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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Goodbye, Columbus

One of my early insights from working after school in the travel agency concerned the different ways people perceive distance and time.

A client phoned, needing to fly one-way from Birmingham, Ala., I believe it was, home to Los Angeles. With no direct service from Birmingham to L.A., the smoothest connections and lowest fare on the desired travel date involved flying from Birmingham to Atlanta, then changing planes to a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. I began describing the schedules to our client, but when I mentioned Atlanta, he stopped me.

"I'm heading to L.A.," he said. "Birmingham to Atlanta takes me in the wrong direction."

I paused. Our client wanted to fly west from Birmingham and was correct, of course, that Atlanta is to the east. I explained that the way the schedules fell, connecting in Atlanta would put him on the ground at LAX sooner than if he changed planes anywhere else. And he would pay less to boot.

But our client remained stuck on the unacceptability of traveling east when he wanted to go west. At a certain point in the conversation, I think I tried to analogize the situation to that of Christopher Columbus, who had wanted to go east but was convinced he would get there faster by sailing west. Wasn't our client's time ultimately more important to him than the direction of the city in which he would change planes?

Apparently not; the gentleman still wouldn't budge.

In the end, I booked a reservation from Birmingham to Dallas-Fort Worth to Los Angeles. Our client paid more and arrived home later, but he flew west from the get-go as he wanted and didn't let anybody make a chump out of him.

This scenario has come up a few times since then, most recently just a couple of years ago. I no longer push quite as hard to persuade a client that they shouldn't object to starting off in the opposite direction of their final destination. Doing what your client wants you to do sometimes conflicts with what you know would be best for them. But as my dad liked to say, "The customer is often right."

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