What will the future of customer service look like on United Airlines?
United President Scott Kirby recently sat down with employees at Newark Airport. In a copy of the video forwarded to Live and Let’s Fly by an attendee, Kirby discusses the changing world of customer service.
As we look to 2019 and beyond, I describe it as our mission is going to be changing how people feel about United Airlines…but there’s going to be more to come. We’re going to have to do more and more every year to change how we interact with people. The world is different today than it was for most of us for our entire airline career. The change of social media, video phones, just puts us in a different environment, where one little thing can go viral like that and impact the perception of the entire company.
The overall sentiment is not only wise, but true. We do live in a totally different era, even from the time I was thrown off a plane for taking a picture of my seat. Today, I would have captured the whole exchange on video and I bet several others would have as well. I do think the “one little thing” attitude may be counterproductive. Was Dr. Dao really “one little thing” or a sign of a cancer at the heart of Untied’s customer service model? United responded through many helpful reforms and Kirby’s words show how mindful United remains about its public perception. Of course no one running an airline wants that sort of micro-accountability made available though camera phones, but we should all be thankful for it — it has forced carriers to treat guests better.
United Airlines Has Money To Fix Problems + Make Investments
Kirby next notes that United must use some of its profit to re-invest in the customer experience:
So we’re going to have to continue to run harder and harder, get better and better. We have to be willing to say, “Here’s a problem. And what can we do to fix it?” It goes back to the point I made earlier about investing more in the operation for inclement weather. People have spent os much of their career, the company’s spent skating on thin ice. And we have this ingrained constraint in our brains that says, “I can’t spend money to fix that. I’ve got to run on a shoestring budget.” And we actually have the money available today to invest in things that matter to the operation, that matter to the customer.
So a message to anyone watching this is, we’ve got to get to where we bring those things up and say, “Here’s a really big deal for the customer. And it’s going to pay back. It’s going to pay for itself.” We have money now. We’re profitable. We’re going to be consistently profitable for the years to come. And we’ve got to take some of that profit and reinvest in the product that we give to our customers to get people–as Oscar likes to say–not just choosing to fly United, but loving to fly on United Airlines.
Kirby does not fill us in on what exactly that additional investment is. United is already investing on the premium side of the product. In Newark, that is by addressing more 767s featuring a premium-heavy Polaris business class product. It is also floating the idea of free wi-fi for all customers. Those are all good things. But will United invest in the economy class experience like Delta did? Is that even necessary? Kirby did not say.
Noting that airlines must now adapt to the cell phone camera, social media world is hardly breaking news. At the same time, though, it’s refreshing to hear Kirby (of all people) bemoan a “shoestring budget” mentality. He’s been referred to as the chief bean counter at United Airlines (and American Airlines and US Airways and America West before that) for years. But I give Kirby credit for (finally?) recognizing that an airline can never cut its way to growth.
Finally, compare Kirby’s words above to his recent words to employees in Houston.
image: United Airlines