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Lessons From an Inefficient Costa Rican Airport

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Almost anyone would agree Costa Rica is a beautiful country, replete with rainforests, volcanoes, a perfect climate, and picturesque vistas. It's also home to a hopelessly inefficient airport that dampens any joy a traveler might feel upon arrival. Since breaking onto the international scene in 2002 with the arrival of Delta Airlines, the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia has opened up a new world for Costa Rican tourism. The sandy beaches of the northwestern Guanacaste province were suddenly accessible from the airport (previously, it was an arduous five-hour drive from the capital, San Jose). Let's hope the airport's current expansion project helps it improve. But in the interim, there are three major marketing lessons we can learn from it.

1. Customers Hate to Be Confused. The roof is tin. There's no air conditioning, and the building appears to be a sort of open-to-the-elements warehouse. That's cool. It's all part of the charm of exploring new places. There are many things travelers can enjoy, even ones that in our home countries might be bizarre or annoying. But one thing no traveler can countenance is confusion. Waiting in line isn't too much of a problem if you can read a book or chat with your companions. That isn't possible, however, when you're jockeying for position in the customs line against a horde of people surging forward from 10 different directions. Relaxation isn't an option. Similarly, we need to look at our own companies and ask ourselves: are our processes clear for customers? How can we simplify things? What's confusing, and how can we remedy it?

2. Customers Hate Needless Bureaucracy. We understand: there are procedures when you enter a new country, and it takes time to go through them. But to wait for over an hour in a customs line -- only to be waived through at the end with nary a question or a bag search -- feels like time completely wasted. Yes, I suppose I should be thankful my underwear wasn't riffled through in front of 500 other travelers. But as behavioral psychology demonstrates, what really drives people insane over time is the feeling that their efforts and exertions have been pointless. Why make me wait unless there's a legitimate reason (preventing me from secretly importing drugs, guns, or mad-cow-disease-infected beef)? Ask yourself: are there any procedures you follow (or you make your customers follow) that have outlived their usefulness? Change them or eliminate them.

3. Customers Hate Needless Repetition. Sadly, leaving the Liberia Airport isn't much better than arriving. Warned to arrive three hours in advance (just as in Israel, where they legitimately need it to interrogate you and search every pore of your body), we duly complied...and ended up sitting in the overheated airport lounge for 2 ½ hours. Again, perhaps it's better to be safe than sorry, but I could have used that extra hour by the pool. And why did they now insist on searching every passenger's bags twice (once at security and once at the gate, prior to boarding)? I'm sure TSA types will insist this is an "international best practice" - but it seems rather hollow when we were simply shrugged through upon entry. What's the line between a legitimate security need and bad customer service that forces you into redundant steps? When we all come home from our travels, that's another question we can ponder. How can we streamline operations to reduce inefficiency and still provide excellent, high-quality work?

What are your suggestions? And what else do customers hate?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Read her blog, listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter