Who’s nuts now? | VailDaily.com

Who’s nuts now?

BIZ kevin Frieberg 1 KA 6-25-07

Jay McCarthy sounds like he’d do pretty well in Kevin Freiberg’s world.

McCarthy, the executive chef for a trio of Beaver Creek restaurants, is a teacher, but he’s also known as a prankster. He’s been known to sneak into offices, and, Zorro-like, remove the “J” keys from co-workers’ computers. He also once sported a business card with his name and “agent of change” as his job title.

The combination of hard work and free spirit is the subject of a couple of Freiberg’s books.

“Nuts!” is the story of Southwest Airlines’ success, and how a company run by a man who once arm-wrestled another company’s boss for the right to use an advertising slogan, has made a profit for 35 consecutive years – including every quarter since Sept. 11, 2001 – in an industry where bankruptcy is almost a rite of passage.

The follow-up book,”Guts!” tells the stories of other businesses that have succeeded by taking chances.

Freiberg told some of those stories in Beaver Creek at a recent seminar sponsored by the Vail Valley Partnership. People looking for one-size-fits all advice didn’t get it.

Instead Freiberg pulled out the kind of enthusiam more often found in revival meetings than business seminars, and encouraged the business owners to look to and trust their employees, and to learn as much as possible about their best customers.

That combination, he said, is what creates a “wow!” experience for customers, the kind of experience that might be worth a little more money. In a resort where paying customers expect a lot from stores, restaurants and hotels, experience is a big part of creating loyal customers. And loyal customers come back.

One of Freiberg’s examples in “Guts!” is Planet Honda, a large car dealership in New Jersey. Using a combination of tactics, including “just looking” stickers that customers have to take off in order to talk to a salesman, and a space simulator ride off the “planet” for everyone who buys a new car, Planet Honda sells more cars than its competitors, and, on average, makes about $500 more per car than a competing dealership nearby.

The dealership’s success isn’t just flash, either. The dealership’s service department provides customers with overnight repairs, and if a car isn’t fixed right the first time, it’s fixed for free.

These days, most of the new cars Planet Honda sells are either to return customers or people referred to the dealership by those customers.

“Advertising’s important,” Freiberg said. “But nothing is as important as the conversations your customers are having.”

And those conversations are happening everywhere now, Freiberg said. The Web is full of places where people discuss their experiences at everything from car dealerships to hotels to fast-food joints.

“What stories are your customers telling?” he asked the audience.

The good stories customers tell are often from companies that are dedicated to knowing their customers.

Freiberg told a story about a family trip to Hawaii a few years ago, and a stay at the Four Seasons hotel there. When the family checked in, the desk clerk asked Freiberg for the correct spellings of his two daughters’ names.

When the Freibergs got to their room, housekeepers had used little sponges to spell out the girls’ names, and left some pool toys.

In a trip Freiberg had jam-packed with snorkeling, helicopter rides and more, what did the girls talk about when they got home? The sponges.

Technology makes it possible for big hotels to know their customers no matter where they stay.

A bottle of wine Freiberg liked when he hosted an event in Southern California made it into the Ritz Carlton’s customer database. He was offered that same bottle when he held a similar event at a Ritz Carlton in Florida.

“It’s not technology,” he said. “It’s the attitude that has employees asking questions,” he said.

Learning about customers, having fun on the job and creating an atmosphere where success is allowed to come from unexpected places has to start with business owners and managers who are willing to do those things. That’s why Freiberg encouraged his audience to practice audacity, or at least new ways of thinking about their businesses.

“If you’re just taking orders, you’re going to get your butt kicked,” he told the audience. And ideas can come from managers, or people in their first month on the job.

Freiberg encouraged people to draw up a 30-day plan that includes items including rewarding an employee for an “intelligent failure,” a good idea that doesn’t pan out.

He also encouraged people to ask themselves, “What would I do today if I were going to be really brave?”

Most important, he urged people to do one brave thing every day.

In the Vilar Center’ lobby, several people said they were going to take the Freiberg’s 30-day challenge.

“This confimed my notion that being different and having fun are very important,” said Natalia Hanks, who raises money for the nonprofit Gore Range Natural Science School.

The idea of asking different kinds of questions appealed to Heather Truve of Rocky Mountain Media.

“I want to see what kinds of answers we get,” she said.

To encourage those who have adopted 30-day plans, Vail Valley Partnership President Michael Robinson took a leap himself. Before he’d talked to his technology people, he announced that the Partnership would create a new e-mail address, guts@visitvailvalley.com, where businesses could share their stories about new ideas and innovations. Those stories will be posted on the Partnership’s Web site.

As a chef, McCarthy works in a traditional business where students address their mentors as “chef.” But, he said, the business is changing, starting with the way chefs today dress more comfortably.

“I came looking for pearls of wisdom,” McCarthy said. “I think I got some, to have better information, and maybe present it in a better way.

“I like how he stressed how important fun is,” McCarthy added. “I’m going to get a 30-day plan going, and do a little re-directing.”

For McCarthy, Freiberg’s message was simple: “You either embrace change or you run scared from it.”

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