Many in the emergency services industry have been spouting the corporate idea of customer service. In a recent class conducted by a very effective marketing consultant I learned that most businesses fail because they do not do a good job of defining their customer. These businesses struggle to be all things to all people and they try to market their product to everyone. This sounds very similar to the fire and emergency services community. We try to be all things to all people. The instructor went on to share the story of one particular successful business and how they have succeeded in an industry that is failing.
Southwest airline is one of the only profitable airlines in the United States. They have become profitable because their business practices are simple and efficient. One way they do this is by defining their customer. Instead of trying to get every person who flies to fly south west they have chosen a specific share of the market. Southwest wants to appeal to the people who are making a trip and are deciding whether they will drive or fly. Southwest is not interested in people who are committed to fly and are deciding what airline they will fly. They are not interested in marketing to people who are deciding what amenities they want in their flight, or what perks they can get along the way.
By limiting their audience to only people who are deciding to fly or drive they can establish four criteria that will make their airline appealing to these identified customers.
- Cost – Southwest needs to be cheap. They know that they cannot always be cheaper than driving, but their price point needs to be set where a passenger is willing to give up their car in exchange for the flight
- On time – When people drive they have control of their schedule. When that same person checks in for a flight lose that control. Southwest strives to be the best on time carrier ensuring that their passengers feel like they are retaining control when scheduling their trip.
- Hassel free – Driving is a hassle. If southwest can create an experience for their customer that is hassle free then they can win customers
- Fun – Southwest wants to create a fun and festive environment for their passengers. This is because driving is generally not fun. If customers have a fun experience they will be more compelled to fly than to drive
These four decision points drive everything that southwest does. If you ask the leadership of Southwest if they will ever add meals to their flight they can say that those meals would 1. Add cost, 2. Potentially delay aircraft turn around, and 3. Add hassle to their customer experience. This flies in the face of what their identified customer wants, so they will never do it.
So, how does the fire service identify its customers? How do you define your customer?
- The citizens of your community? – if so, what about the people just passing through
- The people who call 911? – if so how do you address your prevention and code enforcement mission?
- Your tax payers? – what about that part of your service area that doesn’t pay taxes
- Even defined, or are you all things to all people
Can you see how each of these definitions expects different things form your organization and that if you subscribe to an ill defined customer centric model of service you may be setting yourself up for failure?