Keep Calm, Keep Chewing
July 13th, 2012
Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, British Airways chairman Colin Marshall gave me a lesson on customer service and thinking outside the metal tube we call an airplane.
On this Fall day in 2001, Las Vegas didn’t feel like Sin City. It was Somber City. The Strip was empty, the strippers were off, and the few tourists who didn’t cancel their trips placed flowers at the base of the Statue of Liberty, outside the New York-New York Hotel.
I was delivering a keynote speech and moderating a meeting for Invensys, the UK engineering and tech firm. With great praise, I introduced Former U.S. Secretary of State Baker, citing his success as both Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State. (He then graciously asked the audience to thank me for my White House service.) After Secretary Baker opined on Iraq and Iran and I discussed geopolitics and the world economy, Lord Marshall climbed onto the stage. What could he say? This was a tense time for anyone daring to board an airplane. Some pilots were sneaking their old war-time pistols into their flight bags. Others asked passengers to keep an eye on fellow travelers and knock them to the floor with briefcases, if they looked menacing.
After asking Marshall a series of questions about security (and new rules about nail-clippers, scissors, and knives), I inquired, “Other than safety measures, from a customer service point of view, how is September 11th changing the flying experience for BA passengers?”
Marshall’s eyes twinkled. “Well,” he said, “we are starting to serve more tender beef…well, you know, if we can’t give them knives, we can at least serve more tender beef.”
Marshall died on July 5. With his wit and devotion to customer service, he helped turn BA from a government-run mess known as “Bloody Awful,” to a privatized firm that could with a straight face and stiff upper lip declare itself the “world’s favorite airline.”