One of the things about being based in Detroit is that if you're traveling, you're probably flying Northwest Airlines, the primary carrier in and out of town.
Like a few other big carriers -- and a few automotive suppliers in these parts -- Northwest is struggling to emerge from Chapter 11.
And for exasperated suppliers, there are lessons to be learned from Northwest.
The airline is trying to convince its employees to accept deep wage and benefit reductions as part of its restructuring. Employees have pushed back, and some unions have threatened to strike if a judge throws out their labor agreements this Friday.
Even in the best of times, impatient frequent travelers found things to gripe about at Northwest, giving it the dubious nickname "Northworst."
Whether true or not, it always seems to take longer to pick up your checked luggage at Northwest, and on-time arrivals seem few and far between, particularly when you are in a hurry. In fairness, these problems probably feel more prevalent because Northwest is up close and personal.
And, in the end, we keep using Northwest.
Turns out there's a reason for that.
In their book Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer, Jamey Power and Chris Denove of J.D. Power and Associates use an anecdote involving a frustrated Northwest passenger to explain the difference between actual and intended customer loyalty.
In other words, although a customer who has had a bad experience may intend to do business elsewhere, other factors keep that customer coming back. Think price, proximity and habit.
Conventional wisdom suggests that automakers are wary of doing business with a supplier who can go to court and change the terms of their contract or choose to fold the tent and go away. Still, these relationships continue because of the difficulty in resourcing or other more subtle factors.
It could be that the best time to strengthen your bond with your customer is when you're down and out. If struggling suppliers can deliver the goods - and even surprise and delight their customers -- in the face of adversity, they've shown their commitment.
Which brings me back to Northwest.
I met an employee of the airline recently who almost certainly improved the loyalty of every passenger on a flight back to Detroit from Cancun.
The purser had a joking manner and a cheerful attitude as passengers boarded the plane. His sunny disposition continued throughout the flight.
As we neared Detroit, he announced that he had a leftover bottle of red wine and was going to give it to whichever passenger first produced a dollar bill with a serial number containing six digits, which he rattled off.
It took two sets of numbers, but he finally gave the wine away to applause and howls of delight.
He told me he frequently plays the giveaway game on that route because many passengers are a little down about coming back to the cold from a great vacation.
Moral of the story: He cared. And it worked.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]