I am infinitely interested in certain things and completely uninterested in others, which includes everything mechanical; you will find a little middle ground with me.
When I put the key in the ignition of my car, something happens that makes it start that I do not have to understand. I love watching good TV shows, but I don’t care how the picture gets to my TV. However, if you show me a champion of customer service, I am completely satisfied. I am very curious about the people who make a difference.
This brings me to Captain Dennis J. Flanagan of United Airlines. This is what happened that piqued my interest in this man of character.
My wife and I were flying to Arizona for a week in Sedona. Our Denver-bound flight was to depart from Baltimore on United Airlines. Approximately 30 minutes before our scheduled departure, we sat in the door waiting to board when the Jetway door opened. The United captain got out, went to the ticket counter and grabbed the microphone. Based on my substantial flying experience, a variety of possible scenarios bombarded my brain, none of them good!
Then this captain began to speak. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am your captain, Denny Flanagan.” He went on to describe the weather we anticipated and our route. Then he said, “We will be flying a Boeing 757 this morning. If you have any questions during our flight about the aircraft or the flight, I will be happy to answer them. Our aircraft this morning is in excellent shape.” There was a long pause, then, “And I’m in good shape.” The passengers chuckled. “By the way,” he continued, “this is my first flight.” Silence … “Today!” he added with a smile.
Excellent. He does schtick! He is a pilot that I can identify with.
Among the waiting passengers, I could see their moods changing rapidly like a wave. They hadn’t previously seemed anxious or worried, just indifferent or tired. After that announcement, they seemed jovial and eager to board.
We wonder what would happen next. Jimmy Buffet with a parrot? A conga line?
As we started boarding, Captain Flanagan stood at the door of the plane handing out cards with a 757 on one side and a description of the plane on the other. Upon greeting him, I mentioned that I was an executive coach and consultant who published a monthly newsletter. I told him that I would like to write something about his sympathy and gave him my business card. He replied that he would love to speak at some point.
An hour after our flight, Anne, the purser, spoke over the intercom saying, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Here at United we think traveling should be fun. So Captain Flanagan is raffling off discounted tickets at United.”
Wait a minute, now we’re going to have a raffle? Whats Next? Karaoke?
He continued: “On your cocktail napkin, write the reason you chose United to fly. Then I’ll take out four napkins and read the responses. Each of those people will receive a coupon with a discount on a future United flight.”
The raffle ended and I did not win. But a few minutes later, Anne came down the hall with one of Captain Flanagan’s business cards. On the back was this note: “Mr. Golletz, you are a valued customer and your business is greatly appreciated. Please let me know how we can exceed your expectations. Also, could you wait for me after the flight?” Signed, “Captain Denny”.
I was unable to meet him due to a close relationship in Denver, so I asked Anne to tell him that I would call him after my vacation in Sedona, saying she was eager to find out more about him. Before taking my response to Denny in the booth, she told me what she knew about this unusual and extraordinary guy:
- He institutes the raffle on every flight and posts the cocktail napkin responses where United staff can read them.
- He has a large number of copies of a coffee table-sized book on United history and presents them to United associates who are exceptionally responsive to customers.
- Handwrite personal thank you notes on the back of your business cards for each first-class passenger on each of your flights.
- Provide your personal credit card to unaccompanied minors on their flights so they can use the on-board phone to call home.
- One of Denny’s co-drivers, Buck Wyndham (what’s that like for a pilot’s name?), Was so impressed that he asked Denny if he could record it for several days after the higher ups approved the idea. Subsequently, the video recording was used for in-company training.
When I got home from that vacation, I spoke with Denny and several people close to him. My main question was, “What created this dedication to customers?” Denny said, “I do it because it’s my job.” He is not a type prone to complacency. His wife, Terri, told me that he has a deep sense of duty and loyalty that endures despite adverse circumstances. His associate Bud Potts, another United manager, couldn’t explain this quality in Denny. He expressed his admiration for who Denny is and what he does.
Keep learning from Captain Denny
What have I learned (or reaffirmed) from my experience with Captain Denny? Here are three takeaways:
1. Over the years, United Airlines has experienced many well-documented challenges. Providing a bright spot in the middle of the fray is a leader who demonstrates endurance, persistence, tenacity, love of people, loyalty, and dedication. It is not so important where you got it, but that you have it. Character counts!
2. People follow examples instead of orders. Denny often preaches the word of customer service to other United associates. They listen to you because your actions reflect your words. It is consistent and authentic. It reaffirms what it says with what it does.
3. When faced with challenging times and circumstances, we have options. We can focus on the good with a positive attitude or complain about the way things are and harbor resentment. You’ve probably heard it before and I’ll say it again: resentment equates to drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die. I know people at United who want the company to fail because of deep-seated animosity and their need to prove they are right. At the risk of seeming simplistic, I say, “Find something else to do with your life!”
When times get tough, people throw in the towel and walk away out of frustration. To those at United and other firms who have faced similar challenges and left, I say, “Sometimes leaving is the right answer, both for the organization and for the individual. It is better to leave than to leave.”
To people anywhere who decide to stand up and work for productive change: Bravo! Find other like-minded people who will give you the courage to continue the fight. Incubate ideas; initiate independent action; take risks; build the business you want.
For everyone, but more particularly United CEOs, what can you learn from this story and how can you build on that lesson? Will he have the courage and intelligence to bet on people like Denny Flanagan?
PS: I first wrote about Denny in my monthly newsletter in 2005. Since then, others have noted his incredible qualities as well. For example, he has appeared on the television network shows “This Morning” and “Good Morning America” and has appeared in a one-page story on the Wall street journal. In an industry desperately in need of heroes, Denny teams up with pilot Sully Sullenberger (of “put the plane on the Hudson River” fame) as a guy to be emulated. I’m proud that Denny and I have become good friends. When he’s in DC or Baltimore, we still have dinner together. (Come to think of it, Denny, you owe me a meal.)
Copyright 2010 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.