In a year-end letter to employees, United CEO Oscar Munoz stressed the importance of building upon the successes of 2018 while implying, ever so sternly, that employees have the choice to make 2019 a winning or losing year.
Munoz starts his letter by lauding the relatively tranquil year United had in 2018. Although operational performance was worse than a year earlier, poor weather and wildfires in California are far more blameworthy than any structural issues.
But the heart of the letter is Munoz’s look ahead to 2019. Here’s an excerpt:
Still, I am infinitely more excited about what comes next for us in 2019.
I hope all of you feel, as I do, the immense opportunity that’s before us as we embark on this next stage of our journey.
Our ambition is nothing short of setting a new standard for what customer service can attain. Quite simply, getting it right will mean making United the leader in our industry.
To be sure, the demands and challenges will be great, and so will the rewards.
Together, we will be the authors of our own success story and the outcome depends only upon our own choice and willingness to seize the opportunities that await us in the coming year.
Munoz is correct that great customer service will make United a leader in the airlines industry. He’s also right that employees have a choice to deliver great, mediocre, or poor customer service. Well, sort of…
The Way To Great Service
Front-line employees can only work with the tools given to them. Customers will react poorly when flight delays and cancellations occur, especially when due to issues within United’s control. Speaking gently will help pacify some customers, but kindness only goes so far in the hostile environment of a U.S. airport. In other words, this choice is greatly dependent upon stellar route planning, anticipating irregular operations before they occur, and helping passengers stay up-to-date and empowered over their travel experience. FAs and airport agents need support to deliver great service.
But don’t miss the deeper undertone to his words. I’ve written often about the mounting anger of United flight attendants over the coming cutback of one FA on select international flights. In “exchange”, business class food will come pre-plated. While that seems like a “lose-lose” for the customer (slower service and less visually appealing food), Munoz suggests that there will be rewards for meeting “demands” and “challenges” in 2019.
Remember, United is not furloughing any FAs. Everyone who wants to have a job will still have a job. Munoz seems to be arguing that by doing more, each FA and front-line worker will have a larger piece of the pie.
That may ring hollow with United’s new bonus system, but it’s not a bad ploy. The question, however, is how United will reward employees for working harder beyond what seems to be an illusory extra $25/month?
Once United finds that out, the rest will fall into place.
Flight attendants are angry, but Munoz sums up the stakes nicely. If FAs take out their anger on customers, everyone will lose. Thus, Munoz’s challenge takes on quite the stern undertone.
The question remains, does United undercut its goal by reducing flights attendant staffing or are the two actually unrelated?