Tuesday, April 25, 2017

United Breaks Noses: A Counter-Argument

We've all heard the story by now: United is cruel, because they body-shamed some little girls over their leggings. United is vicious because they beat up some old guy and dragged him off the plane. And American is just as awful because they almost punched a baby and took away his mommy's stroller. Oh, what a world!

Since I fly a lot, my friends and family have been quick to ask my opinion on these issues. Since I fly United, they seem to want me to declare "no mas" and switch to Southwest or something.

They've been surprised by my reaction.

The Facebook class has these bullshit social media sensation stories exactly backwards. Each is a story of a passenger behaving badly and the (admittedly deplorable) treatment they got in return from the beleaguered employees of once-proud businesses brought low by mass consumerism.

Frequent fliers know of, and respect, United's non-revenue passenger dress code. Those girls were flying non-rev and dressed against the code. I only wish United would turn away more of their paying passengers who dress inappropriately to be seen in public! At the very least, the airline should stick to their guns and forbid non-revs to dress like the rest of the animals on the plane.

It's telling that "legging-gate" only happened because another unrelated passenger blew the situation out of proportion with an ill-informed analysis of the situation. While smartphone cameras have brought much illumination to many deplorable situations, this wasn't another black guy getting beaten by police. It was a pair of privileged girls acting inappropriately while flying for free. Boo hoo.

Then there's that guy who was beaten and dragged off a flight. No one deserves to be beaten up by the cops, but there comes a time when we all must obey the rules. It was stupid for United to let everyone board and then ask passengers to give up their seats, but it's completely within the rules. In the grand scheme of things, "miss your flight" is barely even a first-world problem.

Yet this guy persisted, resisted, argued, and fought with the police when they came to get him. What planet are you from? Every day, passengers gripe and moan and complain about how the big, bad airlines treat them. But everyone should know that they must obey the orders of a flight attendant and a cop, at least in as far as those orders are the likes of "get off the plane". This really isn't a United story. It's a cops overreacting story. And that's barely even news these days.

Finally, I turn to the flight attendant who almost punched a baby while grabbing the stroller his mommy was bringing onboard the plane. Here's the thing: You can't bring a stroller on a plane. The gate agents inform people with strollers of this fact. There's a big pile of strollers off the plane right before you get on.

And he didn't punch a baby. He didn't even come close. If I had a dollar for every time I was almost punched I'd have a few, but yet I (amazingly) remain un-punched to this day. And yet American suspended the poor schlub anyway!

In all three cases, "do-gooders with phones" thought the best way to deal with a situation they didn't understand was to film it and share it. This is the real story: Everyone wants to be part of a social media sensation instead of stepping in to defuse a situation or even learn the basic facts.

And the airlines? They're just big horrible companies with poor customer service. Which we already knew.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Do Big 4 consultants have deep tech skill(s)?

I thought you all might enjoy reading this piece by Keith Townsend: Do Big 4 consultants have deep tech skill?

"In the end, the value of hiring a Big 4 management consultant is that you get a broad range of knowledge and the capability to answer tough business questions. A good adviser will help you ask the right questions and guide you to partners that can help create and implement detailed execution. I would not hire a Big 4 to deliver the technical portion of a project. I’d wouldn’t hesitate to engage them to help provide some rigor and oversight but not manage the actual execution."
It's always fun to hear what an ex-Big 4 consultant thinks of his old life. It's also fun to see him dance around what he really wants to say.

So are you saying I'll help you "ask the right questions" or "answer tough business questions?" I imagine it's going to be one of those two.

And as for hiring me to implement, I'm sorry, but I'm a consultant. We don't actually do what we propose.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gold is the New Silver: How American Airlines is like Trojan and Starbucks

So American Airlines (née US Airways) just announced their 2015 elite program, and the travel bloggers are starting to exhale. It's not awful unless you flew more than 75k but less than 100k miles last year...

What strikes me about their new system is the elite levels: Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum. No Silver; you get Gold for only 25,000 miles flown. I guess they want their (in)frequent fliers to feel like those special folks over at United and Delta even though they had to fly 50,000 miles to get Gold!

This is such a fantastic consultant-like move, isn't it? Name the lowest "elite" level "Gold" and your frequent fliers will feel like they've accomplished something! They can wave their badge at those Unitards and Deltoids and say "see, I'm Gold too!"

And it's so Starbucks, so Trojan. There's no longer a "small"; there's just Great, Awesome, and Executive Awesome! At least there's no Blue...

Friday, May 30, 2014

What Business Travelers Want Most From Loyalty Programs: Stealthy Luxury

I guess I sounded like a dick in my last post, torching “manufactured spend” and other stupidity while offering a rich white-guy toast. But I’m not going to backpedal. I’ve tasted the cocktail and I like it.

We’ve already established that airlines, hotels and the like really want people like me to expense our way through their wares. But they’ve had mixed success doing it, since they continue to pander to the wrong clientele with signing bonuses and airport terminal credit card hawkers.

So let’s talk about what paying business travelers like me really want.

More than anything else, we want stealthy luxury. The real 1% spends their own money and relishes luxury brands, but consultants like us still have expense accounts and client oversight. We need options that look mainstream but give secret benefits.

That’s why we like Uber, after all. It’s a first-class experience that fits our expense accounts!

Here are some examples of what I mean:
  • National Car Rental’s Emerald Club Executive level lets you choose virtually any car on the lot after reserving a midsize Corolla. This is what I’m talking about! I can request a National reservation from any admin or travel department yet roll in a real car. Don’t see what you want on the Executive Aisle? National has always let me pick anything within sight!
  • United offers Premier 1K and Global Services fliers instant upgrades on M-Class economy tickets at booking. These aren’t cheap and it’s just about impossible to finagle one from a wary travel agent, but if the client lets me book my own reservation online I always go this route. 
  • Most airlines allow ranking frequent fliers to upgrade using certificates (once literal “stickers”) to get out of the coach seat your company’s rules require.
  • TSA Pre-Check was fantastic when it was just us high-status frequent fliers, but it’s been diluted by that damn iPad app the TSA uses now.
  • Most hotels offer status-based floors and lounges, but they rarely keep the riffraff out in practice.
  • Credit cards like the American Express Platinum offer airport lounge access regardless of ticket class. But this benefit is rapidly evaporating.
There are many more stealth upgrades, but all share a common theme: Book a mainstream thing and get a nicer thing.

I’d love to see this practice spread throughout the business economy. Here are some ideas:
  • Hotels should offer programs to “walk” elite guests to nicer properties. My company could book me into the Courtyard but the chain could let me stay at the Marriott instead, just like a first class upgrade on a flight.
  • Car rental companies should offer post-reservation but pre-arrival upgrades and should pick me up and drop me off at the terminal like Silvercar or Enterprise (but without the smarminess).
  • Hotel elite floors should offer real upgrades and amenities, and they should be guaranteed. I rarely get a room the elite floor and even more rarely see any difference. Seriously, what's the point?
  • Ritzy hotel chains should add some business-friendly booking options. Let me “upgrade” even if I have to partially pay out of pocket. I’d love to switch to the Hyatt or Fairmont but my clients would balk. But they wouldn’t object to a market-rate room expense.
  • Airport lounges should have good food and real booze and should offer a ride to the gate. Otherwise it's pointless for people like me to go to the lounge. I’m sneering at you, United!
  • Give me a credit card with real benefits. Everyone knows the concierge service is worthless and “Priority Pass Select” is bogus. Throw in some of these perks and I’ll gladly pay a $500 annual fee and shift tens of thousands in expenses your way.
What do you think? What stealth luxuries could hotel chains offer you?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Manufactured Spend and Other Stupid Games, or, "I’ve Got A Real Job"

Constant business travelers like me spend lots of time studying the nuances of “loyalty” programs. We make sure we maximize our airline and hotel status, we have a wallet full of credit cards, and we pick our travel providers accordingly. For us, it’s all about minimizing the horrors of travel.

But there’s a whole other world of loony points fiends with quite a different perspective. They’re in the programs to earn rewards and they’ll go to extremes to do it. They book everything through online portals to maximize points, they churn through credit cards for the signup bonuses, and they’ll go to extremes to “manufacture” spending.

I read lots of travel blogs to keep on top of programs. I do this mainly to keep on top of the latest developments (it’s important for me to know what will happen to their programs when American and US Airways merge, for example) and indeed a bit to learn about rewards opportunities. When I started staying at more Hilton properties, I relied on Gary Leff’s advice to suggest which new credit card to sign up for, and the constant barrage of Hyatt/MGM Resorts coverage encourages me to swing their way if only to ease my thankfully-rare trips to Vegas.

But about half of what I read on these blogs is a complete waste of time for me. To wit:
Let me reiterate: I have a job. I spend over $100k annually on actual plane tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and business meals. To people like me, jumping through hoops to manufacture a few thousand dollars of “spend” in order to earn a free ticket or hotel room is a complete waste of time.

I want benefits. I want to be greeted by name when I return to the same hotel 10 times per year (a pox on the Hilton New York!) I want a whole floor of the Waldorf in Orlando that doesn’t allow kids. I want to sit in first every time, buying an M-class ticket on United so my client thinks it’s a coach seat.

Airlines and hotel chains would be wise to court folks like me and are wise to continue alienating the manufactured spend crowd. Go ahead and cry over your Vanilla Reloads. I’ll have another Manhattan.

Image credit: Awesome Brolly Usage! by Whatleydude

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bed and Breakfasts: Creative Accommodations On the Road or Nightmare on Elm Street?

I stay at big chain hotels too often. I’m diamond in one program and platinum in another, so now I’m working towards gold in a third. But I’ve had a couple of co-workers choose a different route when they travel, and I’m curious what you all think of it.

“Bed and Breakfasts” are basically frilly little homes populated by the retired set. They let you sleep on the same kind of lumpy bed in the same kind of potpourri-scented room your parents keep for you in hopes you’ll stay with them over the holidays. And they include the same horrid home cooking and tedious conversation at breakfast. What more could I ask for?

But I’ve had a few fellow consultants heading to “B-b-B’s” lately, so I decided to ask why they would punish themselves like that. Here’s what they said:

Women like bed and breakfast accommodation because it removes them from the predatory world of business hotels. Apparently we men can get downright ugly after a week on the road and too many gin and tonics, making lewd comments, following women around the hotel, and generally being pigs. I get this. Grandma and grandpa are less threatening than Bob from Poughkeepsie. But hotels are also well-staffed, have on-site security, and lack the dark back porch and garden of your typical bed and breakfast. Give me drunken salesmen any day!

Some also said they save money by staying in informal lodging. I can understand this to an extent, especially now that I’ve got my own company, so every dollar spent at the Westin could have been saved towards my Tesla. Some even soak their per-diem, banking the extra hundreds rather than handing it over to the hotel. I imagine they’re the same people who eat lunch at Taco Bell in Midtown. Not me.

Finally, some tell me about the friendliness of the bed and breakfast environment. Can you imagine being excited to meet the retired couple with the RV and the grandma visiting her son in college? What a benefit!

Oh well. I’m not staying in a bed and breakfast. How about you?

Bates Motel image used for purposes of parody

Monday, March 17, 2014

Coke in the Lunch Room: Blurring Work and Private Life

Smart people will tell you to keep work and private life separate. And they’re right: Nothing good can come of your co-workers learning about your office affair, your clients learning about your binge drinking, or your boss learning about a gambling habit.

But it’s awfully hard for consultants, especially “on the road” types like me. I don’t magically appear at 8 and disappear at 5. I fly, eat, and often bunk up with my co-workers, spending more than half my life “on-site” with clients in distant cities. In this world, it’s inevitable that life will leak out.

Such was the case for an account rep (can’t say “salesman” anymore) I know. We had worked together “at home” a bit, but most of our interaction took place at the client site, the Marriott and Ruth’s Chris. This guy was usually hilarious, always telling a new story about risqué behavior right on the line of offensiveness.

But sometimes he wasn’t so funny. Sometimes he was downright bizarre. He would miss early-morning meetings and sometimes disappear before his creme brûlée arrived at the table. I assumed he was selling or schmoozing with someone more profitable than “the team” and let it slide.

Then I discovered the reality. We were in New York and somehow the rest of the group had vanished. A few went to bed early, resting up before 6 AM flights; others were local and headed home to their families.

He and I were spending some time yukking it up in a questionable cigar bar on the Lower East Side when a stranger knocked on the window, looking at us. He went gray, hopped up, and hurried outside to meet this bearded straggler, leaving his coat behind. After exchanging quite a few bills for a small package, he returned, staring me down.

“You can’t tell anyone,” he dared. Then he went on, without even a prod from me. “This is between us. Yeah, it’s coke. It’s just something I do. You won’t tell anyone. I can trust you.”

He could trust me. I wasn’t going to snitch. But things got weird after that. We spent a lot less time together, with him choosing to sit at the other end of the table and calling his own cab. Pretty soon he was dropped by the company in a semi-monthly cull of sales folk. I don’t think it had anything to do with the coke, but who can say?

Coca-Cola ad used for purposes of parody

Monday, March 10, 2014

Flaky Clients and Unfortunate Promises

Lots of clients are flaky, and it’s pretty common for folks like us to say whatever they want to hear just to get them to shut up. We often make promises we never mean to live up to, assuming they won’t be tested. So it’s no fun then these unfortunate client promises come home to roost.

A few months back, I had a quick phone call with a new prospect. The guy on the other end was excessively aggressive, making me question their buying power and his authority. Sometimes you can just sense it when the conversation changes from a client considering buying to a demonstration of his personal mojo.

He wanted in our schedule in April. Considering that was six months away, I decided to accept, even though I knew I would have real-money customers on the hook before then. After all, it was probably bluster and I didn’t want to call his bluff.

I followed up with an email, baiting him into making a real commitment. He didn’t reply, and I chalked him up to being a big-talker.

Then February rolled around. April was full to bursting when I happened to be on an unrelated phone call with Mr. Big. Of course, I had completely forgotten about my promise to him!

“How are things looking for April,” he asks.

“Oh, we’re busy, busy, busy as always,” I boast. “Completely booked up!”

“Yes, we’re ready to be part of that!”

Suddenly it’s The Princess Bride. “All but your four fastest ships,” Buttercup dubiously prompts…

Crap. I quickly search my email for any record of a previous conversation and there it is: A black-and-white promise of now-unavailable activity in April.

I knew what I had to do. “Yes, of course,” I reply. “I mean we’re booked up thanks to you!”

So I’m committed to making it work. I’ll rearrange April. Maybe I’ll bring on some temporary resources. Maybe I’ll let another project slip.

Then the transaction gets weird. “We’re actually not sure if we can do it,” he says after I’ve committed. “I need to check with the board. I’ll let you know in March.”

And there we are. I’ve over-committed my availability, I’m on the hook to deliver, and I can’t even plan on it happening! I did what I figured was best: Bet on his flaking out by still not reserving anything in the way of resources, all the while spending some internal capital on a “what if he comes through” plan with the team.

Know what I just heard last week? He flaked out.

Cadbury Flake photo by Evan-Amos used here for parody 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Crazy Airline Gobbledegook Nonsense

The airline business is like nothing on earth, and airline people are some of the most common interactions we consultants have. I thought I would take a minute to note some of the crazy words that come out of their mouths.

Note that I'm not talking about jargon - every field has special weird words for weird things. I'm talking about weird words for common things that didn't need renaming.

Weigh in in the comments if you've got more to add!
  • Aircraft - This is one of the most common words to escape from the lips of airline people. I counted it at least three dozen times in the safety video alone! But no one outside the airline industry says aircraft. To us normals, it's an airplane, a jet, or most likely just a plane.
  • Approach - No one is ever asked to "come over", "line up" or "step up". No, at airports you approach people and things, implying that you'll never get there. And at airports, sometimes it seems like you never will! Can you imagine if this odd wording was adopted by society as a whole? Would you approach the counter at Burger King, a professor's office, or your own bed?
  • Beverage Service - "Welcome to Olive Garden! Your waitress will be here shortly with the beverage service!" Never gonna happen.
  • Nautical terms - "Ahoy there, matey! Welcome aboard the pirate ship, Southwest Airlines Flight 123! I be the captain and this be my crew!" I suppose this one is debatable, since crew is used to describe the staff of any vessel (in the air, on the water, under the sea, or even in space) but it's such an odd historical link between ocean liners and aircraft (there I go). Why didn't they adopt rail terminology instead? Wouldn't it be cool to have a conductor and an engineer on an air-coach?
  • Fly (as a verb) - This is pretty widely adopted in society as a whole, but it's another oddity. I have often been thanked for "flying Delta", but I'm pretty sure I didn't actually do any of the flying. I just got on board to eat peanuts and drink beer with the other passengers. Why not just call it travel? But that's not quite as sexy as flying, is it?
  • Onboarding and Deplaning - You aren't just getting on a plane, or even boarding, now you're "onboarding the aircraft!" Talk about needless doublespeak! And yet I've never heard anyone refer to offboarding. No, that's deplaning! But let's stick to onboarding for a minute: Isn't it fun that this pretentious, obnoxious word is shared by the loathed corporate critters in HR?
  • Operations - Another ridiculously common term inside aviation that has little meaning out in the real world is operations. The only normals who need to learn this term are us frequent fliers, since irregular operations (abbreviated IrrOps) is such a common occurrence.
  • Rollerboards - This is so common it's becoming a real word! I have to assume the adjectival phrase "roll-aboard" (as in luggage) became a noun before the eggcorn effect took hold. Now they're rollerboards, which sounds like a questionable interrogation tactic! But they're still too big for commuter jets.
  • Passive Voice - In a world full of rules, it pays to be passive. "That needs to be turned off" deflects obvious questions better than "I have no idea why I'm demanding that you turn off your computer, but I think some law says that you have to." Airline personnel have mastered passive voice!
  • Podium - For some reason, that thing the gate agent stands behind isn't a counter (that's where the ticketing agent stands), a desk, a table, or a lectern (the proper term) but a podium. Even though they're never raised off the ground. Oh well.
  • Product - MBA-ization comes to the airline industry! The act of flying your corpse to Des Moines is now referred to as "the product", as is (presumably) carrying the mail and the literal corpses in the cargo hold. Which is humorous, since the actual profitable product is pushing branded credit cards.
What are your favorite examples of airline doublespeak? Or am I just being a prick? Sound off in the comments!

Photo by MarkNye

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Consulting Mad Libs

Ever notice the eerie similarity of consulting deliverables to Mad Libs?

It seems that as a firm gets more "mature" (in the procedure sense) all of its output becomes a massive game of "fill in the blanks." Just like Mad Libs. Need a deliverable for a small backwoods paper company? Fill in the blanks. How about a Wall Street financial? Same deliverable; just fill it in.

Oh, sure, firms like to pretend they're not doing this. "All of our deliverables are bespoke," quoth the faux Brit. "We wouldn't dream of passing off some former consultant's work for some other company as yours! Your problems are so unique and engaging, after all!"

But it's simply not true. The more I crash the conference rooms and cubes of companies all over this big world, the more I realize that everyone is just as screwed up as everyone else, and usually in the same way. I bet I could literally "global search and replace" the company name on my last deliverable for my next gig and it would be 90% of the way done. In fact, I bet I just did!

And it's not just us consultants who are doing this. I just took a gander at some legal papers (thankfully I'm not getting served this time!) and lo and behold it's an obvious paste-up. Change the names and addresses, update the property listing, and you're good to go. And just like my deliverables, the bulk of "the doc" is a standard set of appendices unabashedly attached. I bet they didn't spend more than an hour constructing this nuclear bomb!

Don't get me wrong. This isn't really a bad thing. Would you really prefer a totally-from-scratch document? Don't you think the Mad Libs approach is the best possible way to avoid omission and undesirable creativity? Let's just come clean. It's Mad Libs all the way down.

Note: The Mat Libs logo is used for illustration and parody. They don't endorse this blog, no way, no how. If you're not familiar with Mad Libs, check out their site. They're awesome!