By Jim Pitman
As I visit with flight school owners and managers, I’m always on the lookout for innovative procedures and techniques that I can adopt and share with others. While it’s important to innovate, it’s also important to remember business principles that have survived the test of time. I was reminded of this recently as I spoke with Chris Erlanson, owner of Nashville Flight Training at Nashville International Airport (BNA).
After a successful career in the music industry, Erlanson bought Nashville Flight Training in 2014. “Flying was just a fun hobby for me at the time. I never planned to be in this business myself and was as surprised as anyone when I said ‘Yes.’ I’m certainly glad I did, though,” he said.
“I love flying and I love helping others achieve their goals and dreams,” Erlanson said. “The flight school was maintaining at the time, but I knew we needed to implement some of the basic sales and marketing principles I had learned in the music industry to help turn things around.”
Erlanson said all starts with the proper mindset. “No matter what business we are in, we all have something to sell. But the traditional idea of selling makes most people uncomfortable. The traditional approach of selling is to try and talk people into buying something or doing something that they don’t necessarily want to. It’s all about convincing.
“The better mindset is what I call ‘compassionate sales,’” Erlanson said. “The compassionate salesperson knows that it’s his or her job to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of you doing what you already want to do. It’s all about helping. This is a subtle but powerful shift in thinking.”
I asked Erlanson to explain why this was so powerful. “When we approach our prospects with the mindset that we are there to help remove the obstacles that prevent them from doing what they want to do, it automatically leads to two very important questions. What is it you want to do? And what are the obstacles that stand in your way? These and other related questions naturally lead to what I believe is the most important thing any of us can do to grow our businesses. And that is to listen,” he said.
Is it really that simple? Is listening the key to success? “Yes, I think it is,” Erlanson said. “People want to know that they mean more to you than just a transaction. They want an advocate. Flight school owners need to watch their marketing people and their instructors who are doing the intro flights. Are they talking more than they listen?
“I’m always reminding our team why God gave us two ears and one mouth. Of course it goes deeper than that,” Erlanson said. “To truly listen with empathy and compassion, we must sincerely care about the people we are speaking with. I’ve found that the best way to teach this to my team is to model it. For example, there are eight other flight schools within 30 minutes of our location. When a prospective client takes the time to call us or walk in to our facility, we feel truly honored and we treat him or her as a guest of honor. It’s not out of desperation, but instead comes from a place of gratitude.”
Erlanson is effective at working with his team to focus on activities that are profitable while avoiding activities that are not. How does he balance his desires for compassion and listening with this focus on profits?
“I don’t think it needs to be a balancing act between competing desires,” he said. “It’s important to understand the difference between our primary goal and our purpose. As a business owner, my primary goal is to be profitable. But my purpose is why I get out of bed in the morning. My purpose is made up of the important stuff that really drives me and gives my life meaning. But I can never forget that my primary goal for the business is to be profitable. If we’re not profitable for long enough, then we won’t have a business to help us fulfill our purpose. It’s OK to focus on people and the money, as long as we do it in the right order.”
Erlanson was echoing business principles that I have been preaching for years. The concepts are profound and simple, but getting all a business’s team members on board takes consistent effort, modeling, and patience. Is it worth it?
"I feel that the day we decided to start listening, we doubled our business,” Erlanson said. “It really is that powerful. I’m always looking for opportunities to visit with our flight training clients and prospects. They often tell me that it’s unique how we care about them and take the time to listen. So yes, it is worth the effort," he said.
A 52-year-old client had struggled with the pre-solo phase of his training. With a lot of patience and extra instruction, he finally soloed. “When I heard that it was happening, I immediately sent one of our team members to the store to buy a big cake. When he came in from his first solo flight, we were there to help him celebrate in party fashion,” Erlanson said. “He was clearly moved and told me, ‘No one has ever done anything like this for me before.’ We regularly have opportunities like this to make people feel special. We just need to do it.”
In a world that seems to be increasingly focused on speedy transactions, people really are hungry for appreciation. When we can be the one to feed that hunger, to let people know we sincerely care and want to listen, there is an instant connection. They might not understand why, but they know they like it and want to keep coming back.
Learn more about Nashville Flight Training and connect with Chris Erlanson at the website.
Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at his website.