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Jet Blue Founder: Success Comes from Making Business Invaluable to Customers


David Neeleman Photo by Chris Taggart

The secret to running a successful airline is not that hard to grasp, said David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airlines, on Friday, Nov. 4. All you have to do is talk to every single person on the plane.

Neeleman delivered remarks to a packed 12th-Floor Lounge at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus after being honored with the inaugural Cura Personalis in Positive Marketing Award.

The award, which was presented by Dawn Lerman, Ph.D., director of the Fordham Schools of Business Center for Positive Marketing, was part of the center’s inaugural conference on positive marketing.

Neeleman devoted equal time to JetBlue, which he founded 2000, and Azul Linhas Aéreas Brasileiras S.A., the Brazilian airline he founded in 2008 after his departure from JetBlue.

“To be able to get on a plane, and go through the cabin and talk to every single person, I learn so much, and every single director and vice president who flies Azul is required to get on the airplane, and talk to every single customer,” he said.

“What we’ve learned is that when someone has a negative experience with your company, they tell nine people on average. When they have a good experience, they tell two people on average, you so have to figure out, if you’ve had a negative experience, how do you turn them around and how do you make them a loyal customer for life? That really is not easy.”

He cited three management principles that were integral to JetBlue and now Azul:

-Employee pride

-Flawless execution

-Bending over backward when things go wrong

Part of the success of both airlines, he noted, could be explained by a 2001 article published in the Gallup Management Journal, “The Constant Customer.”

“When JetBlue started flying between New York and Fort Lauderdale, Delta had three or four flights a day, and we had one airplane that we were serving New York with. We went from three flights a day to 20 flights a day over three years, and Delta stayed at the same number of flights. You wonder, why is that some companies grow, and become so successful, and some stay stagnant?” he said.

“This article looked at those facts, and through its research, it found there were three things that were widely important. Those companies had more customer loyalty, had higher profit margins and generally had higher market cap than any other company.”

Neeleman also related a conversation he once had with Mitchell Modell, the founder of Modell’s Sporting Goods. Modell, he said, said anyone who wants to be a great C.E.O. should imagine what would happen if their company vanished overnight.

“If your customers showed up on the day it was gone, and you were no longer there, how would they feel? Would they say ‘Oh, I can buy the same thing across the street, or I can just go down the block?’ When your employees showed up for work, would they say, ‘Eh, that guy was cheap; he never gave me health care; I need to find another job anyway,’ and never think about your company again? Or would they say, “Oh damn, I just lost the best job I ever had,” and be completely depressed,” he asked.

The more your company matters to your employees and your customers, the more successful it will be, plain and simple.
“If you just treat people better, if you treat them with respect, you bring humanity back to customer service, you really do something different, you can really create a different brand, you can create a better company, and you can change people’s lives for the better. You can make things better,” he said.


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