United Airlines is in a whirlwind of change. Former CEO Jeff Smisek resigned last September. Oscar Munez, the new CEO suffered a heart attack, and now the company’s general counsel, Brett Hart, is acting CEO.
In the midst of this, Mr. Hart said in a Wall Street Journal article, “This is not a company that is standing still. We’re not paralyzed.” Hart went on to say that they would continue with a plan to put “a new emphasis on customers, employees, and operational reliability.”
An Open Letter to the Executives of United Airlines
Recently, the acting CEO of United Airlines, Brett J. Hart, said that improving customer service was one of your major goals. As a frequent flyer of United, I applaud that initiative. But, I believe this will be a difficult thing for you to accomplish.
As far as I see, you are filling up your planes. Consequently, taking customer service seriously when you seem to be doing land office business, could be a challenge.
But there is another equally big challenge. I don’t think that you are getting the information you need in order to improve customer service. At the end of flights, I often receive surveys from United. I used to fill them out. But then I got tired of filling out lengthy surveys that never quite addressed the issues I wanted you to hear about. I believe that you’ve got to know what we (the customers) are actually feeling and saying about our experience on your airline.
Here’s a simple way to look at it, I call it The Energy Bar™. You need your customers, and potential customers, to be willing to fly your airline and then make a commitment to make United their airline of choice. It might seem like you are meeting those goals. But. . . .
There is a gap between what we are doing – that is, buying tickets and what we are saying about our experience. We are grumbling. I stand in lots of lines at airports. I hear other business travelers and our stories are all pretty similar. We’re not all that cheerful.
There is wide gap between what you need from us (willingness and loyalty) and our grumbling. If you are serious about improving the customer experience, then you must find out why we are grumbling. If a competitor finds a way to improve customer service and not charge much more than you do for tickets, I can almost guarantee that many of us will try out this new airline. (Every Christmas, my wife and I fly from DC to San Francisco. We always fly United, principally because I’m a frequent flyer and I want to make sure that I earn enough miles for the year. This year, we used some miles to fly business class on United out to California, and then bought coach seats on Virgin America for the return because we thought our experience as customers would be better than Economy Plus on United.) Imagine, if Virgin America were to start offering more flights from DC to the Bay Area at a competitive fare, I think you would begin to see an exodus away from your airline.
You’ve got to know why your customers are grumbling.
Although I like that you send out surveys, I’d like to suggest that you do something simpler. Ask us three or four questions on those surveys. Ask us to tell you what our experience was like from the time we ordered our tickets until the time we picked up our bags. Scales with 1 to 5 rankings won’t tell you what our experiences were like. You need to hear our stories. You need to hear the richness (and crudeness) in our language as we describe our experiences. You need to hear the stories of times when our experiences were great. Good customer service data will make you feel like you are hearing from real people and not just looking at a bunch of numbers.
Experience United Airlines as a customer.
Forget about your status with the airline, and call the 800 number the rest of us use. Pay attention to how long it takes you to actually talk to a person, the ease with which you’re able to either book a ticket or resolve a problem.… Stand in line in the fourth group to board planes. While you’re standing there, listen to the conversations going on around you. Put down your smart phone and listen. And stand in line in the first couple of boarding groups and listen to your frequent flyers as they talk to each other. For bonus points, book middle seats near the back of the plane. Notice how your experience might be different than it typically is flying Economy Plus, business or first class. And notice how the conversations might be different in that part of the plane.
Once you know why people are grumbling, then you can base improvements on things that might not only reduce grumbling, but get us excited about flying United again.
Listen to your most valuable resource.
Finally, some good news: you have one very important resource working in your favor, and that is the men and women who work with you. As much as I hate being on hold when I call, or being told why company policy won’t allow me to do something without incurring huge extra costs, I usually think your employees are great. And frankly, I don’t know why they’re so great, because when I talk to friends who work for your airline, they’re not all that happy. And yet, when they deal with the customers, it usually feels like they want to try to do what’s best for us.
My hunch is that they’re grumbling just like we are, but you aren’t hearing it. Make it safe for them to grumble directly to you. It’s a terrible oversimplification to say that if they’re happy, then the customer will be happy, but it sure is a good place to start.
If this post interests you, then I encourage you to watch the 3-minute animated video that explains The Energy Bar™ and how to use it. And then, take the 3-question assessment to see if my ideas might be helpful. www.energybartools.com
As someone who flies a lot of miles on your airline, I wish you well as you work to improve customer service.
Image from Pixabay