The Evolutionary Forces Behind Rhino Grazing Habits And JetBlue Customer Service

A lesson from a safari on the accelerating evolution of customer expectations.

The Evolutionary Forces Behind Rhino Grazing Habits And JetBlue Customer Service


On vacation at a game preserve in South Africa, I was out with my family on an early morning safari when we spotted a pair of rhinoceroses grazing in the distance. We decided to get a closer look. Parking the vehicle, we approached the rhinos on foot with our safari guide, walking slowly and quietly from downwind so the rhinos wouldn’t smell us. But the rhinos wouldn’t see us, either, because they were facing away from us, into the wind. Puzzled, I asked our guide why on earth a grazing animal wouldn’t face downwind, so at least it could see any approaching predators. After all, for millions of years predators have sneaked up on their prey from downwind, like we were now doing, so why wouldn’t all grazing animals face downwind when they eat grass?

For one thing, he said, rhinos aren’t too afraid of predators, because they’re so big and fierce themselves. But then he said something truly amazing: The main reason they and many other grazing animals like to face upwind, he said, is because the grass tastes better that way. Huh? Right. You see, most grasses have some tannin in the leaves. Tannins–the same substances that make red wine taste dry–serve as a defensive mechanism for plants, because they have a bitter taste, discouraging animals from eating them. But apparently the gas that a ruminant emits (i.e., flatulence, much of which is methane) can be chemically detected by some plant varieties, triggering the plants to draw more tannin into their leaves when grazing animals are in the area. So, incredible as it sounds, grass-eating animals like to graze into the wind so the grass doesn’t find out they’re coming!

Evolution is a truly beautiful mechanism for ensuring that life persists and prospers, and with all due respect to any reader’s religious beliefs, God could hardly have chosen a more intelligent way to design life than by employing the inexorable yet beautifully intricate dance of evolutionary forces.

  • Step 1: Grasses draw more tannin into their leaves when they detect the presence of grazing animals, so they live longer and produce more seeds.
  • Step 2: Grazing animals then avoid tannin by eating upwind, so they live healthier, better-fed lives and produce more offspring.

Evolution has important lessons for business, as well, because it serves as a metaphor for how innovation occurs, with the best innovations continuing to prosper and replicate themselves, while less desirable innovations go extinct. Companies adjust their behaviors to attract more customers and make more money, while customers adjust their behaviors to anticipate and react to the actions of the companies they buy from.

The evolution of customer expectations is rapidly accelerating today, as a result of sweeping innovations in technology, particularly in the mobile and social domains. A customer’s experience, either positive or negative, now gets shared with others at Twitter speed, and a company’s own future prospects hinge on the speed with which it can react. The rush of technology means we are living through the equivalent of a Cambrian explosion in customer expectations right now!

Want a real-life example? A few weeks ago I flew from Jacksonville to New York on JetBlue. The flight experienced some mechanical problems before takeoff and ended up almost six hours late. When we exited the plane at JFK, every passenger was given a letter from JetBlue apologizing for the delay, and notifying us that because of the incident we were all entitled to some compensation or rebate under JetBlue’s Customer Bill of Rights. In my case, nearly my entire fare was to be credited back to me for use on future flights.


But what stood out in my mind was how JetBlue proposed to handle this refund: Rather than asking me to log in to their website and fill in my flight information and confirmation number in order to claim the credit, the way virtually every other airline does, the letter handed to passengers said we didn’t need to do anything at all to claim our credit. Just wait a couple of days and the credit would automatically be posted to our “Flight Bank” at JetBlue, where it would remain available for us to use on any future bookings!

The hoops that other airlines make you jump through generate at least some level of “breakage”–probably 10% or more (that is, at least 10% of passengers probably either forget to log in to claim the credit, or fail to do so for some other reason). But JetBlue’s approach is a splendid example of what Martha Rogers and I are trying to explain in our new book Extreme Trust. This company is proactively trustworthy. It’s trustable. It proactively watches out for its customers’ interests, even though doing so means it must give up the immediate financial benefit it used to get from breakage. In other words, JetBlue is paying real money to gain the trust of its customers, and customer trust is the “food” it wants for its ongoing business. JetBlue has obviously concluded that the value represented by this trust exceeds the “cost” of giving up the breakage.

But guess what? Now everyone who has read this blog post has slightly higher expectations for the service they should get from airlines, as well as from all other companies, in general. We’ve all learned about comfort, convenience, and economic survival as an airline passenger and about the types of services a company could provide to its customers. Like the rhinos changing their behaviors because grass tastes better when they face into the wind, we’re now going to be adjusting our own behaviors slightly, in a way that gives JetBlue its own survival advantage, relative to other airlines. Until other airlines learn the same survival skill.

Then it will happen again, and again, and again–because evolution never sleeps, whether it involves the biosphere or the ecosphere.

  • Step 1: Company A initiates a service or takes steps to show that it can be trusted by customers to proactively watch out for their interests.
  • Step 2: Customers begin to expect to have their interests proactively protected…

Evolution rocks!

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]


About the author

Don Peppers is founding partner of Peppers & Rogers Group, a best-selling author, sought after keynote speaker, blogger and key INfluencer. Peppers continues to support many of the worlds’ leading global brands, working with executives to develop a customer-centric strategy and culture within their organizations.