpetual, etc). You can state a current fact with regret, mitigate it however you can, use the experience as an impetus for improvement and innovation, and ensure that current limitations become launching pads for fresh and innovative value.
  7. If your people don’t have an enthusiasm for fostering solutions, for seeing people’s anxieties resolved and their problems addressed, it’s over. No amount of ‘training’ or ‘exhortation’ will breathe this spirit into people. People can be reminded, such potential can be tapped (but rarely created), it can be catalyzed, coached, recognized. But make it easier on yourself by assembling people who want to participate in actualizing and living in such a culture. Then you fight for the success of your customers rather than fighting each other to care!
  8. Don’t do what you can’t do, do superbly what you can do. A Volvo isn’t a Bentley, and never the twain shall meet. The Four Seasons isn’t a Marriott and all the lobby fountains won’t transform the latter into the former. Both can profit, both can thrive. But know who you are seeking to be, and make everything consistent with that. The premium space is growing, the ‘value for money’ space is growing, the middle ‘halfway house’ tier is declining. People reward clearly distinctive experiences or value.
  9. Frequently look forward to expressing your leadership personality in presenting a distinctive style, a point of view, a competitive edge, a market insight, an ethos…be it the world-beating design of an IPhone or the precedent-shattering lounges of Virgin Atlantic, or the interactive creativity campus that houses Google. Look for ways to express the soul and passion of your business…transcend the recurring idiocies so you can vibrantly express your vision and potential genius. You can play the relatively low-end game of ‘service recovery’ or the horizon-extending game of ‘dream delivery’. Leaders will inevitably and emphatically choose the latter, while excelling in the former when they must!

May you have a month in which you pass the proverbial lint brush over your business, and remove the ‘poor hygiene’ in processes, products, behaviors, interfaces and more. And then blast past these limitations into fresh vistas of innovation and customer value.

See you there!