Ambitious Business Ideas That Actually Work

By Giovanna Fabiano | Small Business

“It’s so crazy, it just might work.”

That’s not an expression you hear often in the customer service industry, where reliability typically trumps risk — particularly when it comes to maintaining customer loyalty.

But sometimes, taking a leap and trying something new pays off. Companies that do it right end up keeping their core customers and gaining new ones. Customer service expert Chip Bell says you should give customers the benefit of the doubt and try new ideas.

“Even if the risk fails, it tags you as an organization that is growing and confident enough to be a pioneer,” says Bell. “Customers will remember that long after they have forgotten the hiccup.”

Here are three examples of companies that took huge chances that proved successful.

  • Southwest Airlines’ “Bags Fly Free” Campaign: In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, airlines began instituting baggage fees. Southwest bucked the trend and refused to charge for the first two bags and openly mocked its competitors in the process. Planes were painted with a sign that read, “Free Bags Fly Here,” with an arrow pointing to the plane’s cargo section.

“While it is possible the company embedded the cost in the fare, it worked as a statement to the marketplace,” says Bell.

That kind of move “turns prospects into customers, not just loyal customers into more loyal customers.”

Southwest Bags Fly Free (photo by Stephen M. Keller)Southwest Bags Fly Free (photo by Stephen M. Keller)

Southwest’s “Bags Fly Free” campaign helped the airline separate itself from competitors (Photo by Stephen M. Keller)

  • Starbucks’ Training Shutdown. The coffee giant famously closed the doors to all of its stores for four hours in 2008, in order to retrain all employees on the proper way to steam milk, prepare a macchiato, and talk to customers.

“The concern was employees were going too fast and not taking time to give customers the Starbucks signature personalized touch,” Bell says.

Shutting down the stores was a huge risk and a financial loss, but according to Bell, it showed customers that the organization was so serious about producing a higher-quality product and experience that they were willing to take a hit.

Closing stores to retrain baristas helped Starbucks show that it cared about its product. (Photo by Beverly Goodwin)

  • NCNB’s interest rate decision: In the 1970s, NCNB (now Bank of America) bucked the decision by their competitors to lower savings account interest rates from 5.5 to 5 percent, Bell says.  NCNB elected to stay at 5.5 percent, but they launched a company-wide campaign that involved having every employee personally call competitors’ customers and pitch them on the fact that NCNB (unlike their bank) was staying at the higher savings rate. “It worked!” says Bell.

“The growth in new customers more than paid for the loss in revenue” from the higher savings rate, he says. “And, it was a major morale booster for NCNB employees.”

But are risks reserved for well-established companies, such as major airlines, banks or retail chains? Bell says absolutely not.  “You can always put boundaries around your experiment by telling your customers, ‘We are trying something new and welcome your feedback about how it is working,’” he says.

“If the experiment fails, your customers already know it was a pilot and not common practice.  We all view being entrepreneurial as a virtue to be admired. And the very essence of (being) entrepreneurial is the willingness to take risks.”

Giovanna Fabiano is a Senior Editor at Real Business.  Real Business is a digital magazine sponsored by Xerox that simplifies key business issues for innovative professionals across industries
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