Coffee, Chalkboards and Travel Policy: True Innovation

Some forms of simplicity are pure genius. Therein lies the lesson for all you travel managers who wrestle with travel policy issues. After all, it’s not changing the words in the policy that matters – it’s changing people’s behavior. Let’s learn from Starbucks how a simple chalkboard can be the centerpiece of a massive campaign to change people’s behavior.

Starbucks knew it had a sustainability problem created by the tons of paper cups it sold.  A year ago it opened the problem to the public by creating the Betacup challenge. It’s goal was to reduce the number of paper cups consumed.

Suggestions poured in from all over the world.  Many focused on a narrow version of the problem – making the paper cup more eco-friendly.  The 3rd-place winner suggested making cups from rice husks.

The second-place winner re-framed the problem as a consumer behavior issue. It called for customers to use elastic bands with a barcodes that could be placed around your re-usable coffee mug.  Each time you brought your mug into Starbucks, you’d get your band scanned, earn rewards and some social recognition.  Better, because it promotes the desired behavior of using re-usable mugs, but difficult to implement.

The first-place winner went amazingly low-tech. The solution requires each store to put a “Karma” chalkboard near the register.  Every customer who buys coffee in their re-usable mug gets to put a mark on the chalkboard. After every tenth mark, Starbucks give the next customer in line a freebie.

Why is this solution so powerful? It engages the customers (think travelers) in a very positive way.  They get some immediate public recognition from other customers for doing good. Even better, it reinforces the desired behavior to the customers around the do-gooders when they see someone mark the chalkboard.  Perhaps best, it creates a sense of shared involvement by rewarding a customer lucky enough to be in line right after the tenth mark was made on the chalkboard.

So how can you apply the lesson of simplicity to your travel behavior problems? The Starbucks challenge teaches us a few things:

  • Keep it really simple
  • Solve the behavior problem, not the container problem
  • Make it easy for people to do the right thing
  • Make good behavior easy to recognize
  • Reward good behavior, but not necessarily the good-behaving person
  • Create a sense of a shared solution
  • You can solve big problems with a technology budget of zero

So back to the world of travel policy and change management.  The biggest challenge most travel managers face is getting travelers to do the right thing. Who out there can translate some of these Starbucks lessons into an innovative solution for improving policy compliance?

Grab a cup of coffee, give it some thought, and post your ideas.  I’ll send a $15 Starbucks gift card to each author of three most interesting ideas.  Deadline is July 7th.  The contest is open to anyone, anywhere.  Send this link to your friends and colleagues. Post your ideas here.

Come on, give it a shot!

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5 thoughts on “Coffee, Chalkboards and Travel Policy: True Innovation

  1. Great post, Scott. Five quick things I’d submit that we’ve done at clients of mine which fall along some of these same lines:

    1) Re-brand the department. If you think about it, Travel MANAGEMENT has a bit of an “oversee/we’re watching you” feel. We wanted to be the sherpas for lack of a better term that will help guide the travelers to travel smarter and steward the company’s resources. So the whole end-to-end T&E department was renamed TravelSmart.

    2) Pick a few key metrics (no more than 5) that are within the traveler’s control on every trip and focus on those. I call these “decision point metrics”…when you book, how you book, did you take the fare that the company policy thought you should within a grace window, etc. Then, communicate those traveler decision point expectations clearly and measure/score them. A lot of people get unnecessarily caught up in ancillary metrics that I would call “program overlay” metrics (connections, preferred carrier, alternate airport usage, etc) that help determine the fare that the traveler is asked to take (decision point) and are not applicable on every trip.

    3) Show positive traveler behavior side by side with “needs improvement” traveler behavior. We’re too often focused on an “exception report” mentality. If you roll things up to a one-number score you can display your frequent travelers that are meeting the basic objectives you set and see them side by side with the ones where you’d focus effort on improvement.

    4) A few “well-placed” phone calls from an executive sponsor does wonders. The phone calls can be positive in nature congratulating a frequent & compliant traveler on their adherence to the company’s travel goals. Word spreads very quickly that people are taking notice but it is done in a positive light.

    5) Get ’em early. How many travelers actually go onto the policy internet web site that the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars crafting and wordsmithing? Compare that with the fact that everyone usually has to go through new-hire orientation at one point or another. Have a representative from the travel team or the HR trainer communicate the few key travel expectations and measuring process as part of new-hire orientation.

    • Great points, Tom – thanks very much for sharing! You’re officially in the running for a gift card (and leading the pack at this point!).

  2. Scott, I’d also posit that another reason that Starbucks chose the first place solution is the pervasiveness of “gaming creep”. If you’ve ever seen the YouTube video of Jesse Schell ( describing a future in which everyday behavior is influenced by the opportunity to score points, you’ll soon thereafter begin to notice how more and more companies are using this to influence consumer behavior. It’s already arrived in business travel. Attendees at the recent ACTE Global Education Conference in Chicago who attended the Gen Y session, may have heard how a leading technology company uses this concept to incentify its travelers to find savings opportunities. Another presenter in this session, Anthony Bartolo from Microsoft, identified applications that already reward the general mix of travelers for certain behaviors and how easy it would be for companies to adapt these apps to influence business travelers in the same way.

    Lest we forget, it was our own industry that gave rise to businesses harnessing the power of gaming 30+ years ago when airline frequent traveler programs were introduced.

    • Terrific points, Kate – the gaming angle is very interesting. Well, maybe “gaming” in the contest sense of the word, rather than the manipulative sense. Lord knows there are plenty of travelers who like gaming their travel policies in that latter sense!

      Really, it does make sense to appeal to the traveler’s self-interest in a positive way, rather than the crime-and-punishment style that so many companies take. So should we try to get everybody to pass Go and collect $200??

  3. The Starbucks example harnessed the concept of shrinking the change. By using the check marks on the board, the customer did not need to start at beginning. It’s a concept where people find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one.

    In regards to improving travel compliance with change management techniques, there would first need to be a shift of focus on what is wrong (compliance) with what is working. Let’s call these the bright spots. Find a few folks that are doing the right thing to find out how and why this is occurring. For example, take a look at the top 10 of the employees who book hotels with the TMC 100% of the time. Let’s focus on these folks. What is driving their behavior?

    After doing some research, the findings were that the top 10 compliant hotel bookers were doing so because the hotel rate was loaded in the online booking tool. It came to our attention that the least compliant folks were not booking at all and the reason was that they were contacting the hotel directly to book the client rate.

    We’ve identified the problem and are able to resolve the issue by shaping the path. That is, we will contract the appropriate hotel and load the rate into the online booking tool. All is solved! Not quite yet. In order to get folks on board, we will need to communicate the idea both to people’s logical and emotional sides. The logical form is to inform them of the total cost savings in a year if we improve compliance. To appeal to their emotional side, we demonstrated that by doing this simple action, the overall savings could help create a new job (or save a lost job).

    Behavior is contagious. Help spread it. Shape this new behavior as a normal behavior by using demand management techniques and rewarding or calling out those who “do the right thing” in front of their peers. One example of demand management techniques is using automatic messaging when a hotel is missing from a booking. To reward, perhaps set up a quarterly reward for the top booker within compliance. Soon, it will become the norm.

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