Today we have a special guest, Hal Stephens. Now, there are a lot of aviation consultants out there that provide different kinds of services, but I have NEVER HEARD OF a consultant being asked to represent both sides of a transaction. We’ll get into that story in a moment, and talk about how having a reputation of being fair and detailed can really impact your business and your marketing.
Hal is an licensed A & P so he gets into he details of maintenance projects and can really keep big complex maintenance projects from going astray.
A quick read of Hal’s summary from LinkedIn –
Multi-talented, world traveled, aircraft maintenance professional with extensive background within the corporate aircraft field, including over fifteen years as an international corporate flight engineer. Qualities include excellent management skills and strong consulting and customer service experience. Proven track record troubleshooting, evaluating and calculating risks along with the ability to negotiate through effective communication skills.
Acquired an industry reputation as being flexible, organized and extremely responsible when assigned any given tasks. Determined to invest time and effort to obtain the desired results for any assignment.
Pre – Purchase Inspections, log book review, managing aircraft completions, major inspections, technical appraisals, green aircraft inspection, paint inspection, interior inspection, acceptance and final delivery.
Hal Stephens: What I have to offer that I’d like to tell my customers is that I treat their aircraft as if it’s my aircraft or my company. I spent a good portion of my career working for the Wrigley family out of Chicago, and they taught me some valuable lessons in how to treat people.
And how to just be professional and I guess the best thing I can say is every project I take on I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m up front, I’m honest, and I try to, again, I tell my customers that I spend their money as if it where mine.
You know, give me a limit that I can approve without bothering you for, let’s say, a $500 component. And anything up to your limit, I’ll contact you. A lot of times I tell my customers, I’m going to give you more information than you probably want or need. So I’m very flexible to be able to customize my service to your needs.
Because I think I told you this story, I was almost taken off, well I was taken off of a project because I was giving this company too much information. And they basically said, well we buy and sell airplanes, we don’t need all that information. Okay, fair enough, now you’ve told me what you want, I can customize it to your requirements.
So I guess, again, I’m just myself and my wife, she does behind the scenes stuff that the customers don’t see. But I was working with another consulting company recently and they call themselves a Boutique Consulting Company. So I guess I could call myself a boutique cuz I specialize in pre-buys but there’s a lot of people out there that do the same thing.
But I like to think that I’m a little different, that I go that extra mile for my customer. And sometimes it’s not blatantly obvious, but I had a pre-buy one time where the customer that was representing the seller, I was representing the buyer. At the end of the day, the people that were selling the airplane wanted my resume so I could work for them.
Paula Williams: Cool.
Hal Stephens: But yeah, I just recently represented an insurance company that, they took on a claim, an airline blew an engine up in flight. I don’t know if I told you this story, and the airline went back to them and says well, the manufacturing, I won’t get into names obviously, but the manufacturer, she paid for this engine that blew up because it was a manufacturing problem.
Well, it wasn’t and to make a long story short as I can, but I represented the insurance company and they were very pleased with the way I handled myself and provided specialized, custom data exactly to their case. That they won the case. Well, the company that they were representing after they told them, well your claim is not gonna make it based on what we know, and what we hired this expert witness, Hal Stevens, to look into for us, we’re gonna deny your claim.
So at the end of the day, when I was finished, the airline contacted me on the side cuz we’d all copied each other on emails and they asked me if I could work for them. So I’m now working kinda the backdoor working for both parties. So I went back to the insurance company and I said is this a conflict of interest?
I don’t feel right about this. And they said no we’ve denied the claim You can help them if you want and I said, okay, well ,they wanna go and look at the manufacturer’s contract and see if maybe I’ve missed something. Because again, I’m very anal and I pay attention to detail, and a perfect example is when I pointed out to you, I don’t know if it was this week or last week, about the date on your book club.
Paula Williams: Yeah.
Hal Stephens: Because Wednesday the 3rd, no, that can’t be. I’ll think out periods and commas. My wife has trained me, but she’ll read some of the things I’ll send out and it’s all about detail and I learned that I guess when delivering brand new Global Express, dealing with some of the toughest, hard-nosed customers in the business.
When your dealing with, I don’t know if I can drop names or not, but like the Oprahs and the Spielbergs, I dealt with these people, and Bill Gates, and these people expect nothing less than perfection and to get to that peak or that pinnacle you just gotta sleep and think the way these people think.
I’ve got that mindset, I can walk into an airplane, and people will say take a look at the interior, what do you think? And I’ll write up 100 things that I don’t like. And they’re like, holy cow, we just looked through this airplane and we found ten. I’m giving you everything that I don’t like about it or I’ve noticed that could be better if corrected.
It’s up to you what you want to What do you want to pursue? So, I like to think I go the extra mile for the customers. And I’m very flexible, I keep going back to pre-purchase inspection. But, I mean it’s the core of my business, but I’ll take on any project.
I’m not a pilot, I won’t attempt to fly your airplane cuz that would not be pretty, but I’m not afraid to take on any challenge and I know what I’m capable of doing. One project a couple years ago I actually bowed out. It had to do with an engine and they wanted me to go to court to represent this company and I was dealing the other side of those, I don’t know how to say this.
At the other side of the table was an aircraft expert, a guy that must have worked at Rolls Royce or GE. This guy knew every component inside and out of a jet engine, and the blade, which way the air flow was going to go, and temperature was going to rise.
And I was like these people that hired me, this consulting company out of the Midwest I said, Herb, if I gotta go against this guy in the court of law I said he’s going to tear me up. I said, he’s either smoke and mirrors and full of BS or he knows what he’s talking about and I cannot compete with this guy.
And I backed out. And they ended up, they appreciated my honesty. Didn’t waste any more of their time or their money. And I said this is outta my league. I don’t think I can help you. I can stay on and try to milk it and do the research, but at the hourly rate that I was charging them.
They actually asked me to increase my hourly rate. When I took the job they said [LAUGH] what do you charge per hour and I said, this is several years ago, I said $75 an hour, they are like no. I was like, is that too high? They were like, no, you need to be charging $300 an hour for your services.
I was like really? So, I took the project on I worked it a couple of weeks for them and then I got into this guy that was, this guy probably forgot more than I ever learned about jet engines. Just the way they’re built and the way the airflow goes.
But I recently had a customer that I mentioned earlier this CJ customer, he’s a doctor out of Tennessee and he asked me he said, Hal, why don’t you charge more? He said, you’re so smart, and I go, come on. I said, Ron, you’re giving me a big head here.
I said, you’re a doctor you’re smart, he goes, no, no, but the way you know my airplane and the systems you just saved me over $50,000 on an invoice that I was going nowhere with. I said, well, that’s what I deal with, I said, you’re a back and nerve and muscle doctor, I don’t know anything about nerves and muscles except when they hurt.
So you’re in your league and I’m in my league. But without rambling, I don’t know, I just, I think I’m just an honest upfront guy that likes the little guy or the underdog to win and I’m fair. I mean, I’m not one of these, I tell my customers when I try to get a new customer, I’m discussing a project with a new customer.
I’ve been down the road where I’ve seen consultants go and beat on the desk and write up 500 discrepancies on an airplane. And it really doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s why I added the word solutions to my company because I feel that I can bring solutions to the table and that’s a valuable lesson I learned from Bill Wrigley Jr..
I went to him one time when I was the director of maintenance for him and I said, Bill we got a problem, and he said, okay what is it gonna take to fix it? And I came back to him with an answer and he said, is that it?
I said yes, sir. He said in the future, I would like at least three options so I have something to choose from. Because right now, you’ve sort of painted me in a corner with my schedule and I didn’t even think about that. But here is a man, generations of making chewing gum, the son comes up to me and says, give me options.
So I carried that on as a life lesson to my company so that when I’m working for a particular customer or a new customer whatever. It’s engraved in me or embedded in my mind, my thought process that, if there’s a problem before I go back to my customer, I look at two or three options.
And then I can give a selection, you have this problem, we can do this, we can do this, A, B or C, 1, 2, or 3, how would you like to do it? I’ll support you any way you wanna, tell me which road you want me to go down and I’ll go down there for you.
Paula Williams: That is like a “writer-downer,” – never come to a client with a problem without at least three solutions. We’ve done a lot of international aviation marketing, and always learn a lot from our clients!
Hal Stephens: It’s true, when Bill Wrigley told that to me back in, it had to be the early 90s, close to 25 years, I haven’t forgotten or forgot about it.
Because I felt embarrassed, because as rewarding as it was to fix the airplane, sometimes it’s a daily thing, but as rewarding as it was to fix the airplane and continue the mission, it was unsettling that I sort of let him down. But it wasn’t that I let him down, it was like I had other options and I didn’t even think of it until he told me.
I use that in my day-to-day business when I’m on a project for somebody. I say, what would the customer like? I have to put on a new component, do they have the time in their schedule to wait for a part that’s back-ordered. Again, I look at it as if it’s my money coming out of my wallet, and that’s how I’ve been successful building up my.
Once I get a customer, I get repeat business I’d say about 90% of the time. Because they just like the way, yeah my day-to-day operations. There’s no secrets, I always tell them there’s no hidden agenda, I’m here to save you money. And some customers are like, well I’m not worried about this, I want to do that.
Okay, all right, I’m flexible, it’s your money. I don’t know what else I can say about it, unless you have other questions.
Paula Williams: No, one of the testimonials actually on your website I noticed, and this is one that really stood out to me, is someone said about you that the other side was just as comfortable with you as our side was.
He was easy to work with from both sides of the table. And it sounds like sometimes you get work from the other side of the table cuz your level of detail and your objectivity is something that everybody seems to be comfortable with.
Hal Stephens: Yeah, they seem to be attracted to the way I carry myself.
And that was actually with the general manager of Cessna Citation Service Center in Wichita. And I was very, I won’t say intimidated, that wasn’t the right word. But the general manager of the facility is gonna meet with us tomorrow because, that Mr Bingham who did the testimonial for me, he was looking to negotiate the invoice, he felt the invoice was extremely high.
So I was able to, before we even went to Wichita, save him somewhere around $10,000 out of a $330,000 invoice. And then I did a second review of the invoice and did some more calculating and came up with some other numbers for him. He wanted to put this is front of the top dog.
So we had a meeting, I met him on a Tuesday and Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock we had a meeting with the general manager of the facility. And much to my surprise, a woman walked in, and a very young woman. She was an Airframe and Powerplant Certified technician, and she’d been through the ropes.
She didn’t say she was military or anything, but I was surprised to see her at her age, but boy, was she smart. And I basically pled the case for my customer, and just said, you know The charges that you given to my customer he’s a very extremely busy man, and I told him where I think he made a mistake was he didn’t hire somebody like myself to kinda watch the store for him.
And I think the ball was dropped many times during this project, because of communication. We would just asked the doctor, well you got a problem with your windshield what do you want us to do? We’re gonna change it. Well did you send him a quote? No! Did you tell him how long it’s gonna take?
No! And before you know it you’re into hundreds of thousands of dollars of his money. And she said you’re absolutely right. She says we have great technicians here, we have great painters. We have cabinetry makers that could build anything you want. She said one of the things that we lack is communication, and I said well call her Paula, I forget her name.
And I said Paula you know what? I’m a communicator, I don’t try to hide anything, I try to negotiate fairly what I think is right and wrong. And I said you hit the nail on the head. If you can improve your communication skills I think it would go a long way.
So she said well what do you think is fair?. I said well, you replaced all of Mr. Bingham’s cockpit windows, to the tune of $130,000. And I think that that was not justified considering you broke one of those windows, taking the three out you broke a fourth one.
And I said, I think you need to sharpen your pencil and give this man a break. I think he’s been overcharged in several areas. I said you changed the left brake and you charged him three hours, and why did it take you seven hours to change the right one?
It’s not rocket science, it’s just common sense, and she said let me get back to you. So I’m out in the paint booth and my phone is texting and ringing off the hook and it’s Ron, he’s like come back to the lobby she’s here, she’s here. Well he was so excited, I went back to the lobby with him and I met with her, and she on the spot gave him, I think it was $25,000 off just based on our conversation.
And he hugged me, and then we saved him some more money on a few other things. He was like, wow that was really amazing. And I said, no, just doing my job. I said this is fair. I think you got overcharged and I choose my battles wisely. I can be a bulldog when I have to be.
Paula Williams: Yeah.
Hal Stephens: But I’m a professional bulldog.
Paula Williams: [LAUGH]
Hal Stephens: If I have a problem, the customer’s been over charged or they just arbitrarily just went out and bought $100,000 component for when they could have shopped around, and maybe picked up one for 25 or 30, and it’ll do the same job.
I get it, I’ve been around the block. I know that these MR rules, I know you mark up your parts 10, 15, 20%. But on a project the size of Mr. Bingham’s there’s like, can you not give the guy a break based on the value of his airplane?
Do we need to mark up every single part by 20%, that type of thing. And it’s just sort of my soft skills I guess-
Paula Williams: Yeah.
Hal Stephens: With people too.
Paula Williams: I think you want to make the industry better, and you want to represent your customers. That’s what it boils down to, right?
Hal Stephens: Right, right, yeah. At the end of the project or at the end of the day I want them to feel that what they’re paying for, my service, that it’s worth it and I like to tell my customers also that I can’t guarantee it. But nine times out of ten what you’re gonna pay for my services I will save you that amount of money from your invoice, whether you’re in for a maintenance visit or you’re in for a pre-purchase inspection.
Because I don’t know if you’re familiar with pre-purchase but it’s kinda like when you’re buying a house. The sink leaks and roof leaks okay well you’re gonna pay for that, I’m gonna pay for that, and it’s all about negotiating and choosing your battles.
Paula Williams: Yep. Getting that price list.
Hal Stephens: Yeah I found out over the years through experience I tell my customers they’re like what about this, what about that? I’m like don’t worry about that, that’s the small stuff and people say don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re gonna choose a battle let’s choose a $100,000 battle rather than a $5,000 battle.
Paula Williams: Yeah absolutely.
Hal Stephens: Again, it goes back to experience, flexibility, and communication. These aren’t new words in the industry, but the things that I pride myself in. Again, spending the customer’s money as if it’s mine, wear my heart on my sleeve. And some of my customers are like you’re too sensitive, why are you getting upset?
I said because I feel like you’re getting ripped off and I don’t like that. I’ll do what I can to get that changed or reversed or reimbursed to you.
Paula Williams: Right.
Hal Stephens: And you win some and you lose some.
Paula Williams: Yeah.
Hal Stephens: But at the end of the day I take every project personally, again like it’s mine.
Paula Williams: Right.
Hal Stephens: So when I go to bed at the end of the day I can feel good about myself. I gave my customer 110%.
Paula Williams: Right, so speaking about communication, every company nowadays has a website which is one of their primary ways to communicate to new customers.
What expectations did you have of your website? When we started talking about putting that together I know you had some very specific things that you wanted to do or you wanted it to do. You brought that level of detail I think to your website that you do to all of the other aspects of your business I think.
Hal Stephens: Yes I did and I was waiting for you to say okay Hallie I had enough, I give. Because I did go back to you several times with very minor details.
Paula Williams: Mm-hm.
Hal Stephens: And I was wondering when you were gonna say okay I’ve had enough now that’s it.
But you came back with a very professional answer. You said I want this to be right for you. And kind of like I’m not gonna charge you anymore I want to make this right. We committed to you and that’s how I think we’re a lot alike as far as I like to say cut from the same cloth.
My customers will say well how do I know if you’re working from home it’s on your honor, you’re gonna charge me eight hours and you only worked four. And I’d say it’s usually it’s the other way around, I bill you for four and I work eight. And getting back to your question, I’m kinda getting off the path here.
But my expectations were exceeded by the level of detail that you and John, especially you. John got in there and I’m not taking anything away from what he did for the website. He probably did a lot behind the scenes that I don’t know about. But in working with you I was very satisfied, like over the top.
I just didn’t expect it that you would put up with all the changes that I wanted to make. But I want it to be perfect. It’s not a big website. It has the potential to grow which hopefully it will. But there was, you never said no to me and that’s kind of the way I run my business.
Sometimes you’re like all right, all right I’ll do it, that type of thing. [LAUGH] You surpassed my expectations and then some.
Paula Williams: That’s wonderful. Well it is a very personal thing, it’s representing your business so we wanna make sure that it reflects the level of detail that you reflect in your business.
Hal Stephens: Yeah.
Paula Williams: Right.
Hal Stephens: I had a call real quick, it’s a two minute story. I had a call one time from my customer and I was in California and I was in flip flops and shorts, it was in December. And he says can you send me a proposal?
I said no I can’t. Did I tell you this story?
Paula Williams: No.
Hal Stephens: I called Rick and I said Rick do me a favor, here’s a name, here’s a number, here’s the serial number. Send this e-mail to this customer, and it was for a pre-buy. No I’m sorry it was on a delivery of a brand new Challenger 350.
And he got the serial number wrong. I went ballistic. I didn’t yell and scream or swear, but I was like Rick, I said did you read this over? He said yeah I read it over and I even had my wife read it over and I said I just opened up the proposal, and I said the first thing I noticed that hit me like a brick, I said you got the wrong serial number.
And he’s like, my God, I feel so junior that I made a mistake. And I said, this is my company, and I said, to my wife, I said from now on, I have to do all this myself. Or cuz I didn’t proof read it, I got to that serial number and I saw a mistake and I was like my God what else did he make a mistake on?
I could lose this project because of a simple typo and that’s how critical I am, and I can see you do the same thing with your customers.
Paula Williams: Right [LAUGH] it takes a lot more time to feel good about the things that we do. So that is an interesting conundrum.
So I know you’ve probably worked with web designers in the past, is there any advice that you have for what to look for, what not to look for when people are? A lot of folks that listen to this podcast probably have websites and have frustrations and things like that.
Anything that do’s and don’ts or anything that you’ve run into that you’d like to give people advice about?
Hal Stephens: Well, based on experience the first, my original web page which was also my website. We kept it small cuz I was kind of jumping into a new pond or new pool of inexperience.
So I kind of let the professionals do it. And I guess, if you’re gonna do an aviation website you need to talk to people that design and market aviation websites. My mistake was I went to a local designer web designer here in the little town I live in and they did a great job.
But they do everything. They do construction and they do different types of businesses. And I guess my biggest mistake was I didn’t go to somebody that specifically got into aviation websites. Because, as soon as I started dealing with you and John it was like wow I didn’t realize it could be this good.
They miss so many things when it comes to detail, but I was dealing with a company that wasn’t their bread and butter. If you want to drive a Cadillac don’t go an dealer that type of thing. You’ve got to go to the people that this is what they do.
That’s what they specialize. And you might pay a little extra, but I’m a firm believer in life no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re eating or buying a car, you’re putting a website together. You get what you pay for. And then I’ll be honest with you when you first hit me with some of your prices I don’t know what your charges were.
I was a little taken aback like my God, that seems really expensive. But once I started [INAUDIBLE] [LAUGH] It all made sense because of the time, and the effort, and the level of quality that when it’s all wrapped at the end of the day, it’s worth it.
Paula Williams: Right, excellent.
Hal Stephens: Yeah.
Paula Williams: Well thank you, and what could’ve been improved about the way that we worked together? We’re always looking for what can we do differently, especially with folks like you that are really busy with your business and you’ve got a million things going on.
Hal Stephens: That’s a tough question Paula.
Cuz you guys were great communicators. You paid attention to detail and hm. Everything I threw at you, you guys are like Teflon it just bounced off. It didn’t faze you guys because you do it all the time and it’s your business and you’re so experienced at it and you prove it.
Lower your prices though. [LAUGH] I don’t know.
Paula Williams: [LAUGH] That’s a good one.
Hal Stephens: I’m totally satisfied, I can’t think of anything. I don’t know, I mean you could have an aviation marketing office here on the East Coast so I could come and sit in your office and talk to you instead of going over computer, maybe.
Paula Williams: Yeah, [LAUGH] meeting.
Hal Stephens: Maybe that would be an improvement have another office, have an East Coast office or have one in Canada. That’s the only negative thing I can say. I say room for improvement, it would be growth. But some small companies like my own, I like to think it’s more customized, it’s got that personal touch.
When you start dealing with the bigger companies and organizations, you kind of lose focus of the little guy. And you certainly didn’t do that. Whatever you’re doing, keep the same recipe.
Paula Williams: Great, well we should stop there before you think of something [LAUGH].
Hal Stephens: No, I mean.
Paula Williams: [LAUGH]
Hal Stephens: I’m certainly by no means a technical person when it comes to computers and I know how they change sometimes daily. But you seem to be right at the top of your game, and is it just you and John or John and yourself, or do you have other staff?
Because you seem to be so on the cutting edge of what’s happening.
Paula Williams: Right, well, I was your project manager. So I was the only person that you dealt with during the project. And John was doing a lot of the work, and we also have a lot of folks that we work with specifically about different things.
So web technology people, photographers, artist, writers that we work with on a regular basis depending on the customer. And depending on what their needs are. So if you were doing something with vintage airplanes then we probably wouldn’t do the writing for you. We’d find somebody who could do that.
Hal Stephens: Right, no, it was a wonderful experience and like I told you before if you have any customers that are on the fence. And you just can’t seem to get them to sign on the dotted line to use your services by all means give him my contact information.
Paula Williams: Fantastic.
Hal Stephens: I’d be happy to talk to whoever you want me to talk to.
Paula Williams: [LAUGH] That’s wonderful. Well thanks for spending some time with us Hal.
The project we worked on with Hal was our Website Refresh, which includes our 31-point checklist of your existing site so we know what is currently working, and what we can improve. We created a new aviation website for Sapphire Aviation Solutions in WordPress, designed to attract and interact with Hal’s ideal customer type and represent him on the web while he’s out saving aircraft owners money and solving their problems.
All of our website refresh packages include professional marketing consulting, a professional design, lead capture forms, search engine friendly design and a CSS security certificate.