ArnieTwo weeks ago, while I was lunching with InterContinental's vice president of brand management, Janis Cannon, we found ourselves at the conversational intersection of hotel brand management and the city of Atlanta, where she's based. And being at that intersection reminded one of us (I can't remember which) of Steven Heyer, the former CEO of both Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

Heyer's tenure at Starwood was short and stormy, and Cannon had a theory about why: "It doesn't work so well to put a consumer goods guy in charge of a service-oriented business," she said. "They're two very different models."

I thought she had a good point. It takes a great leap of faith to say, "He sold soft drinks ably; therefore, he can fill hotel rooms."

But then a week later, I met Peter Baumgartner at Austrian Airlines' headquarters in Vienna. He was hired a year-and-a-half ago to fill seats in airplanes because he had been successful marketing cars (for General Motors) and light bulbs and mobile phones, among other things, for the German engineering giant Siemens AG.

His title is executive vice president, customer services and product management. Or, at other times, junior flight attendant.

Shortly after arriving at Austrian, Baumgartner said he wanted to experience the product not as a passenger but as a flight attendant.

"All airlines have the same basic components," he said. "They likely have either Airbus or Boeing planes. They fly to the same destinations. They have nearly the same services. The only real opportunity for differentiation is service. And in that, flight attendants are the key."

He said he could have simply met with them regularly to talk, "but really, a flight attendant serving passengers every day and an executive with 'customer service' in his title at headquarters are on two different planets."

So he was measured for a uniform and began training. He flew frequently when he began the job and now flies once a month. He continues to train for additional types of aircraft. "I keep my uniform in the office," he said. "Sometimes, if I see I have a light schedule, I'll fill in with an extra day or two on flights."

Baumgartner said that what he has learned is invaluable.

"On one of my first flights, to Beijing, there was a woman whose entertainment system failed. I asked another flight attendant what to do. She said to tell the customer we'd reboot the system, which we ended up doing three times without success. I eventually had to tell the passenger that I was sorry, but there was nothing I could do.

"On paper, I could say that our entertainment systems work well 99.7% of the time. That looks good. But I have a different feeling now because I have looked into the eyes of other 0.3%. If she had been in business class, I could have given the passenger something special, but I was not enabled to do anything for her in economy."

That has now changed. Baumgartner had a CD of quintessential Austrian music put together. It is sold in the in-flight catalog for 17 euros but given for free to coach passengers who experience problems.

That it is Austrian music on the CD is not a random choice but part of Baumgartner's efforts to make service distinctive by emphasizing the carrier's national character. "We used to play 'Summertime' as people boarded. Now, it's 'The Blue Danube.' "

An exception to the Austrian focus is found in the airline's mission statement, "We care," which is offered in English. "There's no good German translation for those words," he said. "but they convey exactly what we feel. Our mission statement is not in a gold frame in the CEO's office. It's in the attitude of the people on the planes."

Because he's also in uniform, he has gained credibility with the flight attendants. "I wanted to serve hot meals on our ultrashort-haul flights, ones lasting only 75 minutes," he said. "The other flight attendants said no way; you needed 105 minutes. It turned out we were both wrong. You actually need 90 minutes. But we tried this together, and I could see for myself that I was wrong."

Baumgartner was familiar with Heyer's tenure at Starwood, and he said he felt the former CEO's problems were not rooted in the differences between selling consumer goods and providing services.

"Look at Siemens. Why is it successful? Because they know that the service component is even more important than the hardware. At the end of the day, everything is emotion. Every decision is emotional. For an executive, professional experience is one thing, attitude is another. It doesn't matter what you're marketing, if you are not service-oriented from the gut, then you are the wrong person for the job."

E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].


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