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What aviation taught me about customer enablement

28th Jul 2022
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In 1979 I left school halfway through my A Levels to join a Commercial Pilot sponsored training scheme with the 3rd biggest UK commercial training school, based at Leavesden Aerodrome, just north of London. I was 17, and it was an exciting, yet also terrifying thing. I worked all week in flight operations and was taught to fly on the days I wasn’t working in Ops. During those formative years I learnt a lot of very important lessons - about life in general, but also some sound principles that I would go on to apply in my subsequent career.

The first thing I learnt, working in operations, was to interact with a very wide and diverse set of customers. The company made its money by a combination of aircraft sales, flight training and private charter work. This meant that there were a wide range of customers, from the former founder of Bejams (now Iceland) and Majestic Wine to military pilots who were converting to civil flying and all manner of people who were learning to fly. That group included the famous, rich, and poor – a very diverse population.

My first take-away was that no matter the background of our customers, the ‘product’ and service they received was essentially the same. In other words, their Needs and Wants were common. One of my first jobs, as my boss told me, was to work out what they needed and what they wanted and give it to them. Sometimes that was reassurance, sometimes it was a quick and efficient service as they were busy people, and sometimes it was a personal touch, given that they were all spending a lot of money.

When it came to my actual flight training, I was lucky enough to have it overseen by an exRAF Central Flying School Instructor and Vulcan Bomber pilot, who was also my boss. He also decided if I was good enough to remain on the sponsored course.

One of the first lessons he taught me was that flying was a complex business that brought together machines, weather, law, and people. He explained that if he tried to teach me what to do in every combination of factors, I would almost certainly fail. Instead, he taught me a simple set of first principles that I could apply to an infinite combination of circumstances and always derive the correct answer. I am glad to say that after almost 1000 hours flying this approach never let me down.

So, many years later when I started to think about Customer Experience and how organisations could create a simple framework that any organisation could deploy and was not reliant on a few individuals, I thought back to those early days at Leavesden.

Creating a simple set of principles which can be applied to improve the experience of anyone who consumes something, is how the concept of Customer Enablement and the supporting framework of Customer Needs System (CNS) was born. Taking time to define and measure those common Needs and Wants in your organisation gives you a basis to understand and improve how those Needs and Wants are met. The definition process creates a simple and common language that everyone in the organisation from Board to front line can understand. By measuring how well you meet those Needs and Wants, an organisation can have a common baseline against which to improve.

This enables customer to actively choose you, as you are meeting the majority of their needs and even a few of their wants. I have written several articles that explain more of the practical application of CNS, but in essence it’s based on the idea of first principles that can be combined to do the right thing for the customer and the organisation in any context. It also means that leaders and doers can easily understand what needs to be done. If they stick to the principles, they don’t need to be weighed down by complex and unrealistic policies or process.

Every customer is an individual, I learnt that from my time in aviation, and particularly later when I was an instructor. However, they all have common Needs and Wants - we just need to discover them.

So, I am very grateful to what I learnt in my youth, when I was taught to be a pilot and instructor. The people who taught me were exceptional professionals in their field and I hope, through their thinking, I have manged to transfer some of their ideas into the world of customer experience. One final thought: I have just written to the Civil Aviation Authority to find out what would be involved in renewing my long-dormant licence. It is never too late to learn new ideas!

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