Product Manager Choices: The Right Way Or The Wrong Way?

by drjim on July 26, 2010

Which Way Will You Pick To Go?

Which Way Will You Pick To Go?

Into every product manager’s life will arrive opportunities to make decisions, really, really important decisions. When this time comes, will you chose to take your product the right way or the wrong way? Perhaps more importantly, will you allow your customer to make the wrong decision with your product?

A Tale Of Two Airlines

If you were running an airline today, there would be a few applications that in this 21st Century you just couldn’t do without. One would be the program that schedules what flights you’ll fly and when you’ll fly them. Another would be the one that schedules which crew members will be working which flight. Oh yeah, then there’s that one that handles all of your reservations – you know, the one that makes all of your money.

Since Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s law fame) is alive and well and doing just fine thanks for asking, you’d want to tamper with your reservation program as little as possible – the possibility of making bad things happening would be just too great.

However, Susan Cary reports that tamper is just exactly what two airlines, WestJet and JetBlue (where do they get these names?) decided to do when they both realized that they had outgrown their original homebrew systems. They decided to switch to the reservation system that everyone else in the industry uses: the one from Sabre Holdings.

How NOT To Change Over To A New Product

The folks at WestJet were the first to make the change to the new Sabre reservation system. As with all such big projects, they did a lot of the right things: they waited until they were on their winter schedule so that they were flying fewer plans and carrying fewer customers.

The biggest challenge to doing the big switch is that WestJet had to transition 840,000 customer transaction files from their old system to the new system overnight. Surprise, surprise – this didn’t go very well. The way that the files had to be converted was slow and required a number of complex steps.

In the end WestJet ended up having to apologize to their customers and even provide some free trips because of the delays and confusion that the upgrade caused. WestJet estimates that it took them anywhere from 3-6 months to recover from the hit that their customer loyalty took from the upgrade.

How TO Change Over To A New Product

Meanwhile the folks over at JetBlue were watching and learning. Learning from what they saw happen, they chose to make their big switch on a Friday night because traditionally their Saturday traffic is the lowest of the week. They then went one step further and reduced the number of flights that they would be flying that day to minimize their exposure even more.

Web sites always seem to go down when you do this type of big change so Jet Blue created a backup web site that they ended up using two times for a total of a couple of hours during the switchover process.

The big difference between the two airlines was that JetBlue brought in 500 temporary call center workers to handle reservation calls while their 900,000 transaction files were moved over to the new system. JetBlue’s core reservation workers were then freed up to work to resolve just the sticky issues. JetBlue ended up keeping the additional 500 agents onboard for two months just to give them time to get things running smoothly.

What All Of This Means For You

So why did I take the time to share this story with you – I mean, you’re a product manager, not a project manager, right? The point might have been hidden, but observant Product Managers will realize that the Product Managers at Sabre need to change the way they are offering their product.

A new airline probably doesn’t switch to the Sabre system everyday, but when it happens you’d hope that the Sabre Product Managers would have done their homework and make sure that that the switchover went smoothly. In this case not only was JetBlue watching what happened at WestJet, but other airlines that might have been considering a switch were also watching. Even if your product is dominant, you can still lose deals if customers decide to not make any changes.

As product managers our job is not just to make great products. We also have to make products that are so ridiculously easy to use that our customers won’t have to think twice about saying “yes, let’s do it..”

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Just exactly what do you think Sabre should do to make the switchover to their product easy to do?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So what does your product stand for? When your potential customers see your product, what do you want to have flash in their minds? Do you think that this is happening today or has your brand become old and tired? Maybe it’s time for a bit of rebranding…!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Haughey July 26, 2010 at 11:27 am

Great post Dr Jim. This was reminiscent of the 90s when EVERYONE seemed to need to move to SAP. As the acronym implies, it left many companies feeling like “saps.” Similar to your example above, the implementation was supposed to be “seamless.” The negative impact to the companies for which I worked was profound. One company of whose name I won’t mention (hint: starts with a “D” and ends in an “L”), was prevented from fulfilling their time-to-market commitment to their customers and actually lost much of their already slim margins. If Gateway could have had their stuff together, things would have been much different.

When I launched the Datacenter program for the Enterprise Storage Group at Compaq, one of the major selling points was five “9s” up-time (99.999%). The reason why I bring this up is unplanned down-time in industries that handle transactions electronically (airlines, brokerages) have real dollars associated to every minute the system is unavailable. 10 years ago I think the number for an airline was $3-4M of lost revenue from an inability to process a transaction. While your West Jet took a hit on customer service points for which they were aware, they probably got a bigger hit from lost transactions electronically.

Jet Blue was very smart in how they planned out the cross-over. I had no idea! One more hairy dog story. As a GM at The Home Depot, we were taught, based on a great deal of research, that the average value of every customer coming through the door is $325,000 in their life-time…every customer! Knowing that, how would you expect every customer to be handled? Would you be receiving pallets of product on a Saturday (the biggest sales day of the week) like Lowe’s does? It’s an interesting exercise for a company to do to understand just how valuable every customer is to them.

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Dr. Jim Anderson July 30, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Chris: I have a number of friends who were SAP consultants back in the day and I was always envious because they were driving some REALLY nice cars — guess who paid for them?!!! As far as the total value of a Home Depot customer, I’m on-board with that — they’ve probably already gotten half of that out of me and we’ve got a long way to go!

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