A couple of generations ago, an up-and-coming Arkansas retailer was spreading out across America, and Kenneth Stone was inundated with requests to speak around Iowa and far beyond about the company.
Stone was an economics professor at Iowa State University. His expertise was retail sales and business management.
Merchants and community leaders wanted Stone to tell them how their local businesses could compete with this outsider named Walmart and with other national retailers that operated what were coming to be called “big-box stores.”
There are indications Stone’s message — that businesses must focus on better-serving customers — is needed today as much as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent national news about Frontier Airlines provided more evidence of that.
Stone, now retired, was a no-nonsense guy — although economists are rarely seen as rollicking, good-time Kens. But his all-business demeanor was not surprising when you learned he was a pilot in the Vietnam War and, for a time, was assigned as the personal pilot for the top American commander there, Gen. William Westmoreland.
During his years at Iowa State University, Stone crisscrossed the state at the invitation of local chambers of commerce that wanted to tap into his expertise.
He would roll into town armed with charts showing the community’s retail sales data that he gleaned from state sales tax statistics. He would show his audience how the local stats compared before and after Walmart opened a store within easy driving distance.
He would show the local crowd whether their community was hanging onto its traditional share of retail trade for the region, or whether there was “leakage,” meaning residents were taking their checkbooks and credit cards and making more of their retail purchases in a county with a Walmart store.
Stone preached a simple message in dozens of such presentations throughout Iowa and far beyond Iowa’s borders: The best way to compete with a Walmart or with similar big-box stores was by thinking first of better-serving customers — including being open on days and at times when it was most convenient for shoppers, not necessarily for the convenience of store owners.
I knew Stone from my years at The Des Moines Register. I was thinking about him and his serve-the-customer-better mantra, as I read the news about Frontier Airlines. It is obvious a new crop of business leaders could benefit from Stone’s wisdom.
Frontier’s customers were surprised to find out that they are no longer able to call the airline and speak to a human customer service representative or ticket agent.
Want to buy a ticket? Need to change your reservation? Have questions about the times Frontier flights arrive in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Omaha? You are out of luck with Frontier.
Instead of connecting with a human to answer those questions during a quick phone call, Frontier’s recorded message now directs callers to go the airline’s website or use the airline’s text message “chat service.”
The recorded message explains the company’s rationale for cutting the cord on human contact: “At Frontier, we offer the lowest fares in the industry by operating our airline as efficiently as possible. We want our customers to be able to operate efficiently as well, which is why we make it easy to find what you need at Flyfrontier.com or on our mobile app.”
In a comment straight out of the “Department of Are You Really Sure of That?”, a Frontier spokeswoman told CNN, “We have found that most customers prefer communicating via digital channels.”
I have a hunch Kenneth Stone would ask Frontier executives whether their new customer service strategy is truly more expeditious and efficient for the customer, or whether it is the company, rather than the customer, who is benefitting from the cutbacks in human interaction.
Lots of business owners learned 35 years ago they would be smart to listen to that guy from Iowa State University.
Your Iowa trivia tidbit for today: Walmart founder Sam Walton got his start in retailing in Des Moines in 1940 after graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in economics. Walton joined J.C. Penney as a management trainee.