Learning to speak the customer’s language

While sitting at my desk last week, passing the time of day in a genial manner with one of the local CFIs, I noticed Rick Matthews wandering by my door. Being in a particularly social mood, I called him into the office. Rick is one of the creative minds behind the Aviation Access Project, but he’s based in Atlanta. What’s he doing in Winter Haven, Florida? I wondered.

It turns out Rick was in town on business. The Aviation Access Project is humming along nicely, and with Florida full of sunshine and warm temperatures he ventured south to talk about opportunities with the locals, myself included.

Rick and his group of daring visionaries have decided they have a better idea for marketing aviation to the public, and after listening to him for a couple hours I’m inclined to believe he’s onto something.

Consider this if you will: Aviation is an acronym rich environment. We speak in a jargon that most of the general population can’t understand. So it occurred to Rick and his team, it just might make sense to speak in a language the customer base could follow. After all, if you want to sell someone a product or a service, wouldn’t your chances of success go up considerably if the customer could figure out what you’re selling?

Take just three common terms used around the airport with frequency: FBO, CFI, and A&P. Those terms are near and dear to those of us engaged in GA, sure. But they mean absolutely nothing to the average person. Well, not nothing, exactly. But none of them make people think of aviation in a wishful way, either. Some think FBO is an odd pronunciation for a cluster of cable movie channels. CFI just gets you a quizzical look more often than not, and in the northeast the vast majority of the general population thinks A&P is a supermarket chain.

None of those misunderstandings bodes well for the GA businessman. So let’s change the game, or more appropriately, let’s change the language. It’s a simple fix, but it just might make it that much easier for the local airport’s tenants to bring new business through the front door.

One of the primary rules of marketing is this: When your slogan is mentioned or your logo flashes on the screen, it’s important that your potential customers recognize it and feel positively about it. There is no rule of marketing that suggests it is a good thing to pay for ads that remind your customers of something other than your business.

So Rick’s idea is simple. Let’s dispense with those terms our potential customers can’t figure out and replace them with new terms that anyone can understand. Let’s think outside the airport. Let’s focus instead on the tennis court, the golf course, or the clubhouse. Instead of an FBO, let’s start promoting the Flight Center. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens at the Flight Center. And it stands to reason that the person you want to see about taking flying lessons, or an intro flight would probably carry a title like, the Flight Pro. And let’s call the Flight Center’s mechanics the Flight Techs.

That simple change has the potential to make a huge difference. Now here’s the really good news: Changing the language doesn’t cost any of us a dime. Nothing! It’s absolutely free.

And yet it has the potential to open the door to wide open opportunities, where literally hundreds of millions of potential customers are waiting, just outside the airport fence. And now, thanks to Rick and the Aviation Access Project, we have the means of talking to them in a language they understand and feel comfortable with.

Don’t underestimate that last point. Comfort matters. How many of us have talked to someone, or more likely, dozens of someones over the course of our aviation careers, who would like to fly but…they’ve got a bad case of the heebie-jeebies about the airport, or little airplanes, or cloudy days, or something that short-circuits their ability to take that first step? I know I’ve had the conversation more than once. I’m willing to bet you have, too.

I appreciate Rick taking the time to sketch out his plans for me, in big bold strokes. General aviation could use a few more visionaries who see something beyond the chain link fence, the empty parking lot, and the airplanes that have been tied down on the ramp for too long between flights. Rick and his team see potential, and they’re leading the way toward a new path, a new way of doing business, and a more prosperous tomorrow.

For those who doubt the potential of that future, let me remind you of a few predictions of doom and gloom that were just a tad off the mark. In 1995 Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, predicted the Internet would catastrophically collapse in 1996. During World War II the chairman of IBM predicted the world market for computers would be perhaps as high as five units. And of course there is the well-known internal memo that circulated at Western Union in the waning days of the 19th Century that lambasted the telephone as having too many shortcomings to be of use as a true communication device.

Change is good. Change brings hope. And so do clear, understandable terms our potential customers can wrap their heads around. So tomorrow, instead of following my usual pattern, I might just head down to the Flight Center, chat with my good buddy the Flight Pro, and perhaps even wander over to the maintenance hangar to check with the Flight Techs about when that airplane is going to be returned to service. And maybe tomorrow night my wife will actually understand what I’m talking about when I’m finished telling the story of how my day went. I’d sure consider that a win.


  1. Greg W says

    Good points Jamie, of course people must understand what is being talked about, many simply must remember to speak plainly. One complaint from me I am not “flight tech” or “tech of any sort. I am a MECHANIC and proud of it, turbine guys can be techs, many of the piston engine techs prefer mechanic. There is nothing wrong with saying, Instructor,Mechanic, or Rental operations any one with a car or other power equipment would understand those terms.

  2. says

    Great stuff Jamie! Of course I am biased…
    It is true that any barrier to effective marketing or explaining your product must be removed in order to achieve success in today’s environment. Language changes are but a part if the AAP culture. Stand by for more steps towards a brighter future.

  3. says

    Great topic Jamie. Rick is poking into something that puzzled me for a long time. In the aviation, well at least the language part of it, we still live in the ticker tape era. Let us say that we got a new prospective pilot to the flight school. Now get her or him to the ground school, start throwing at them all the acronyms, and for some of them that maybe it. They quickly assert that flying may be fun but to get there sure is not. After all they came to learn to fly, not a new language. English is the international language of aviation, so why not use it.

    Sometime I wonder how many accidents due to the inadvertent flight into Instrument Meteorological Condition could have been avoided if the pilot was able to decipher the “ticker tape era” wether reports. We have to shed this “no pain no gain” mentality, and accept the reality that if we put too many obstacles into people’s paths, they will go around, or not go at all.

    Thank you Rick for cracking open this puzzling subject, and thank you Jamie for bringing it to all of us. I bet everyone who read my comment, pilot or not, have not even noticed that I deliberately did not use one of the frequently used acronyms, so often cited as the probable cause in many fatal accident reports.

  4. Russell Turner says

    Nice change of pace Jamie. It might help also if the dentist, shoe maker, banker and all other contacts we make each day are aware that we are a Flight Pros looking to share aviation with anyone who has an interest. Most of the persons in the local area may not even know where the airport is located if they were to give it a thought. Many pilots are noit aware of the number of airports that exist within a 25 mile radius of their own airport. Few have visited all of them even to look from above.

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