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Do you want fries with that?Do you want fries with that?

When I was flight instructing full time, many moons ago, I did my best to do everything right—about safety, about diligence, about ensuring my students understood every concept clearly. But I made one very serious error.

I didn’t think I was in sales.

In fact, I abhorred the thought. Me? A college-educated, CFI aviation professional? In sales? Surely, you jest. That nomenclature was strictly for the guy at the Honda dealership down the road. I saw your average sales person as pushy, annoying—certainly not someone with whom I’d want to be associated. I struggled to fill my schedule at the flight school, making do with those students who came in the door. I figured it was “good enough,” the half dozen that signed up for my ground school class. Once we got into the airplane, things went well. But I ran from the idea that I had something to sell.

I got a job writing full time, and then another one editing a widely read aviation magazine (published by this very association, in fact).

But nope, not in sales. Not me.

Then I went to work for an aircraft manufacturer. And suddenly I was in marketing!

Seriously. I found myself leading a team of four very talented regional managers for the flight school program that this company promoted. And I’ll never forget the first time I heard one of them, a highly motivated young man named Jim Pitman, set me straight. I’ll paraphrase, because I didn’t have my pen ready at the time:

“Sales is just helping people remove the barriers that stand between themselves and what they really want.”

Wow. Isn’t that what a good instructor does? Pays attention to a customer who wants to learn to fly, and patiently, step by step, removes the barriers keeping him or her from the goal of flight? And the better that instructor is at removing those barriers, wouldn’t it follow that the better the instructor is at attracting more customers? More customers that stay in the game, I might add, and finish their ratings.

I started changing my thoughts about sales. Sure, the worst guys (and gals) were pushy. Annoying. Wouldn’t leave me alone. But there were a lot of sales folks around me at that aircraft manufacturer who were indeed class acts. One day, I asked one of my closest sales-guy friends what made a great salesperson. His answer? “It’s all about relationships.” It’s about understanding what the customer wants, and helping that person answer that want.

So, what if every instructor saw his or her job as truly one of customer service, breaking down those barriers? Wouldn’t that serve the entire industry? It would keep a whole lot of us from winding up on the back side of the cash register at McDonald’s.

In fact, that’s a good place to start when you are about to meet with your next customer. Think about what your customer wants, and figure out how to serve that need. It’s not an “up sell.” It’s not a come on. It’s an offering.

You want fries with that?

Julie Filucci is the senior manager of aviation training at Jeppesen.

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