How to sabotage your own reputation

When you buy a ticket for an airline flight, what do you think you’re buying?

The ability to travel from A to B at the date and time on your ticket?

Not according to British Airways.

(Regular readers of this blog may sigh to hear me bring up that name again – but bear with me. I promise there’s a point…)

When I complained to BA recently about bumping me off a flight back from Texas, they handled it every bit as badly as the original incident (which is to say, they ignored it completely, until I sent a second stroppy letter to their CEO – at which point, they offered a grudging apology and a few quid off another flight).

The most interesting part was that they denied liability for any losses caused by the delay, because they said they weren’t contractually obliged to carry me on the flight they’d sold me the ticket for.

This didn’t seem to make sense, so I checked twice, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t. They said: ‘BA reserves the right not to let you on the flight if we’ve oversold it.’

In other words, when you buy a ticket from BA, what you’re actually buying is the ability to travel from A to B at a time that suits the airline, even if it totally disrupts your own plans.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re counting on BA to get you to a meeting, or a concert, or a family wedding on time, you’d better hope you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bumped off when they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane.

You might think this is a rather odd policy for an airline that claims to pride itself on customer experience.

Until you remember it’s the same airline that, this week, got hit with a £183m fine for letting hackers access its customers’ confidential data.

‘This fine isn’t fair’, whined BA’s management. ‘We’re all about customers – we’ve just spent loads on some new bag drops at Heathrow. How can we be the bad guys here?’

And that’s the point. BA just don’t get it.

You can have the best bag-drops in the world. The fanciest menus. The softest cushions.

And none of that matters if you can’t get the basic elements of customer experience right. Such as taking people where they want to go when you said you would. And not exposing their personal and financial data to criminals.

If your customers can’t trust you, nothing else matters – and, if BA really cared about their customers’ experience, they’d know that.

But they don’t. And that’s why they’re now £183m worse off.

Time for another tea party?

Alex Morgan

Winning the world cup on Sunday was the second most interesting story involving the USA women’s football team last week.

The most interesting was the unlikely twitter-storm that erupted when USA striker Alex Morgan celebrated her winning semi-final goal against England by pretending to drink a cup of tea.

You might think that sounds fairly tame, but England’s players – and most of the UK tabloids – were outraged. ‘Distasteful’ and ‘disrespectful’, they fumed.

Morgan herself tried to deflect criticism with an unconvincing explanation that her celebration was linked to the expression ‘that’s the tea’, which has recently become a thing in American popular culture.

The US tabloids, however, were in no doubt what she really meant – and they loved it. ‘Not since Boston dumped it in the sea has England been dissed with tea like this’ crowed the New York Post.

To understand why such an apparently innocuous gesture should carry so much weight, you have to understand the significance of The Boston Tea Party in defining America’s national identity.

This was the night, in 1773, when colonists in Massachussets sneaked aboard an East India Company ship and tossed its cargo of tea into Boston harbour.

The colonists were furious that the East India Company was being allowed to sell tea in the American states, without paying tax – while local tea importers, who did have to pay tax, found it impossible to compete.

The British authorities responded with fierce reprisals – and many see this as the catalyst for the War of independence which followed three years later.

So Morgan’s gesture is interesting for three reasons.

First, because it reminds us how important storytelling is as a way of defining identity.

Second, because it reminds us that facts are much less important than interpretation. In this case, the actions of the colonists might be seen as heroic and defiant. Or they might also be characterised as drunken hooliganism, criminal damage and even racism (many of them were dressed as native Americans, arguably in the hope that any repercussions would fall on the already-oppressed original owners of the land they had colonised).

The third reason is because the Boston Tea Party reminds us how angry people get when they see wealthy, powerful corporations being allowed to skirt around the tax rules that apply to all their smaller and less well-connected competitors.

Something a few large American corporations (Amazon, Google, Apple) might care to reflect on when deciding how much tax they ought to pay in the United Kingdom.

That’s the thing about fairness. It’s much more fun to talk about when you’re not the bad guy.

Why the world’s favourite airline doesn’t like passengers

British Airways has always prided itself on its customer service.

Its website tells you that ‘the British Airways experience is more than a flight. For us, it’s about making every single journey special’.

So, when I booked a flight back from Texas to London for last night, I knew I was in safe hands.

I knew there was no way I’d miss the concert I was going to in Oxford tonight.

Well, I suppose there was always a chance the flight could have been spectacularly delayed. Luckily, that didn’t happen. The plane took off bang on time.

The problem is: I wasn’t on it.

I was standing at the gate, watching it leave, because my seat had been allocated to someone else – even though that seat had been booked for over a month and even though they’d checked me in for the flight four hours earlier.

The BA ground crew frowned at the computer screen and pretended to be ‘trying to understand’ what went wrong. Their suggestions varied from ‘you must have booked late’ to ‘there must be a glitch in the system’.

They didn’t really think any of these things was true, of course. They just wanted to keep me and the other unlucky ones quiet until the plane had left.

If you fly regularly, you already know what really happened. BA ‘oversold’ the flight – they sold tickets to more passengers than there were seats on the plane.

This is a fairly common thing for airlines to do, because their data tells them a small percentage of passengers will usually drop out of a flight at the last moment. So, rather than fly their planes with empty seats (which costs them money), they oversell the flights and gamble that the numbers will balance out.

Sometimes (like Thursday night), the gamble doesn’t pay off and they have to figure out what to do with the spare people.

The first thing they can do is upgrade you (no one minds that, right?) But, when there are no empty seats in first class, that doesn’t work.

So the next thing they do is choose some unlucky people (in this case, me) and just don’t let you on the plane. They tell you they’ve got no idea how ‘the system’ got it wrong, but they’ll put you on another flight that will get you there not much later and they’ll give you some money to compensate you.

Only, in this case, the other flight wasn’t working either. Which is why, instead of watching Lauryn Hill in Blenheim Park with my girlfriend on Friday night, I am typing this in a nasty hotel on the outskirts of Austin.

I realise that sounds a bit self-absorbed (‘poor me’), so let me get to the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter how many times you tell your employees ‘nothing matters more than our customers’, if your processes teach them to screw those customers over and tell them lies when it suits you.

BA stopped calling itself the world’s favourite airline a few years ago.

My advice? You may as well save yourself a bit more money and cut out all that ‘customer experience’ training for your staff.

Trust me: they know it’s bollocks.

People can’t score if they don’t know where the goal is

The American business magazine INC asked executives in 600 companies to estimate how many of their employees would be able to name their company’s top three priorities.

Their average estimate was 64%.

When INC then asked employees in the same companies to name those priorities, only 2% could do it accurately.

It’s a reminder that most businesses are a lot more complex than their leaders realise.

They have too many priorities – and those priorities change frequently and often contradict one another. Which makes it very hard for anyone outside the leadership team to know what they should be focusing on.

Businesses that win are the ones that find a way to simplify the complexity and make it easy for people to know the right thing to do.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Winning cultures don’t happen by accident

You can tell a lot about a business by the way it approaches learning and development.

Some don’t bother with structured learning at all: ‘You’ll pick it up from the people around you’.

Some focus on operational imperatives: ‘Learn this process and follow it’.

Some focus on brand experience: ‘This is who we are and how we want our customers to feel’.

And a very rare few focus on the individual: ‘How can we help you be the best version of yourself?’

You won’t be surprised to hear that businesses with winning cultures overwhelmingly adopt the latter two approaches.

Learning and development is not an optional extra. It’s how you articulate and embed your culture. Businesses that embrace it are the ones that win.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Nice guys finish first

A positive culture leads to business success. Not the other way around.

This is confusing for some people, who remember a time when it didn’t matter how you won, as long as you won.

When it used to be cool to have signs above your desk saying things like ‘nice guys finish last’ and ‘lunch is for wimps’.

That kind of gung-ho machismo doesn’t work anymore, because the world we live in has become much more transparent.

If you’re only in it for the money, if you cut corners, if you try to con people, they’ll find out sooner or later – and they’ll let the world know.

The only way to be sure of winning is to create an environment where the people who work for you feel happy enough to want to make your customers happy, too.

The future belongs to businesses that behave like humans.

Nice guys finish first now.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Trust is a 360-degree thing

There’s a tendency to think of trust in up-down terms. And it’s obviously good if the people in a business know they can trust their employers. But a winning culture is one where everyone in a team knows they can trust everyone else in the team: their leaders, their peers, the people they manage.

If you don’t know the person next to you has got your back, you waste a lot of time and energy looking over your shoulder. Which is why it’s good to create an environment where no-one has to do that.

Where people can work from home without worrying that their colleagues think they’re building a new patio.

Where no-one takes credit for somebody else’s work.

Where people can express an honest opinion in a respectful way without worrying that it will impact their career prospects.

It’s surprisingly hard to build an environment like this. But, if you manage it, the benefits are extraordinary.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Information doesn’t filter up very well

There’s an old army story about an officer on the front line who needs to get an important message to his commanders:

‘Send reinforcements; I’m going to advance.’

But the telephone lines have been cut, so the only way to get the message through is to pass it up the line. By the time it gets to headquarters, the urgent message has become:

‘Send three and fourpence; I’m going to a dance.’

It’s almost certainly an apocryphal story, but it makes an important point: the more people a message goes through, the further it’s likely to stray from its real meaning.

Which is why you need to keep the lines of communication from your front-line employees as short as possible. They’re usually best-placed to know what your customers think and how proposed changes will work in reality.

But, if their feedback has to pass through too many layers before it reaches a decision-maker, a lot of its value and meaning will be lost (especially if any of those layers don’t like what it’s saying).

Your job is to make sure the right information flows up as easily as it flows down.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In the middle ages, kings used to keep a jester (or ‘fool’) to entertain the court. An unofficial, but essential, part of the fool’s role was to offer contradictory opinions.

Not something many of the king’s courtiers would be brave enough to do, since criticism of an absolute monarch was a quick way to lose your head.

But it didn’t matter so much if the fool said it, because the opinion wouldn’t feel like a threat. It could be laughed off as nonsense – and, if it struck a chord, the king could simply adopt it as his own without any loss of face.

The same principle holds true in any business. The higher up an organisation you go, the more important it is to have someone around you who won’t hesitate to speak truth to power.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)