This post is the first installment in a series covering individuals leading the customer experience transformation within their organizations.

Signature Flight Support’s Dulles, Washington base has a unique set of challenges. Location alone means the General Manager of this base needs the political finesse to be involved in the many industry groups and committees working out of DC. Dulles is among Signature’s top bases in terms of volume meaning the General Manager needs to be able to manage a high volume of flights, a large number of employees, and a myriad of complex aircraft support equipment. The final challenge is to be able to handle the type of visitors flying into DC via a private jet – Heads of State, Prime Ministers, Fortune 100 companies, and movie and sports celebrities – the types of people that require escorts, security, and weeks of advance planning.

With this variety of challenges and demands, combined with service inconsistency and management changes, it’s not too surprising that customer loyalty scores struggled at Dulles. What is more surprising is how quickly these scores have turned around. In just over a year the Dulles base went from among Signature’s bases with the lowest Loyalty scores, 56% in early 2011, to among the top ranking, 80%+ in early 2012. And this transformation began when Robert Grant took over as the General Manager of Signature Dulles, Washington.

About Robert Grant

Robert’s career in aviation began as a teenager when he was offered a job washing airplanes. He went on to spend a large chunk of his career with another Fixed Base Operator (FBO) working as something of a “change agent.” He would go into underperforming bases, identify what was wrong, and help them fix it. This job required heavy amounts of travel, so when Signature invited him to join the team as General Manager at one of their busiest bases in West Palm Beach, Robert was ready for the change of pace.

After 10 years in Florida the invitation was extended to move to Dulles and take on a base that in the years prior had been struggling to satisfy customers at the expected Signature level. In March of 2011 Robert Grant left his home in Florida to take up the challenge.

The Transformation

Immediately Robert was faced with the sheer breadth of things that needed to be addressed. But instead of observing from the safety of his office he jumped straight in. When asked what he believes was the key to success in the first few weeks on the job, Robert doesn’t hesitate before answering, “Being hands on.” He spent his opening days at Dulles on the front line, “Undercover Boss” style. “I had to get down on the line and in customer service to actually see the issues first hand instead of coming in and assuming I knew what was going on and how to fix it. Physically working out there, parking aircraft and greeting customers, that’s where you see the business issues from both sides.”

By “both sides” he’s referring to the customer and employee perspective:

From the employee side I saw what equipment we were using, what condition that equipment was in, and what equipment, processes and procedures were lacking, preventing the employee from doing their job effectively. Minor and controllable things were causing frustration for employees that weren’t necessarily their fault. They would become frustrated and unresponsive to the customer through no fault of their own. And then, through the customer’s eyes, I could see where we were doing well and where these very controllable issues were causing us to falter on efficiency.

A Regimented Approach

Robert liberally references the virtues of efficiency, explaining that the kind of customers who own aircraft are incredibly time conscious, “They need to be in three cities in a day and home in time for dinner, and you can’t do that on the airlines.” “Time machines” is a word Robert uses to describe aircraft, “Because they are there to save the customer’s time.” And if Signature causes a delay in fueling, departure, arrival or getting their sedan, then they have failed their customer on the most critical thing – efficiency.

In an environment where efficiency is so vital to delivering a great customer experience, it’s no surprise that Robert credits a regimented approach around operational procedures as a big factor in making the loyalty shifts. “Procedures need to be regimented, so when it’s busy and employees need to focus on other things, they have time because they’re not thinking, ‘Where is that piece of equipment?’” His team even goes so far as to designate on the pavement where different types of equipment are supposed to be parked. Following these simple practices leaves the employee less frustrated and eliminates the ultimate wrong – delays for the customer.

Robert also applied a regimented approach to how he followed up on customers reporting a problem. Signature uses PeopleMetrics Voice of the Customer technology to collect customer feedback on a particular experience. If a customer reports a problem in a survey an eAlert is automatically generated to the General Manager to inform them of the problem. “In the early days when we were getting quite a few eAlerts,” Robert says, carefully avoiding sharing an exact number, “I would respond within 30 minutes. I would get background information, figuring out what had occurred, and then I would get in touch with the customer by phone or email.” Customers were shocked, and delighted, when they received the personal follow-up. Robert still follows up personally to every eAlert, but these days, they rarely come in.

Part of establishing and simplifying operational processes involved giving employees the tools they needed to get the job done. Dulles employees handle 100+ flights per day and having the necessary vehicles, working radios, and key information is critical to success. Over the past year Robert has nearly doubled the number of radios at the Dulles base and upgraded others. The Dulles base covers acres of aprons, and until recently employees were walking significant distances to deliver catering, coffee, ice or newspapers to passengers. So Robert purchased utility carts to make it easier for employees to cover ground, “The six utility carts have become among our greatest assets over the past year. Even our competitor is copying us,” Robert chuckles, “which, of course, is one of the greatest compliments.”

Service with a Leading EDGE®

Robert doesn’t have any illusion that the change at Dulles happened with his expertise alone. “Physically the job was almost too much for one person to fix in a timely manner.” He explains:

I assembled an experienced and professional team of Duty Managers. Each had significant background and expertise in operations and customer service. The challenges were many and required simultaneous attacks by a team, not a single individual. Additionally, Dulles Supervisors and Leads have contributed significantly to our success.

As a team, Robert and his Duty Managers successfully increased hiring criteria and improved the skill set of front line staff. One tool Robert used was the Recognition Alerts generated via the Voice of the Customer technology. While the eAlerts inform a manager about a negative customer experience, the Recognition Alerts inform a manager when a customer has recognized an employee for going above and beyond for them. Robert personally followed up on every one of these alerts to thank the customer for their feedback and recognize the employee’s great work in a setting with his peers. The alerts served as a daily reinforcement of the kind of staff behaviors Robert and the team were seeking to replicate.

“Staffing was a large component of the change,” Robert explains:

We needed to elevate the skill set of the employees and position the right soft skills at the forefront. We increased hiring criteria and training for our front line staff, established clear job responsibilities, moved employees to positions where they would be more effective, and enlisted new employees to be the face of Signature Dulles.

The changes that Robert’s team made led to not only improvements in Customer Loyalty, but also an increase in employee engagement scores.

Cutting Edge Experience

Robert’s team was featured in BBA Aviation’s newsletter,BlueFlyer, for their success

In the early part of 2012 BBA Aviation, Signature’s parent company, bestowed Signature Dulles with an award for Excellence in Customer Relationships and Service. As part of this award they received a large bonus to spend on base improvements to benefit both employees and ultimately, the customer. Recently, they invested in a 60 inch message display monitor that they will use for the Daily Shift Briefings, safety messages, and to share information about key company and base metrics, and of course customer survey scores. They’ve also introduced a few handheld point of sale machines that employees use to offer concierge level service right at the aircraft. Robert believes that technology will continue to play a big role in the future success of his base, “I think Dulles will be one of the most unique, well-outfitted operations.” And he’s not just talking about within Signature , he’s talking about in the world:

The employees like these improvements, they want to be different. Their reputations have grown at this airport, with airport management, with the airlines, and even with our competitors. We are viewed as a leader and trendsetter at this airport, and the employees take great pride in that. We now have people copying us, and the employees feel good about themselves which makes them feel good about coming to work, feel good about supporting our customers more professionally, effectively, efficiently. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.

Signature’s lease option at Dulles has just been renewed for the maximum term, and Robert is excited about the journey ahead. “We’re only about…” he pauses, considering how to frame their progress, “Well, where our Loyalty scores are, quite frankly. We’re about 75-80% of where I think we should be. The PeopleMetrics score is really indicative of our progress and pinpoints exactly where I think we are and this is no coincidence. There’s still work to be done.”

Signature Flight Support Corporation (Signature), a BBA Aviation plc company, is the world’s largest fixed-base operation (FBO) and distribution network for business aviation services. Signature services include fueling, hangar and office rentals, ground handling and a wide range of crew and passenger amenities at strategic domestic and international locations. Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, Signature currently operates at more than (100) locations in the United States, Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. For more information, please visit: