When Carpeting Doesn’t Work…

I love Changi Airport. Justifiably rated as the world’s best airport. Why? Because it’s designed to facilitate travel, not as an ego-testament to a designer. It’s not jaw-dropping…but then distances aren’t back-breaking either. Your luggage is there by the time you clear immigration, which usually takes less than 10 minutes. In fact, you can count on being in a taxi within 30 minutes of landing. Wonderful!

Most airports are designed to look good in glossy magazines and fail miserably in terms of facilitating travel or enhancing the actual traveler’s experience. It’s a confusion between “means” and “ends”. As a Consultant, I am constantly exhorting customers to ask of every tactic they debate, “What is this really meant to achieve?” Ensure the “Ends” make sense and are aligned on, then and only then, debate tactics. As the old saw reminds us, “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Alas, even Changi in its revamped Singapore Airlines Terminal has fallen afoul of this confusion. To enhance the aesthetics of the terminal they’ve put in plush carpeting. That’s lovely, except for the fact that most travelers have some form of bag with wheels. Those wheels don’t perform well on thick, plush carpet. But they glide effortlessly on uncarpeted floors for which they were designed. So as you emerge, dragging your wheeled bag across the fine grains of a totally gratuitous and effort-exacerbating carpet, you curse whichever interior designer sold the decision makers on the misguided conclusion that carpeting would add finesse and aplomb to the glistening new Terminal. The “means” frustrate the “ends’, of efficient client passage and movement.

A good question to ask often is, where have we provided “unnecessary carpeting” for which we congratulate ourselves, but which adds nothing to client success, customer value or any enhancement of the experience people come to us for? The shiny brochures, bespoke offices, bells and whistles, scripted phone greetings, industry certifications and more land with a thud if at key “perception points” we misfire and frustrate those who deal with us. Then these gewgaws are irritating, nothing else.

As I write, people around the world have had travel plans disrupted as volcanic detritus is spewed into the skies from Iceland, and due to unusually clement weather, is settling in over much of mainland Europe (rather than being blown away). Weddings are being missed, family reunions ruined, key medical treatments and business engagements rendered impossible, people stranded and more. Many service providers are dealing with distraught and helpless people. How they handle them, at least hopefully with a modicum of humanity and empathy, will make all the difference to how these providers are perceived when the cloud finally moves on or is dissipated. The “carpeting” won’t count. But responding with imagination to mitigate what can be mitigated, and with clarity, grace and compassion otherwise — as much as strained resources permit — will bolster or decimate loyalty. When people are vulnerable, they are also most open.

We would do well to remember this in normal times. The invitation to serve someone is an invitation for them to rely on us.

Always separate out “means” from “ends”. Get the ends right, then keep course-correcting on the means. And don’t just rush to “carpet” everyone with tangential “solutions” and potentially irrelevant enhancements.