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Business Journal

Can United Soar Again?

The bankrupt airline is seeking to refocus on the customer experience. But it's going to have to deliver more than fresh slogans to engage customers. For starters, how about engaging employees?

by William J. McEwen

Soon after the U.S. government rejected United Airlines’ request for a $1.8 billion loan guarantee, United announced an ambitious new effort. Instead of promoting price discounts, wider seats, double miles, or free movies, United would take a different route to emerge from its financial woes: a rededication to customer service.

In its advertising, United proclaimed it would return to its former “days of glory” through a “renewed commitment” to providing a customer experience “that will keep you coming back.”

Smart move? Gallup Organization research suggests this could be an enormously powerful promise. In a study of 815 recent airline customers, Gallup consultants noted extremely low levels of customer engagement for all of the major U.S. airlines. The only exception was Southwest Airlines. In fact, an astounding 43% of all fliers were actively disengaged with the airline that they flew most often. As the data revealed, customers were evidently ready -- and even eager -- to switch their allegiance.

The same Gallup study found extremely low levels of customer “Confidence” in the capability of most airlines to keep their basic brand promises; only 17% of fliers expressed a strong sense of trust in their airline’s capacity to regularly deliver on its claims. As Gallup has pointed out, Confidence is the essential foundation of any customer relationship. Without Confidence, there can be no enduring customer engagement -- and, without customer engagement, the company’s profits tumble. Crumbling customer connections are exactly what the airlines are now facing, and United is hardly alone in its quandary.

Lessons from the sky: rebuilding the foundation

What can be done? Gallup’s airline customer data suggest some needed changes. The study showed that Confidence is not built through lower prices, memorable advertising, modern planes, or an abundance of routes. While these factors certainly contribute, the most powerful influence on customer Confidence -- by far -- is the airline’s employees.

Customers who felt that an airline’s flight attendants were friendly and helpful were 22 times more likely to feel highly confident in that airline, while customers who felt that an airline’s ground staff -- from ticketing to check-in to boarding -- were helpful and friendly were 18 times more likely to have high levels of Confidence in the airline. Customers interpret friendliness and approachability as signals that an airline’s staff members share the commitment to service that its brand promise makes.

Gallup’s research found that employee dimensions, including friendliness and competence, represent the essential ingredients to establishing -- or re-establishing -- trust and Confidence in an airline’s claimed dedication to customer service.

Is rebuilding customer relationships that simple? Could a renewed and reinvigorated promise of service be enough to reverse United’s slide?

Back to the “friendly skies”

Promises are never enough. Relationships aren’t built in the boardroom, nor are they re-established through press releases or ads. Relationships require continued performance, not just ongoing brand promises communicated through advertising. After all, United’s abandoned claim of “friendly skies” spoke directly to the key customer relationship drivers identified in the Gallup analyses. The service promise was already in place. It just wasn’t being kept, at least not in the eyes of United’s customers. And that’s not just Gallup speaking. United’s leadership acknowledged this very problem by refocusing on customer service as the key to the company’s long-term financial success. According to United, it all boils down to “How we treat you -- our customers.”

It’s never just the promise. Ultimately, it’s the delivery that counts. The proof is in the performance.

That’s the real challenge United faces. It’s relatively simple for a company to announce that its 80,000 employees are rededicating themselves to customer service. But skeptical customers may question the depth of this refocused passion, given United’s history of labor strife and friction.

Gallup consultants have consistently found that companies that want to develop high levels of customer engagement must have high levels of employee engagement. Regardless of the potential power of the company’s service promise, a workforce that is disengaged cannot and will not generate engaged customers.

So, it all begins with the airline’s employees -- the right ones -- on the ground, over the phone, and in the air. And they must have great managers who can enhance their employees’ engagement and maintain their focus on customer engagement. This will not happen overnight, however urgent the need. Employee engagement and customer engagement are not the direct, immediate result of management memos to employees and full-page ads in the nation’s leading newspapers. Rather, engagement and relationships result from ongoing dialogue between employees and managers, a shared team vision, and the continued personal commitment of 80,000 individuals.

The announcement is the easy part. The promise has been made. Now comes the performance.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.
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