#TBT: Theo’s Backpack and What It Means to You

Happy #TBT. In light of recent airline news, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Theo’s Backpack and What It Means to You.

Recently, on a flight on Southwest Airlines, a kid named Theo left his backpack behind when his family got off the flight, as 4-year-olds will do.

What follows is a story of heroism. Here’s the key snippet from the story:

“During a recent trip to Utah with my wife and kids, my 4-year-old son lost his little blue backpack. There wasn’t much in it (a $50 World War II DVD set for my father-in-law’s birthday and some small books and toys) but it had sentimental value. It was a gift from one of my wife’s friends, and my son’s name was stitched on the front. I had no idea where he dropped it. (The plane? The airport bathroom? The tarmac?) My wife made a couple of half-hearted phone calls and she figured it was lost forever.

I was in full “why even bother?” mode. I have a cynical view of these things: figuring that the lost and found at any establishment bigger than a Chevys is totally bogus anyway. I’ve always imagined that the workers at airlines, bus fleets and cab companies throw all the lost stuff on a blanket at the end of the day, divvy up everything they can sell on eBay and toss the rest in the trash. If you look in the dumpsters in back of the terminal, you might be lucky and get your library card back.

So it was a bit of a shock last week when out of the blue, two weeks after our trip, Louis Begin called my wife at our home. This employee managed to track us down — even though there wasn’t a scrap of identification in the bag. He found a receipt in one of my son’s books, which my wife had bought at a Tupperware-like book party at a friend’s house. The dude calls the book company listed on the receipt, somehow gets ahold of the woman from the company who hosted the party, and they cross-reference the purchase to figure out my wife’s name. After an attempt to call one of my wife’s friends resulted in a dead end (long story), he checked the flight manifest from the plane where the backpack was found, saw my mother-in-law’s name, and got our number from her. Hours later, the lost luggage was being sent by FedEx from Dallas to Oakland — accompanied by a little card … with a poem, personal note and happy face.”

This is obviously an amazing story, and it is a good way for me to say that it is now time for us to talk about how we serve our customers in the live entertainment business.

We talk about audience on this blog, but we’re going to be more specific and talk about what we do (besides creating shows, games or performances) to make the entire experience delightful for that audience.

The payoff? Customer loyalty and preference, for sure. Here’s what Theo’s dad had to say about the effect of the returned bag:

“Let’s imagine it’s this afternoon, and I suddenly have cause to fly to West Virginia. Airline X has a non-stop flight that will get me there three and a half hours after takeoff. Southwest Airlines also has a flight, but there are four different layovers, which will get me to my destination next Saturday. The Southwest plane is also full of hockey players who didn’t have a chance to shower after their game. And while I’m not entirely certain, I’m pretty sure I just saw something on the wing of the plane.

We thought it was lost forever.

I’m definitely flying Southwest. You want to know why? Because they found my kid’s backpack.”

But there’s a second benefit that is, in my view, equally powerful, and that is the effect on employees.

When an organization sets a standard that says we’re going to take good care of every one of our customers and work hard to find all the little things that matter to them and do everything reasonable (and maybe even a few things that are unreasonable) to make them happy, it signals to employees that what you’re doing is important and worth putting some of your soul into.

I used to work at Noah’s Bagels. When I was managing the Noah’s Bagels on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, lo these many years ago, I remember a moment that transfixed me and taught me something that I will never forget.

You see, in those days Noah’s was a kosher shop. We were literally under rabbinical supervision and that meant that many things were more of a hassle than in a normal place. We were kosher for a number of reasons, but one of them was that to our customers, this showed that we were about something more important than just selling them a ring-shaped piece of bread.

There was a kid named Brian who worked in the store that I managed. Gosh, he must be in his 30s now, and I say he was a kid, but I was in truth just a few years older than him. Anyway, he was in high school at the time.

One of the rather arcane rules that resulted from being kosher was that nothing other than bagels could ever go on top of the bagel baking pans. Believe me, in a busy store with a couple dozen employees selling thousands of bagels on a Sunday, this was something you had to be mindful of and it would be easy to be forgiving if someone occasionally decided it made sense to violate this rule.

But we didn’t. Almost never. It was part of our promise to our customers that we were on the straight and narrow about kosher.

So one day, Brian had his hands full, and someone called his name, asking him to bring them something from the back of the store, where he was standing.

He didn’t see me, but I was watching him. Whatever it was that was in his hand, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to set it down on the stack of bagel trays in front of him so that he could quickly grab the cream cheese tub or whatever it was and run it to the front of the store. It was the most natural thing for a person to do in the situation.

Brian started to move his hand in the direction of the pans, stop, think, and then walk a few steps over to the counter and put what he was holding on an empty spot. He didn’t know anyone was watching, and he would have easily been able to come back and move the thing off the pans before anyone saw.

But he didn’t.

Because we had set a standard about what we were about and what we represented to the customer that he believed in.

It’s the kind of belief that keeps kosher, and it’s the kind of belief that returns backpacks full of sticker books to 4-year-olds who lost them.

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