United Airlines Proves that Improving Customer Experience Requires Positive Employee Engagement

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Employee Engagement Strategies
Employee Engagement
While attending a cocktail party in December, I met a woman who returned to the U.S. that day from Costa Rica. She was a flight attendant and drove directly to the party from JFK airport. When I asked her which airline she worked for, she replied, "the worst airline in the world." I responded, "Let me guess--United Airlines."

While attending a cocktail party in December, I met a woman who returned to the U.S. that day from Costa Rica. She was a flight attendant and drove directly to the party from JFK airport. When I asked her which airline she worked for, she replied, "the worst airline in the world." I responded, "Let me guess--United Airlines."

Last week I had an opportunity to fly United for the first time in months and must admit that I was impressed with the service, from ticketing to in-flight. At ticketing, I was greeted by a friendly and very helpful ticketing agent who directed me to the self-serve kiosks before I even had to inquire. At the gate, agents kept passengers informed with constant, audible updates. During the flight, friendly attendants assisted passengers with their overhead luggage, traveled down the aisle more than once to offer food and drink options from the new Bistro Menu, and collected trash immediately after serving food rather than making passengers wait with garbage piled on their laptop trays. And new DirectTV seat-back entertainment systems offered myriad viewing and listening options.

Despite being ranked dead last in last year's Airline Quality Rating, a joint project of researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University, I happen to know that United is making strides to improve its overall operations, and my recent experience crystallized that.

As a 2013 Gartner & 1to1 Media CRM Excellence award winner, United demonstraed how it's making good use of its data to segment its customers more accurately and effectively. For instance, United can group customers by similar past behaviors, such as customers who have been price sensitive. United can then use these insights to create more relevant offers for customers, such as sending frequent business travelers an offer to purchase an airport day lounge pass.

The airline has also worked with customer experience vendor Prophet to help improve the experience of its most profitable customers: loyal business travelers. Intent on becoming: "A service company committed to delivering travel experiences that make customers feel respected, relaxed, and rewarded," United brought together key functions throughout the company to re-define the end-to-end customer experience and develop its own, unique "service philosophy." The company identified key signature touchpoints as being the premium lobby and boarding process for frequent flyers, and improved seats for first class and business class international passengers. To support these changes, new internal training was developed for customer-facing employees.

Despite ranking low in industry studies, the airline is working to improve its passengers' experience and the overall negative perception of the airline. But why then was the perception of the flight attendant I spoke to at the party still negative?

Employee perception is a factor that can make a huge difference in the success of any brand transformation. Any new training and engagement strategy must ensure employees act as brand advocates of their companies and understand the goal of the organizational transformation. Negative perceptions of a company and the working environment can continue to fuel negative brand perception. Some of the factors that can impact employee perception include how well the employer communicates with employees, the policies and procedures of the business in general, and how much trust and respect is present between managers, employees, and coworkers.

In his blog, Don Peppers recently wrote about "Imagining a Genuinely Trustable Airline." In the column, he maintains that a trustable airlines requires the kinds of employee engagement policies that companies like Southwest and JetBlue have, which keep employees advised of customer service issues, and the importance of putting the customer's interests first. Encouraging the right culture at Trustability Airways, as at any company, will require a lot of bottom-up effort, but it's critical to airlines' success-- especially at United as it works to change its negative brand perception.

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