A Modest Proposal for United Airlines

I am currently sitting on a United flight to Los Angeles.  My customer experience has been, as usual, completely dreadful. This is well-trod ground.  But I was just trying to apply some critical thought as to why, and I think I have a piece of it – this is a logistics business that labels itself a service business.  One of the main reasons that the customer experience is so terrible is that it is a business governed by rules at every level – you are treated as a commodity and nobody can help you except through the standard and ineffective bureaucratic route.  Now, United’s (and other airlines’) problems are huge, but I was just thinking of something small that might actually help.

The main reason that the experience is so terrible is that nobody is accountable for customer satisfaction, but also nobody is empowered to help customers.  If a passenger has been consistently treated like shit by everyone from United they deal with (a common occurrence), not a single person there will suffer and none of their managers has a reason to enforce any sort of conduct standards.  Furthermore, even if they are inclined to be nice and useful, there’s often nothing to be done.  This is most palpable when your flight is cancelled, but it shows up in myriad other ways.    So…why not change this in one small way?  Let’s run an experiment!

Here’s the proposal – take two sets of flight crews and make one accountable for customer satisfaction and the other a control.  United already runs surveys for flight experience – why not offer meaningful bonuses or perks to crews that can meet certain thresholds?  It will have to be all carrot and no stick because of the union contracts, but that’s a whole different issue.   But don’t just rate the crews – give them discretion and power.  By that I mean the simplest thing possible – a budget.  Give the “accountability” crew a budget of freebies for a quarter, used however they see fit – free TV, free drinks, free meals, whatever.  Allow them to hand out a little something extra to the unhappy customers based on their refined judgment from many years in the business.

Even a small and nearly cost-free gesture like free TV for a delayed flight can go a very long way towards making customers feel like they matter.  United consistently nickels-and-dimes their customers as hard as it can, which isn’t a bad thing (not a great thing either) – but they communicate it very obviously, which is a terrible thing.  If only it were somebody’s job to make the customers happy, United could probably milk them a little more and lose fewer customers to Southwest and Jetblue.

It’s an easy experiment to run, United!  You already have all the passengers’ information, too, so you don’t have to just rely on satisfaction surveys.  You can measure rate of seat upgrades, in-flight upsells, and most importantly of all, attrition.  Given the high price points on seats, giving one member a free drink to prevent him attriting can be a massively profitable investment.  Maybe even do multiple test groups to see what the ROI is on the customer satisfaction budget.  Compared to the billions you spend on everything else, this is a six-figure experiment to run that has the potential to transform your business.

And make your customers hate you less, too.  The hatred your customers feel for you and your staff’s terrible morale is an awful vicious cycle for everyone’s happiness.

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