How Apple, Dominos, Delta Airlines Rise Despite Slumpy Economy

This week Apple, in another of the unexpected moves that has made this company famous, bumped up salaries for employees in their retail stores as much as 25 percent. The raises are based on worker performance reviews held earlier this year, and come as no surprise to anyone who has stepped into any of the over 350 Apple stores around the world.

“While our stores are fantastic and our products are amazing, it really is our people who make the difference in creating the best retail experience,” Apple’s new retail chief John Browett declared when he took the stage in April.

It is to those 36,000 employees’ credit that the Apple experience is uniformly high no matter if you step into a store in Munich or Manhattan. Like Apple products, Apple staff are people friendly. They actually know (and care about) what they’re talking about—or they’ll find someone who does. All of which contributes to making Apple’s face-to-face time a largely positive experience, and makes their stores the highest-performing retail spaces in the world.

Congratulations to Browett for taking charge and giving credit—and raises—where they are due.

Dominos, the global pizza chain based in Ann Arbor, has also been making changes since its 2008 brand relaunch. Serving a wildly divergent audience spanning 16 countries and a consumer market aged from 19 to 65, the company realized several years ago that while they were the experts in delivery, their product perception was low, service was low and, since they delivered the pizza to your door, a retail experience was nonexistent.

Time for a change.

“We wanted our brand to stand not just for great delivery, but also for great product,” says spokesperson Chris Brandon. “We did a lot of listening to consumers, a lot of testing.”

Today, about 85% of the pizza chain’s menu consists of new and revamped menu items, and Dominos has evolved to become the number one pizza chain in the USA. That means a lot of people are experiencing Dominos for the first time. And whereas in the old “dial and delivery” days you might not know where your Dominos was located, today about one third of Dominos sales is on-premise. That requires more rethinking.

“We didn’t really have an ambiance in our stores that was customer friendly because we were so focused on delivery,” says Brandon. “Today, more people are interacting with our customers rather than [just] the guy who shows up at your door.”

So the company is looking at customer service as well as new store concepts in places like Las Vegas.

It has been instrumental for Dominos to promote those efforts to franchisees. In May of this year, the company invited 4600 people from 56 markets around the world to rally in Las Vegas for a 3-day meeting to drill their strategy down: better pizza, new menu, and now great experiences.

“One of the things that Dominos does extremely well is create a ‘red thread’—a continuity piece, that brings everyone in the organization together with the brand or experience,” says Scott Cullather, Managing Partner of inVNT, a brand events company that helps the pizza chain.  “That red thread carries through from the highest levels of Dominos all the way to the customer. Many organizations fail at getting the entire org aligned.”

This year, intent on improving customer service, the team developed the rallying cry “Creating Smiles”. And Dominos took the theme seriously.

In addition to business updates, Manager Of The Year presentations, and corporate fluff, the first day was devoted to a 4-hour training session that schooled all 4600 attendees on how to create smiles. As attendees shuffled between seventeen rooms for 45-minute hands-on sessions, they realized they were part of the company’s biggest training session ever.

“It all adds up to us creating smiles for our customers,” reiterates Chris Brandon. “What’s cool about our international audience is that they like hearing about what we’re doing in the USA. We all want to be the best product, the best delivery, and the best service. International groups get into it, and see how [what we’re doing] best fits into what they’re doing. We’re a global company, but we keep it pretty simple.”

Another company creating smiles these days is Delta Airlines.  Having survived plucking Northwest Airlines out of bankruptcy, Delta today is flying high.

Delta spends hundreds of millions each year across the board to promote online services, decrease the number of lost bags, revitalize its JFK terminal, and stay relevant for today’s traveler.

This week Heardable, the analytics standard for measuring online brand performance, released its Top 10 Airlines in North America report, to announce that Delta beat out rivals United and American for the second year in a row.

“Not only have they finished #1 in two consecutive reports profiling the effectiveness of the airline industry,” says Jon Samsel, co-founder and CEO of Heardable, Inc., “but they’ve managed to make their brand synonymous with a quality online experience—which requires a spirit of listening and a knack for delivering.”

Delta Airlines is rooted in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is continually providing WiFi access on more and more planes in-flight, and is spending $1.2 billion to upgrade its presence at JFK in New York City. Even its online system for buying tickets (and then changing them) is fine-tuned to perfection.

Because that’s what flyers want.

The airline has even set up a social media customer service standard by promising to answer all tweets within 10 minutes on average. Which takes on-time arrivals to a whole new place.

“Delta Air Lines has done a phenomenal job over the last couple of years of bolstering their product and service”, says Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying, a leading aviation brand strategy firm. “All of their domestic flights now offer wi-fi and they’ve extended their red coats concierge service to more airports. Moreover, they have set the standard in customer service through their social media on Twitter and elsewhere. Such investment in improving customer experience quality will bring them dividends in good times and bad.”

Perhaps best of all, Delta flight attendants have undergone a transformation. Instead of grumpy to downright surly flight attendants, Delta personnel (for the time being anyway) understand that smiles—and saying ‘thank you’, cost nothing. And while this may be a fleeting pay-it-forward moment, it works.

U.S. traffic for Delta is improving, and the airline announced Tuesday that its passenger revenue increased 8 percent last month.

Listening to what consumers want rather than relying only on what you can provide is, of course, the core of consumer marketing and design thinking. Rather than hunkering down, spread the joy. Improve not only services, but consumer experiences and provide a continuity thread of corporate purpose that attracts every employee to the higher mission. Banish lackluster drone-like behavior—in today’s online world, face time with brand enthusiasts is good as gold. Do not squander it. Rewarding employees for exemplary participation in that mission—as Apple demonstrated this week, is also key. After all, making more money in the face of a stumbling economy is what everyone is looking for.