4 ways entrepreneurial thinking could have prevented the United crisis

With many people still reeling from the video of a physician being dragged from a heavily booked United Airlines flight so the airline could reclaim his seat, Canada's transportation minister, Marc Garneau, has announced plans to introduce a passenger bill of rights in Parliament.

The fact that anyone would need to introduce such a law speaks to the failure of many companies to listen to customers as they scale. If United had the right systems in place to harvest smart ideas for growth, it would have many opportunities to remain profitable without the risk of incidents like the brand-damaging fiasco that caused United's market capitalization to plunge. The airline would constantly be gathering ideas from both customers and employees that fueled its growth in positive ways and prevented such a scenario.

It comes down to nurturing intrapreneurship — a spirit of innovation that percolates from within as a company scales. Many companies start out thinking entrepreneurially, but as they emerge from the start-up stage, they become disconnected from what matters to their customers. This hurts their growth and ability to create jobs, leaving them clinging to desperate, ill-planned methods to protect their profits. Here are four ideas that will engage both customers and team members to spark growth from Canada's percolating entrepreneurship scene.

1. Create a mechanism for really listening.

Even at companies that can afford top talent, the best ideas don't usually come from the internal team. They emerge from listening to customers.

Contrary to what many CEOs think, this goes beyond monitoring social media 24/7 for customer complaints. Key executives need to spend significant time in the field experiencing customers' reality when interacting with their brand.

CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, who turned around the Canadian rail system Via Rail, for instance, spent hours riding commuter trains and asking passengers how he could improve service. In doing so, he realized he wasn't in the train business. He was in the hospitality business and was selling an experience rather than a mode of transportation.

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After business-class passengers told him they wanted to get more work done on their trips, Desjardins-Siciliano had their meal trays removed more quickly so they could get back to their laptops. Upon hearing that recreational passengers wanted to enjoy their personal time during their travels more, he trained his team to be more hospitable, building word of mouth that contributed to increased ridership. These changes to the Montreal-based system weren't costly, but as any frequent rail passenger in Canada will tell you, they have made it a lot easier to decide to take the train rather than fly.

2. Be sure everyone in the company knows customers' needs.

Many companies that gather feedback from customers in surveys or informal conversation divulge the results with top executives only, on the premise that only they are in the position to put it to good use. That's a big mistake. Sarah Beech, president of Accompass, a 35-person independent benefits, investment and compensation firm in Toronto, asks team members to share their notes on conversations with customers with the entire team in files on a shared drive. The notes are pushed out to everyone by email so they can use the information to serve clients better.

Her team jokingly call this "talking behind clients' backs." It helps them identify new ways to satisfy customers that, in turn, help them grow the business. "We've doubled in size over the last five years," says Beech.

3. Harvest ideas on how to improve customer service.

Employees can offer great ideas to keep customers happy but only if you take their ideas seriously. Jonathon Hamburg, founder and CEO of Berkeley Payment Solutions, does just that at Berkeley Payment Solutions, which delivers prepaid MasterCard and Visa programs for enterprise clients. He asks employees to submit ideas that will improve revenue or customers' experience each month. The company adds the ideas it plans to execute to a master list on an internal shared document all employees can view.

The ideas have ranged from putting the company's Wi-Fi password on a card in each room of its offices — so visiting clients can easily log on — to delivering insurance companies' relief funds to house-fire victims immediately. The company's leadership team prioritizes the improvements and sets goals to implement 10 per month, tracking the team's progress on goals of all sizes. Not only has the approach fueled rapid revenue growth but it has fueled a positive culture. "It allows our staff to see a reflection of themselves in their work," says Hamburg.

4. Think twice about a CEO open-door policy.

At Longo's Supermarkets, president and CEO Anthony Longo realizes employees may not feel comfortable taking advantage of executives' open-door policies to share ideas they've gathered from customers or for keeping the team inspired. His district managers actively approach the front-line team members to ask for their suggestions — an idea that has helped the company, founded in 1956, grow to 5,800 employees in the Greater Toronto area. "We believe that the people closest to the customer have the best ideas because they are talking to the customer every day," says Longo.

That approach is one that more companies should be embracing — and I suspect if United had taken a similar one, it wouldn't be in the predicament it faces now.

— By Ken Tencer, CEO of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works and co-author of "Cause a Disturbance." Follow him @90percentRule