The Pilots’ Secret Weapon For Business

I’ve often heard business people say their most important business lessons came from life rather than business school. Examples can come from all kinds of unexpected sources. This article is about a business lesson I learned from pilots. Pilots have a secret weapon that keeps them alive. It’s called a checklist. Checklists can keep people alive, and they can keep businesses alive.

At first glance, checklists might seem a little boring, right up there with filling out tax forms or reading an instruction manual. But when the stakes are extremely high, it’s easy to see their importance. Hospitals understand that using checklists before surgery keeps their patients alive. Offshore drillers understand that using safety checklists keeps their rigs from blowing up. Pilots understand that using checklists keeps their planes from falling out of the sky.

But what about keeping your sales from falling out of the sky?

The day I became a believer.
I became a believer in checklists from a life experience that had nothing to do with business. I married a pilot, and, on our honeymoon, we took off from Vegas and flew over the Grand Canyon in his little Cessna. He always took out a checklist and went down each item every single time we went anywhere before we took off. By then, I was aware of his absent-minded professor-like tendencies however, when it came to the flight checklist, he treated it as sacred. It made me feel safe and taught me that using checklists keeps us safe.

Seeing the canyon from that vantage point was both exhilarating and scary at the same time. The view was breathtaking and then I saw something even more amazing that made my heart skip a beat. I spotted a small landing strip on the side of a cliff. I know my mouth fell open just thinking about what it would be like to land on the side of that cliff. Or even more intense, what would it be like to take off from the side of that cliff? I mean, I’m from Texas where everything is miles and miles of flatness. Then I saw a small plane on the side of that runway that had crashed. It took my breath away. It was all rusty and had been there a long time. I wanted to know the story of what happened. Did the pilot walk away? If so, how did he or she get down from that cliff? Thoughts raced through my mind. I mean, could that have been us? I could not help but think about the checklist and wonder if that pilot had failed to use one.

The sacredness of checklists.
Pilots have an impressive level of discipline when it comes to using checklists. But checklists only work if you use them, if you use them every time, and if the checklist itself has been perfected. Pilots hold checklists as sacred. They’ve used checklists so many times that checklists have become part of them.

Checklists have become their habit.

Checklists tame the cat herding.
There are many opportunities to implement checklists in business.  They can not only help businesses stay alive, they can help businesses thrive. For example, in our virtual call center, we have identified 26 distinct steps in the onboarding process for new hires. We now have a compact visual guide of all of the steps, a checklist, a kind of road map our teams can use with a glance. Each time someone moves from one step to the next, a “you are here” notification goes out to let them know where they are on the road to a successful start of their first day.

Before we had this visual guide, this onboarding ‘sherpa,’ more time was wasted explaining, emailing, making phone calls…cat herding. It reminds me of what John Travolta said in the movie Michael. “You should have seen it before I invented waiting in line.” Following a checklist means you can’t leave stuff out and you can’t jump around in a disorderly manner. An onboarding checklist keeps us from skipping steps. It helps to relieve some of the stress for a new person starting a new job. It sets expectations and helps us to warmly welcome and engage new people. It saves time on both sides and accelerates progress towards success.

Selling is a process.
Sales is another one of the many areas in business that needs checklists. While buying is an action, selling is a process. Successful salespeople understand the process and drive that process by following a checklist. A checklist makes you think through each step and gives you a proven process methodology to follow. It not only tells you what to do for success, it keeps you from doing those things that either waste your time or prevent you from succeeding. A defined sales process is another form of checklist. Checklists can keep sales from falling, just as they keep airplanes from falling.

Not all checklists are created equal.
Not every task requires following a checklist, but every important task has a process proven to succeed that can be recognized and ordered as a checklist. As in the onboarding checklist example above, it took a while to build and perfect the checklist. Building and perfecting a checklist is a process in itself and sooner or later, things will change and it will need to be updated.

Although not all of us are life and death surgeons or pilots, we can all see the direct correlation of using checklists with their benefits… and build our own secret weapons.

About the Author

Tracie Chancellor, CEO and Founder of TeleReach Corporate, national business to business call center specializing in sales appointment setting and lead generation, based in Houston, Texas. Chancellor is an MBA graduate of the University of Houston with over 20 years hands-on sales and marketing experience, working with privately-held businesses, universities, non-profit organizations, as well as Fortune businesses in the business to business marketing space.